Grave Hunting: SIU unearths lost historical cemetery on campus

By Brooke Buerck, Sports Reporter

Just four years after Southern Illinois University was founded in Carbondale, the Jackson County Poor Farm opened its doors to residents just west of campus. 

Poor farms were common throughout the United States during the 19th and 20th centuries, and were a place where those who were unable to take care of themselves could be housed, said Mark Wagner, director of SIU’s Center for Archaeological Investigations and associate professor of anthropology at SIU. 

After 85 years of operation, the poor farm closed down. The property was left abandoned and purchased by the university, but the cemetery where poor farm occupants were buried was lost. 

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Four weeks ago, the CAI was able to locate the lost burial sites after excavating human remains from the property. 

In 1873 when the poor farm first opened, there were a series of buildings on the property, but after a fire, a brick building was built to replace what was lost, Ryan Campbell, associate director of CAI, said.

During the 1940s, the brick building became a nursing home called Sunset Haven which operated until just before Southern Illinois University acquired the property in 1958.

Despite the closing of the nursing home, the building remained on campus until it was demolished in 2013. 

As for the cemetery where the poor farm occupants and some of the Sunset Haven residents were buried, the precise location of the burials were incorrectly marked on the university’s maps, Wagner said. None of the graves have a visible marker.

Information about the location of this cemetery became unclear as the CAI couldn’t find anyone with firsthand information about where the cemetery lay. 

“The odd thing about it, too, is how fast it dropped out of memory,” Wagner said. “The university acquired that property in 1958, and people were still being buried in it as late as 1947.”

The CAI gathered information on those buried in the cemetery based on a ledger in the Jackson County Courthouse, as well as historical obituaries. 

“It was important to locate the cemetery because it contains at least 107 people, probably more,” Wagner said. “That makes it the biggest cemetery on SIU campus, and it’s lost. We need to find it in order to preserve it.”

Wagner said he suspects there could be as many as 150 bodies buried in the cemetery. 

When the CAI first started working on the project, they were working off the assumption that the cemetery was near where the Sunset Haven building had stood, but realized that area in particular would have been too small for a cemetery the size they were looking for, Campbell said.

“There was another grove of trees that was farther beyond where the building sat and a road going back to it, and that gave us a clue that there might be something in there,” Campbell said.

Campbell said the grove of trees had multiple indented areas in the soil caused by collapsed coffins from beneath the surface, and this signified to them the possibility of the cemetery being located there. 

The CAI used multiple pieces of geophysical equipment to test the properties of the soil before beginning an excavation, including a ground-penetrating radar and a magnetometer, Campbell said.

Justin Shields, a graduate assistant who studies anthropology, collected data with those tools as part of his research.

The CAI was able to use Shields’ data to identify a couple of locations that would be prime for test excavations, Campbell said.

Using the data, CAI, along with undergraduate students from Wagner’s archaeology class, identified a burial site. On Oct. 4, they excavated human remains — teeth, shirt buttons and coffin handles. 

Campbell said the CAI was surprised to have found evidence of a coffin, largely because they weren’t sure that poor farm occupants would have been able to afford coffins. 

Upon the discovery, the remains were excavated to be tested, Campbell said. CAI analyzed the remains at the site, then reburied the remains in the exact location they were found. 

“As far as the burial, we try to be as respectful as possible. We recognize that there are descendents of these people that are in the community still,” Campbell said. “Even though at the time many of these people didn’t have family in the area, or may have been the last of their family members around, there are still people that care about them today and are still interested in them today.”

In order to mark the land as a cemetery, the CAI only needed to locate one burial. Wagner said although it may be interesting for them to find other individuals buried to try and learn more about them, they would need state permission to continue digging. 

The individual CAI found was very old and had very worn teeth, but with just that information, they were unable to determine the individual’s sex or race. The CAI determined the date of possible burial based on the hardware of the coffin.

“[The] coffin hardware looked like it dated between 1880 and 1900, so it’d probably be one of the earliest burials in that cemetery,” Wagner said. 

Very little else was found buried with the individual, and Wagner said this is because individuals who lived on the poor farm most likely did not have many personal possessions. 

Wagner said the population of the Jackson County Poor Farm was a combination of elderly people, women, children, individuals who were physically or mentally ill, and also war veterans from the American Civil War and later World War I.

“By the end of their lives, maybe they’ve outlived every one of their family members, or all their family has moved away, and they run out of money and have nobody left to care for them. So, they end up there,” Wagner said. 

The idea behind poor farms was to have benevolent institutions where these people would be taken care of. The residents would help with farming in exchange for room and board.

“The idea originally was that they would make money off of farming that would help pay for the institution, [but] it never worked out that way,” Wagner said.

Many of the residents were physically incapable of doing farm work, Wagner said. 

Jackson County Poor Farm, during its operation, had received several bad reports upon state inspections.

“Throughout most of its history, it was not a nice place,” Wagner said. “There are numerous state reports [from when] they’d go to inspect it, and [the reports] are pretty scathing about the place.”

The reports said the farm was poorly maintained and the residents were not getting much care, Wagner said.

“It seems like it was pretty terrible […] exactly what would cause something to be haunted,” said Ayla Amadio, a researcher for the CAI.

Wagner said before the building was demolished in 2013, local Carbondale teens would often visit the property during Halloween-time and go through it and scare themselves.

Amadio said people who visited the property made claims about hearing ghosts, but perhaps the noises were just animals inside the abandoned building. 

“Apparently you could hear people walking around there,” Amadio said. “I guess there were a bunch of raccoons that lived there, so people would hear the raccoons and talk about that.” 

Amadio said some of the rumors about the poor farm’s haunting have been disproved. 

“I’ve heard local people talk a little bit about ghosts there and hearing stuff, but then a lot of it’s been debunked,” Amadio said. “So it depends on how much faith you want to give to rumors.”

Amadio said there were a few instances during the excavation when the undergraduate students were hesitant about engaging in the excavation process. 

“It’s easy to get people freaked out in situations like cemeteries because everybody knows that there’s something connected to death that makes us scared,” Amadio said.

With the Jackson County Poor Farm cemetery having been identified, the precise location is marked on university maps. Wagner said the cemetery’s recognition allows for it to have protection rights in order to prevent any other use of the cemetery land. 

Sports reporter Brooke Buerck can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @bbuerck25.

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