Skeletons yield clues about 19th-century immigrant life in New Haven

Yale student Sarah Brownlee and biological anthropologist Gary Aronsen, examine
Yale student Sarah Brownlee and biological anthropologist Gary Aronsen, examine the skeletons at the Yale Biological Anthropology Laboratories. (Photo credit: Stephanie Anestis Photography)

On July 12, 2011, a human bone was discovered jutting from a drainage trench at a construction site at Yale New Haven Hospital. The New Haven police and state coroner were called, but it was no crime scene.

Michael Massella, a security officer on duty at the hospital, contacted his co-worker Anthony Griego, a retired New Haven police officer and local historian. Griego knew that the construction site - the hospital was expanding its emergency department - lay above a forgotten Roman Catholic cemetery. On his advice, then-State Archaeologist Nicholas Bellantoni was called to the scene. Bellantoni, in turn, called Gary Aronsen, a biological anthropologist at Yale University.

The construction site temporarily became an archaeological dig. Four nearly intact skeletons were excavated from the trench along with coffin nails. The remains and artifacts were subjected to a detailed analysis by a multidisciplinary team including historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, radiologists, and geochemists. The results, published today in the journal PLOS One, offer insight into the experiences and identity of Catholic immigrants in early 19th-century Connecticut.

Genetic and isotopic testing revealed that three of the four skeletons - a male and two females aged 35 to 60 years - showed indications of Central or Southern European origins. This finding ran contrary to the researchers’ assumptions that the remains belonged to people of Irish descent, given that they were recovered from a predominantly Irish-Catholic cemetery and the Irish represented by far the largest group of Catholic immigrants to New Haven in the early 19th century.

Adding intrigue to the story, the researchers posit that the fourth individual, a middle-aged male, likely was James McCaffrey, an Irish immigrant who was hanged in New Haven on Oct. 2, 1850 following his conviction for the murder of an elderly couple in the city’s East Rock neighborhood.

The cemetery

Christ Church, the first Roman Catholic Church in New Haven and the second in Connecticut, was founded in 1833 by members of the city’s burgeoning Irish-immigrant population. The church was located in "The Hill," a neighborhood in southwest New Haven where many of its parishioners resided, often in cramped and deprived conditions.

There was great need for a Catholic cemetery, so the congregation quickly established one on the church’s grounds. A demographic analysis of burial records showed that the mortality rate for the church’s members was high compared to rates in contemporary cemeteries in rural and urban areas. The city’s vital records show outbreaks of dysentery, typhoid, and other infectious diseases claimed the lives of people buried at Christ Church.

" The parishioners of Christ Church led stressful lives," said Aronsen, who supervises the Yale Biological Anthropology Laboratories (YBAL). "The Hill was a crowded neighborhood where disease spread easily. These residents provided the workforce for New Haven’s growing industries - factories, construction, seamstresses. These are all intense, physically demanding jobs, made more difficult when combined with the socioeconomic stressors of poverty and disease."

The cemetery remained confined to the church’s small footprint and, like many other urban cemeteries, bodies were buried on top of one another in coffins to save space. It closed in 1854 with more than 600 burials recorded. Christ Church burned in 1848 and the parish was rechristened St. John’s Catholic Church in 1858. The new church’s pastors had the cemetery’s headstones removed. (Some of the markers were moved to St. Bernard’s Cemetery in New Haven.) The church property was sold to Yale in 1969. It is unclear whether anyone involved was aware that there was a cemetery on the site.

Griego first learned of the Christ Church cemetery from a book on the history of the Archdiocese of Hartford that a friend had purchased at a tag sale in the 1970s. He had also viewed vintage photographs of St. John’s in which gravestones are clearly visible on the church grounds.

" When I heard they discovered bones at the construction site, I immediately knew it was the cemetery," said Griego, a former police sergeant. "I’m glad Mike called me because it turned into a great opportunity to research the city’s history and learn more about the people who immigrated here in the mid 19th century."

The excavation

Bellantoni, now the emeritus state archaeologist and a lecturer of archaeology at the University of Connecticut (UConn), worked with Aronsen and a team of volunteers to excavate the visible bones. The team included three high-school students who were a participating in a UConn summer mentorship program.

The bones were located beneath a concrete slab, so the excavation team approached them from an exposed side rather than from top-down, which is the typical orientation of an archaeological dig. As they carefully removed soil from the bones, a second individual was exposed. Soon third and fourth individuals were visible.

" At that point, it was clear that Tony was right and the individuals were part of a larger cemetery," Bellantoni said.

Bellantoni and Aronsen consulted with hospital officials, who asked that the excavation be limited to the four exposed individuals. The team carefully excavated the four nearly complete skeletons.

Anthony Sposato, one of the three high school students working on the excavation, recalled that it provided his summer an unexpected twist.

" Although I had absolutely no archaeology experience, I was in the ditches with brushes and shovels, removing the remains," said Sposato, now a student at the UConn School of Medicine. "I have fond memories about my time at the site. Something that sticks out to me was the constant fatigue - archaeology is hard work, but it was very rewarding."

The skeletal remains were cleaned and laid out at the YBAL. Aronsen noted that while a descriptive analysis of the skeletons would uncover significant information about the individuals, isotopic and genetic testing would provide more nuanced data and offer a more detailed understanding of their lives and origins. Bellantoni and Aronsen presented a research plan to the Archdiocese of Hartford, which approved the additional testing.

Aronsen organized a multidisciplinary team including researchers from Yale, UConn, Quinnipiac University, Central Connecticut State University, the University of Florida, the University of Oklahoma, the University of California-Santa Cruz, and the University of Göttingen in Germany. The team also included Griego and local historians Howard Eckels and Daniel DeLuca, who have since passed away.

" Each team worked on its piece of the puzzle," said Aronsen. "We worked together and separately to learn as much as possible about the bones and teeth of the people we recovered and the history of European-Catholic migration to Connecticut."

The findings

Each individual’s bones exhibited signs of physical labor, including evidence of arthritic joints, bony lipping on vertebrae, and rugged musculature, according to the study. The researchers found evidence of significant health problems. One of the women had signs of estrogen deficiency despite being of relatively young age. One of the men had multiple healed broken ribs, perhaps the result of a bad fall earlier in life. This same male also suffered trauma to his skull, possibly from a fall or violence. The study showed that each individual had notches on their teeth caused by biting down on the stems of ceramic pipes, which were popular at the time.

These findings appeared to reinforce the researchers’ assumptions that the individuals were Irish Catholics who likely worked as laborers or factory workers, Aronsen said. However, DNA and isotopic analysis showed that three of the four individuals were Central or Southern European, which was unexpected as immigrants from that geographic area were uncommon at this point in New Haven’s history.

" The great thing about science is that you make assumptions about something and then the data shows that you need to rethink things," Bellantoni said. 

In response to the new information, the research team dove into archival records and learned that people fleeing violence and political upheaval in Central and Southern Europe immigrated to the United States in the early 19th century, though in smaller numbers than would arrive here in the late 1800s. Many settled in the state’s river valleys, working in mills and factories, Aronsen explained.

Old newspaper accounts described deceased people being transported from Waterbury to New Haven for burial at Christ Church, which was the region’s only Catholic cemetery. The researchers concluded that the three individuals may have been from The Hill or from a Catholic congregation outside New Haven, and their names either were not officially recorded or were Anglicized, which was a common practice at the time.

" We tend to associate American Catholicism with Irish immigration, but our work shows a more complex history and illuminates the extent that religion served to bind communities together," Aronsen said. "At a time when Catholic immigrants were an often-persecuted minority, their communities connected with each other through their shared faith over ethnic or national origins."

The fourth individual, a male, appears to have a different origin than the other three. While genetic testing provided less clear results regarding ancestry, his isotopic signature was distinctive from the others, the researchers noted. The skeleton possessed a distinguishing feature: fractured neck vertebrae. Records indicated that 17 individuals buried at Christ Church died of injuries or trauma. One was James McCaffrey, an Irish immigrant and itinerant laborer who had ranged from Nova Scotia to New Orleans and back.

In October 1849, McCaffrey was accused of murdering Ann and Charles Smith, the elderly proprietors of an inn and bowling alley in East Rock. He was captured in Canada and returned to New Haven to face trial. He was convicted of the crimes and hanged on Oct. 2, 1850 behind the city’s courthouse. (A biography of McCaffrey was published before his execution.) His corpse was placed in a pine coffin and buried at Christ Church, according to records.

The researchers found that the skeleton’s neck injuries are consistent with a judicial hanging. They suggest that the individual is McCaffrey, although they emphasize that further testing in necessary to confirm or disprove their hypothesis.

" It is exceedingly rare to identify an individual when performing this kind of work," Bellantoni said. "That there is potential to identify this person is exciting, but there is more work to do."

Aronsen and the whole team expressed their gratitude to the Archdiocese of Hartford for approving the in-depth study of the skeletal remains. St. Mary’s Church in New Haven will receive the remains in the spring of 2020 with a formal mass and burial ceremony.

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Mike Cummings