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The Weary Bones of Milwaukee County's Potter's Field

I am 33 years old.
I’ve done a lot, seen a lot, experienced a lot, said a lot, and heard a lot.
Yet, there is still so much about life that I am trying to make sense of.

I was first exposed to the discovery of a forgotten Potter’s Field in Milwaukee County when I was in college. And in order to understand why such places exist, one has to understand the time period of their construction.

It was back in the 1800s when the town’s poor, widowed families, mentally and/or chronically ill were deemed “undesirable,” were shuttled outside of town. Such properties were called Almshouses, and Milwaukee County was not immune to this practice. Thankfully, though society has a long way to go, we’ve also come a long way and such things have long since reformed.

At least, so we thought.

One day in the 1990s, a county employee with the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewage District Office discovered a map buried deep within the county’s archives. The map was obviously from a time period long ago, detailing the perimeter of a pauper cemetery. What made this discovery so shocking was that this cemetery, void of headstones to identify the dead, lie beneath the foundations of county buildings. Even in death, Milwaukee’s poor could not escape the mistreatment they received in life and even in modern times, remained forgotten.

How could such an expansive cemetery lie beneath county buildings, and NO ONE knew about it?

Because of their poverty, these people were denied the proper dignity of a marked and undisturbed grave.

The cemetery is where the Milwaukee County School of Nursing was located, now the grounds of the Milwaukee County Medical Center. When I was in college, I was presented slides of the archaeological dig. So many times, I’d driven past this site without ever knowing just how significant it was. Who were these people? Where did they come from? What was the circumstances of their deaths, and how did they come to be forgotten? The intent of the dig was to learn from the dead themselves, and rebury them with the respect they were denied for so long.

In 1852, the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors purchased a county farm for $6,000 to serve as a poor house, commonly known as The Almshouse. Also housed there were those with infectious diseases, immigrants and the insane. Why did the city confine the poor away from the rest of the population, seven miles from town?

Imagine if in the 1850s your husband passed away suddenly and unexpectedly, leaving you with young children to care for in a time before women had the right to vote and own property. Without the means to care for your family, you and your children were sent to a place like that. Imagine what growing up in such a place was like. 

All told, approximately 5,000 people are estimated to have been buried within the perimeter outlined on that map.

Related: The Mary Jane Twiliger Story

It doesn’t make sense how long this had remained forgotten. I still recall the lecture, with the archaeologist speaking of the emotions felt as these graves, identified only through sonar, were located. It doesn’t make sense that a cemetery located on county grounds, with proof of its existence filed in county archives, could have remained forgotten for so long. Thankfully, Milwaukee has since started embracing its humanity.

Related: Dead Men Do Tell Tales 

When I am visiting my hometown, and on the occasion my route takes me past the county medical grounds, my thoughts always turn to that lecture. I may not know the names or the stories, but collectively, they are most certainly not forgotten.

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