AUBURN — The number of deceased state prison inmates from the late 1800s and early 1900s discovered buried in the backyard of a Fitch Avenue home in Auburn has skyrocketed.
After the announcement that four bodies were discovered last summer, the new number is closer to 150 people, and there could be more.
"Approximately 150 sets of remains were respectfully removed from their century old graves on Fitch Avenue and during a recent ecumenical ceremony re-buried in the cemetery at Marcy Correctional Facility in Marcy, NY," said Thomas Mailey, spokesperson for the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, in an email to The Citizen on Tuesday.
"DOCCS will continue to work with the city in the event that any more remains are discovered," he added.
Eric Johnson II first found remains while digging to install a fence in his backyard of 63 Fitch Ave., formerly listed as 47 Fitch Ave., in July. Jessica Armstrong, a research aide with the Cayuga County Historian's Office, said the fact that the land had been a burial ground for Auburn Correctional Facility inmates between 1873 and 1909 had dropped off the land deeds almost immediately after the state sold it.
Johnson's first morbid surprise unearthed four people this past summer. The Onondaga County Medical Examiner's Office had told The Citizen in an email that three of the bodies were male, and the fourth's sex could not be determined. A medical anthropologist had also confirmed for the office that two were between the ages of 40 and 44, and one was between the ages of 35 and 39 at the time of their deaths. The fourth's age could also not be identified.
Despite the more recent discovery of many more graves, the medical examiner's office said it did not receive a second set of remains to examine from the state.
Old newspaper descriptions' portrayals were hardly of a cemetery more than a century ago, but rather of an unkempt farm field where, according to The Sunday Herald of Syracuse on Dec. 27, 1896, only a pine stick marked the spot where William Francis Kemmler, the first person to be executed by electric chair, rested. There were no other grave markings, not even "mounds of earth to mark the spot where the friendless dead repose."
The report includes a detailed account of the burial process by John Lee, the state lot's sexton. At that time, at least 200 people were already buried there, and records show there were at least 285 bodies by 1909.
Lee described to the reporter back in 1896 a time when a woman came to the state lot to look for her husband's grave. Lee said he tried to persuade her not to come, but when she did, he accompanied her to the field. She told Lee she had been ill and could not afford a burial at the time of her husband's death. Upon realizing no grave was marked, "she fell upon her knees, and covering her face with her hands she sobbed as if her heart would break."
Besides Kemmler, the lot once held the remains of President William McKinley's assassin, Leon Czolgosz. Newspaper records show Czolgosz was reburied in Soule Cemetery in Sennett along with 20 others in 1931.
Armstrong, who has been combing through land deeds, city directories and maps to figure out where the burial ground spanned on today's maps and how many people were laid to rest there, said records show the plot was 556 feet wide and 231 feet deep. So far DOCCS has said it has only worked with Johnson at this time.
There were at least two exhumations besides this most recent one. One occurred between 1909 and 1914, where records show about 100 bodies were transferred to Soule Cemetery. According to a 1998 document written by John N. Miskell, former deputy superintendent of Auburn Correctional Facility, another 240 people were disinterred between 1933 and 1934.
But there are still many discrepancies among records, with Miskell writing that the last burial took place in 1914, but newspaper records showing the last was in 1909. And Armstrong, who has found that 47 Fitch Ave. was just a part of the full burial lot, is amazed that 150 people have been exhumed and reburied in 2016 from that parcel alone.
With records recounting hundreds already exhumed and reburied, the number of bodies in the burial ground appears to exceed the 285 total thought to have been there. And while Miskell's account does not say where he got his information, he describes the burials as difficult and chaotic due to the land's fine sand that would sift.
An Electrocutions Record Book from Auburn Prison in 1890 began to list executed inmates and whether their remains were collected by family or buried in the state lot, but the list ends at number 55, and does not include those who died of natural causes in prison. It was not clear if a separate list exists.