Tuesday, July 16, 2019

History of the Niagara County Infirmary Part 3

This is the third of a three part series on the history of the Niagara County Infirmary. The first part will relate how the property became the Infirmary, moving from the Poor House on Niagara Street. The second will be the general history of the Infirmary from 1915 until its closing in 1979. The third installment will focus on the associated cemetery behind the buildings on Davison Road.

I’m not sure how many of you are aware that just to the north of the baseball fields at the north end of the Infirmary property is a cemetery. The burial ground boundaries are denoted by four corner markers and there are two stones. One denotes the area as “Niagara County Infirmary Cemetery 1915-1960,” while the other says “In Memory of the Children.” There are more than just children buried there. Newborns to centenarians all share a common, final resting spot.

First off, what is a Potter’s Field? These cemeteries, sometimes called Pauper’s Cemeteries or Potters Fields, were closely identified with poorhouses or almshouses. It is claimed that the term “Potter’s Field” is biblical in origin from when the money paid to Judas for identifying Jesus was used by priests to purchase for use in the burial of “strangers, the criminal, and the poor.” The land that was purchased was a place known for its deep, red clay and it’s high quality for use by potters. The priests considered Judas’ money “blood money” and felt it deserved to be used for the burial of strangers, criminals, and the poor.

According to Matthew 27:3-27:8:

Then Judas, who betrayed him, seeing that he was condemned, repenting himself, brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and ancients, saying: "I have sinned in betraying innocent blood." But they said: "What is that to us? Look thou to it." And casting down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed, and went and hanged himself with a halter. But the chief priests, having taken the pieces of silver, said: "It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, because it is the price of blood." And after they had consulted together, they bought with them the potter's field, to be a burying place for strangers. For this the field was called Haceldama, that is, the field of blood, even to this day.

On site at the Niagara Street property was the pauper’s cemetery. Partial records at the Niagara County Historian’s Office estimate that at least 1,400 people may be buried in an unmarked plot near the northern part of the property. People who were inmates at the poorhouse who had no families to care for their bodies after death were interred there. Beginning in 1915, people who died at the Poor Farm (Niagara County Infirmary) and could not afford their own burials were buried in the new cemetery on Davison Road.

Infirmary burial record showing first burial at the new cemetery
There are over 1300 people buried in the Davison Road cemetery. According to the burial register, there are 1,349 graves. However, babies and stillbirths were buried atop previous interments, and are not always listed as separate burials. The number is definitely higher than 1,349. The cemetery at the new Infirmary took its first interment March 11, 1915, when Frank Zwekla passed away. According to the burial record, Father Leddy of St. John the Baptist Church in Lockport, paid for his interment. 

The graves are unmarked, although there used to be wooden markers with the number of the grave on them. It was assumed by a later writer that these wooden crosses were erected by other members at the Infirmary. Of course, over time, these markers rotted and disappeared. They were replaced with a numbered aluminum marker. These were mostly stolen, though an example can be found at the Niagara County Historian’s Office. In all likelihood, more markers remain in the cemetery, but probably have sunk well into the ground.

Commissioner of Public Welfare, Daunt Stenzel, addressed the Board of Supervisors on May 5, 1959, regarding the discontinuance of the cemetery at the Infirmary:

The cemetery at the County Home and Infirmary has been in active use since March 11, 1915. We do not know if your Honorable Body is familiar with this fact. Since its opening in 1915, 1,340 individuals have been interred there. During the year 1958, 16 bodies have been buried.

A small concrete stone with a number identifies the body and a master files is kept in the Department with name and pertinent required information. 

All the graves are dug by inmate labor and at times it has been difficult to find suitable personnel to do this very hard labor work.

In view of the fact that this area is in close proximity to the proposed County Park at the Infirmary, we would like your consideration in discontinuing its use.

We feel that suitable ground level markers could be purchased reasonably. This along with some sort of boundary markers would beautify the area in keeping with the decorum of other cemeteries in the community.

Future burials could be done at some of the local cemeteries. There is an unmarked plot north of the railroad tracks at Cold Springs Cemetery that is also a Potter’s Field. There probably some burials taken there, although that plot is almost entirely buried beneath grass and leaves from the rest of the cemetery. The Board of Supervisors agreed with Commissioner Stenzel, and the last burial at the Infirmary took place in late June 1960.

Today, the Potter’s Field at the Infirmary is a grassy area that is marked off with four stone markers at each corner of the plot. On the southern end of the cemetery, there are the two gravestones, the only indication that there is a cemetery there. Right outside, there is a baseball diamond were life continues. In a way, that echoes life in the nineteenth century when people used to picnic in cemeteries.

In the 1900s, picnicking in cemeteries was not an uncommon thing. Some of the rural graveyards were more open,and lent themselves towards a park-like attitude. During those times, people were far more accustomed to death. People died due to lack of adequate health care and clean water, among other reasons. Families seemingly each had someone pass away. Spending the day outdoors near the memories of their loved ones were an escape. By the turn of the twentieth century, visits to the cemetery lessened as medical achievements kept death a little more at bay, and more cities were constructing green-space parks for their residents. So, in a way, having baseball right next to the cemetery kind of continues this tradition.

In taking walks around the Infirmary grounds while my children ride bikes around the building (it’s got a great sidewalk for small kids learning to ride), I have taken time to visit the nameless individuals who lie forgotten in unmarked graves. Considering most people don’t even realize they are there, it is the least I could do. I make sure that my children understand that there’s a cemetery there, and what it means. 

If I had one message to send about that cemetery, it’s that these people should not be forgotten. Those buried in this cemetery could not fend for themselves. When they died, they were buried in relative anonymity without the pomp and circumstance that accompanies the funerals of people with the means to do so. Just because they lived their final days in the Poor House and often died penniless doesn’t mean they warrant a lack of respect.

I have discovered that many people who walk dogs in this area use the cemetery area for a place to let their dogs do their business. If you’re one of those people, I urge you to please reconsider. Imagine going to the cemetery to visit your mother’s and father’s graves and having to dodge canine excrement in order to take a few moments of reverence at their stone. How would you feel towards such a lack of respect? What would your ancestors feel knowing that people cared so little that they would let their animals do such a thing on their graves?

I urge dog walkers, baseball players, walkers, or nature enthusiasts to please respect the people buried in this cemetery. If your dog has a call of nature, the very least would be to pick it up just as you would during a walk through your neighborhood. At the best, take some time to remember that the people who are buried in these plots, lived, loved, worked, breathed and died. Some only took a few breaths in this world. Others lived a lifetime we can only imagine. One thousand three hundred forty-nine souls thank you.

Craig Bacon is the Deputy Niagara County Historian. The Niagara County Historians Office is located at 139 Niagara Street on the corner of Niagara and Hawley Streets. Offices hours are 8:30-4:30, Wednesday through Friday.