Source: ADVANCE for Nurse Practitioners
Date: October 2007
Byline: Scott Hatfield
Editorial: Tales from the Crypt
In Philadelphia, the dead are talking.
While their physical lives have been over for centuries, the skeletal remains of early colonial Americans are offering biological and forensic anthropologists insight into medical mysteries, as well as every day life, that may change published tales.
The gathering of archeologists, forensic anthropologists and researchers took place in Philadelphia, on Oct. 20th at the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum and Independence National Historical Park's jointly sponsored "Explore Philadelphia's Hidden Past: New Archaeological Discoveries in Our Town."
Children's Skeletons Found
When the skeletal remains of 16 children were found in coffins in a South Philadelphia row home under renovations in March 2004, Thomas A. Crist, PhD and his wife Molly Hickey Crist, PT, DPT, were summoned to solve the case.
"Three of the 16 children were missing their skulls and the first and second cervical vertebrae," Dr. Crist said. "They were not disturbed after death, so their heads were removed before the children were buried."
Dr. Crist, who is an associate professor of the physical therapy program at Utica College in Utica, N.Y., serves the City of Brotherly Love as the forensic anthropologist for the Philadelphia Medical Examiner's Office. So he and Molly were called to identify the skeletal remains, if possible, or at least determine how the bones got there.
The Crists didn't show up alone. They brought eight Utica College PT graduate students who came along as part of their physical therapy capstone projects, researching and analyzing bones.
What the team dug up was that the site of the house was on the closed Philadelphia Almshouse burial ground. The Almshouse opened in 1732 and is noted in public health as "the first institution in the American colonies to provide hospitalized care for the poor." It turns out the Almshouse had an after hours business supplying cadavers to medical students of the day who were required to bring their own skeletons to class.
"There were body snatching problems in Philadelphia and New York," Dr. Crist said. "Loved ones were dug up in a few days or hours after they were buried here and in England, where this also occurred."
The cadavers were then taken into medical theaters in colonial Philadelphia where medical students would buy tickets to enter and watch "great" physicians dissect and autopsy the dead.
"The students were more like apprentices to the doctors and were often required to provide their own cadavers for dissections," Dr. Crist explained.
Back in colonial America poor parents had no rights, so the children's remains (some with knife marks found on the skeletons) might have been part of medical studies, but the grave shaft from the late 1700s may have cradled the remains from an epidemic or some other disaster. The Almshouse burial ground closed in 1834 when its new cemetery opened in West Philadelphia, site of the present-day University of Pennsylvania Hospital and the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
Discovery Health Channel became intrigued with the bone-tingling mystery and featured the Crists on an episode about the Philadelphia Almshouse that premiered last December. The episode titled Skeleton Stories aired again on the Discovery Health Channel on Oct. 19, the evening prior to the symposium.
As for the full story on the 16 skeletons, the mystery continues and Dr. Crist still has these chilling questions: Why are the children's skeletons all buried together? Why were the remains not moved to the new Almshouse cemetery? What happened to the heads of the three children?
Artifacts of Everyday Life
The Philadelphia Almshouse still holds a fascination for many. Archeologists and researchers are continuing their quest to piece its history together from artifacts found on the grounds.
Also speaking at the forum about the Almshouse, Mara Katkins, a materials specialist for URS Corp., in Burlington, N.J., noted that during excavations medicine bottles — large for many doses and small enough for one dose — were discovered. Other containers included ointment pots, and combs were found used for taking lice out of hair.
Artifacts help tell the story of colonial diets. Many seeds, including from apples, blueberries, strawberries, as well as enough cherry seeds to indicate that orchards were grown on the property, provide clues to revolutionary period diets.
A biological anthropologist recounted another tale of skeletal remains in his talk "Partnering in a South Philadelphia Dig: The Washington Avenue Bioarchaeology Project." Arthur Washburn, PhD, assistant professor of anatomy and cell biology at Temple University Medical School in Philadelphia, recounted a grassroots effort to provide the proper treatment and reburial for nine adults and six children whose skeletal remains were discovered during a water main installation project in 2001.
The discovery remained a mystery for about 4 years as archeologists, morticians and other enthusiasts worked to provide the 15 skeletons a proper burial. As part of the evaluation, the skeletons were examined by anthropologists and a dentist who noted interesting findings, such as a pipe stem notch between the teeth of one man, as well as hair still attached to skeleton scalps, one of a child discovered with silk bows. Another adult skeleton clutched the remains of a blanket.
Although at first the investigators thought the skeletons might be those of Civil War soldiers, it turns out the skeletons discovered were from a 19th-century Catholic cemetery that had once been on the grounds. The 15 skeletons eventually received a proper burial at Philadelphia's Laurel Hill Cemetery on Memorial Day, 2006.
Douglas Mooney, president of the Philadelphia Archeological Forum and a senior archaeologist with URS Corp., presented a profile on Ebenezer Robinson, a brush maker who built a water well behind his home in 1786. In his well construction, historical accounts detail how his well diggers began to get sick, largely because of hydrogen sulphide produced by decomposing organic material, commonly known as sewer gas. If not protected, a worker can die of asphyxiation.
To solve the problem, Robinson, who is credited with inventing a water pump for ships at sea and a portable fire escape to help people escape from burning buildings, invented an air pump to bring fresh air into the bottom of the well, Mooney explained.
"He had one of those minds," Mooney concluded. "He saw problems and tried to come up with solutions to benefit people's lives."