Both Sides of the Fence

A Tosa resident since 1991, Christine walks the dog, cooks but avoids housework, writes and reads, and enjoys the company of friends and strangers. Her job takes her around the state, learning about people's health. A Quaker (no, they don't wear blue hats or sell oatmeal or motor oil), she has been known to stand on both sides of the political and philosophic fence at the same time, which is very uncomfortable when you think about it. She writes about pretty much whatever stops in to visit her busy mind at the moment. One reader described her as "incredibly opinionated but not judgmental." That sounds like a good thing to strive for!

The weary bones of Potter's Field

County Grounds

Potter Road ends where the Research Park begins, a sprawling cluster of mostly forgettable buildings in which the work of progress is done. But if you thread through the unpeopled streets, under Highway 45, and into the Milwaukee County Grounds, you still might find yourself in a tiny fragment of Wauwatosa’s “Potter’s Field,” a burial ground for the poor and nameless.

The bones of 1,600 of the more than 7,500 people buried on the grounds between 1882 and 1974 were exhumed  during construction at Froedtert Hospital in 1991. Carted to Marquette University, soon they’ll be packed again and sent to UWM to be studied by future students.

Retired professor Ken Bennet told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “I think it would be bone-headed and stupid to rebury them.”

Strong language, considering the importance people in all times and most places have given to honoring the remains of their ancestors.

Even more extraordinary language from UWM’s John Richards: “This is an opportunity to give them a voice, to reconnect them to the community. . . and perhaps (give them) a role in extending the lives of living people, aiding in criminal investigations or helping with medical advances.”

I wonder what voice they’d have wanted, what connection to the community that storehoused them in the various residences for the poor, the ill, and the insane.

Reburying the dead isn’t stupid, it’s an act of the heart.

Consider  the story of Private Earnest Brown, age 31. Just a year after the unceremonious removal of bones from our County Grounds, Brown’s bones were found in an abandoned Belgian foxhole where they had lain since the Battle of the Bulge.  Whoever found them carefully wrapped them in a green blanket. In 2005, sent home at last to Bristol, Tennessee, Brown was buried with full military honors, the uniform he might have worn lain carefully atop the blanket.

Said a townsman, "This man has never had a formal funeral. This town needs to pay its respects now. He’s being brought a long way for his funeral and it'd be terrible if nobody comes. He's coming home. It just took him longer than many."

I wonder, too, how many of the dead in our Potter's Field had served in wars, from the Civil War on. 

In Europe, where land is more scarce, bones are stacked and moved all the time. The scientific arguments for studying the bones buried between 1730 and 1820 in Bern, Switzerland,  are the same as they are here. But there, scientists are studying the bones of the burghers as well as those of the poor. There’s a certain comforting equity there.

And the findings are fascinating. Among the upper class bones were many bent from polio and scoliosis, but among the bones of the poor were no signs of disease. There’s no question that interesting mysteries can be solved by reading the bones.

Still, I want the bones, our bones, to be treated with more reverence for the people who walked on them than for those who might crack them open in the name of science.  It's time to let them stop working.

I’ll leave you with a story from the Butte (Montana) Evening News. It’s long but compelling.


The records begin halfway down the hillside for the graves were put here in rows as one might plant potatoes. Oh, there was no choice of graves or plots among the men and women who died unmourned at the county poor house. There were no spaces reserved for mothers or sisters or children. When one dies he is put beside the last one who died, and his grave is dug days before the end comes. 

For it is nice and handy to have the grave already dug, for the friendless often die suddenly and it is bothersome to have the body of a friendless one lying around. They keep a stock of graves on hand, a dozen or so ready.


There is in this pauper's cemetery one marble headstone, and the story that it tells no man can write.  "In memory of John Downie, Beloved Son of Mr. and Mrs. John C. Downie, Vancouver, Wash. 

Johnnie Downie, aged 21 years, died of black smallpox; Dr. Sullivan found him dying in the Cash Lodging house, where for three days he had lain unattended.  He had the proverbial 30 cents.  At first he refused to give his name when he found he had been taken to the poorhouse.  Finally, in delirium, he told of his home and aged parents, for whom he had started out to make a home.  But Butte had been too fast for poor, weak Johnnie Downie, prided as he was by his fond Irish parents.  Work was hard to find, he was qualified for few positions and made no friends.  He washed dishes, swamped in saloons. Finally his environment overcame him as did the germs of a dreaded disease. 

The slums became his home.  His parents lost track of him.  The day he died Dr. Sullivan sent word to them that he was dying. His mother wired that she was coming but the word went back that her boy was dead. 

She wrote a letter such as the doctor, accustomed to heart rending appeals, had never read before.  He was such a good boy her Johnnie, he was working so hard for them.  Oh, he was never careless to her when he was home, Johnnie never missed mass. She had prayed for him night and day, watched every mail for the letter that came not.  Page after page of letters came, written in the heart's blood of a mother.  

When Dr. Sullivan put the blanket over the wasted frame of the dissipated boy, who for three months had been little better then a vagrant, he sat down and wrote the mother a letter that would bring tears to her eyes and happiness to her heart. 

 "Yes John had been a good boy," he wrote. He had had the priest and died happy.  He sent her his love and told them not to worry as he was leaving for a better life.

Such a stone represents months of saving and self-denial for the old couple. But, somehow, they think of Johnnie's death with strange satisfaction which demonstrates sorrow is not always unhappiness. Looking over the pauper's cemetery one recalls the words of a man who saw humanity from the pinnacle and wrote:

Oh, yet we trust that somehow good shall be the final goal of ill: That not one life shall be destroyed or cast as rubbish to the void, when God has made his pile complete.  

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