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Stories of Old N.Y. Told, Bone-by-Bone

History: Archeologists piece together portrait of rugged lives that ended at a turn-of-the-century almshouse. Scurvy and syphilis were common.


ALBANY, N.Y. — For 100 years, thousands of poor, sick and mentally ill people, mostly Irish immigrants, sought refuge at one of New York's first almshouses.

When they died, they were buried in unmarked wooden coffins in a cemetery on the 216-acre property.

More than 75 years after the Albany County Almshouse shut down, archeologists are unearthing the history of its people as construction gets underway on a $60-million biomedical research laboratory.

Already, a picture has emerged: The majority suffered from dental disease and infections ranging from scurvy to syphilis. Most of the men had broken legs, likely from injuries suffered in falls. Women suffered weakened bones associated with osteoporosis.

"Just about every person had something wrong with them. These people had a lifetime of stress on them," said assistant project director Martin Solano of the New York State Museum.

Since February, a team of a dozen archeologists has worked on the clay-mud site of the original farmhouse and cemetery, located less than two miles from the governor's mansion and the state Capitol.

Today, the site is dotted with the red and blue flags that indicate where a corpse was found and archeologists carefully remove soil using wooden trowels, paintbrushes, plastic spoons, even chopsticks.

"You want to make sure you don't scratch the bones," archeologist Andrea Lain explained. "Archeology is destructive, so anything we dig up can never be replicated the same way again."

They have uncovered personal items including fabric, shoes, a rosary, a hat, a smoking pipe, a religious medal, even a wedding ring. A cast-iron coffin was also unearthed.

On a recent afternoon, workers uncovered an adult male skeleton with several missing ribs and teeth. Who he was, where he came from and how he died remain a mystery pending further tests.

"There were a fair number of people who were abandoned by whatever society they were part of," said Mark LoRusso, a historian and scientist at the State Museum. "What we're seeing is a forgotten group."

About 271 bodies and 155 body parts have been exhumed so far, including remains of seven infants. Experts say the chances of matching individual remains to almshouse records are slim because graves were unmarked.

"We haven't given up the possibility of identifying individuals," said archeologist Chuck Fisher. "We're hopeful that there may be some cases where we can identify the remains."

At least 167 bodies have been taken to a funeral home where they will be placed in new caskets and buried in marked graves at Albany Rural Cemetery.

When the Almshouse opened in 1826, it was a safe haven for the city's beggars, orphans, lunatics and others who took up residence in the 10-room, two-story brick building, one of a half-dozen structures that included a farm, hospital and asylum.

Scientists from the State Museum are examining the bones for clues to the kind of life the poor endured in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Historical records show the majority immigrated from Ireland and other parts of Europe. Blacks also made up the Almshouse population.

"You can tell these people worked really hard," judging by their bone structure, Lain said.

The excavation site is behind a World War II-era armory that sits diagonally across the street from Albany Medical Center. The site is surrounded by the Albany College of Pharmacy, Albany Law School and Wadsworth Center, a premier public health laboratory.

The biomedical research lab is being built by the Charitable Leadership Foundation, a private group based in Clifton Park that is paying for the reburials. When completed in 2003, the 150,000-square-foot lab will house 350 scientists conducting research in genomics, pharmacology and regenerative medicine.

The excavation is expected to last until this month. .

From 1880 to 1926, Almshouse records show at least 1,655 people were buried on the site. The figures don't include the number of stillborn deaths, bodies that were never buried or the cadavers used by doctors at Albany Medical College in the 1890s for research autopsies. They don't include the drowning victims, orphans and inmates, or railroad and canal workers who died of malaria and other diseases.

On a typical day, archeologists excavate five skeletal remains. The bones are cleaned in an on-site lab, then transferred to another lab for analysis. A full skeleton takes two days to decipher; partial remains take less time.

Census records show 123 people, including 38 children between 4 months and 8 years, were among the first Almshouse residents. By 1857, the number tripled and living conditions deteriorated. Six to 40 people lived in a single room with poor ventilation.

Visitors were allowed every day except Sunday. Protestants worshipped in the chapel each Sunday morning; Catholics prayed in the afternoon. Children were taught reading, writing and arithmetic. Men tended the fruit and vegetable farm; women were trained in needlework and knitting.

"There are references that the Almshouse was a desirable place to go because you could get a couple of nights' rest and food," LoRusso said. "But in terms of a long-term place to be, I really can't say it was a great place to live."

Only 100 residents were left when the Almshouse closed in 1926.

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