Milwaukee County Poor Farm Cemetery Project Digs Into Area's Past

Jun 7, 2018

From 1882 until 1974, the Milwaukee County Poor Farm Cemetery served as the burial site of many of Milwaukee’s marginalized citizens. The cemetery became the final resting place for many of the community’s poor, as well as those who died as a resident of one of the county institutions or were unidentified or unclaimed from the coroner’s office.

The stories of many interred at the cemetery were lost to time. But for the past two decades, researchers have been working to excavate some of the people buried there and bring their stories to life. The Milwaukee County Poor Farm Cemetery Project, established in 2008, oversees the remains of about 2,480 individuals, excavated because of construction on the cemetery grounds starting in the early '90s. 

Locations of the Milwaukee County Poor Farm Cemeteries.
Credit Courtesy of UWM Cultural Resource Management
"When one is granted the privilege of excavating human remains, one has then the need to recognize the humanity of those individuals and to really try to tell an individual story as well."

Patricia Richards, the director of project, acknowledges the depressing nature of excavating the bodies of forgotten people, but appreciates the importance of the project.

She says, “When one is granted the privilege of excavating human remains, one has then the need to recognize the humanity of those individuals and to really try to tell an individual story as well.”

Most of the bodies buried at the Poor Farm Cemetery, according to Richards, are immigrants, including many middle-aged men and infants. “Many of them were folks, like today, who just sort of slipped through the cracks of having family or other kinds of institutions to support them.”

Examples of burial context excavated - a: single individual, b: multiple individuals, c: multiple individuals and commingled lot, and d: commingled lot.
Credit Courtesy of UWM Cultural Resource Management

Using the bodies, alongside incomplete cemetery maps, newspapers, and other historical information, Richards and her team try to identify these people and stitch together their stories. Because of the difficulty of identifying these bodies, only about 300 individuals of the 2,480 excavated have been identified. There are some, though, who become helpful in the effort.

Gertrude West, who cast a wide shadow during her lifetime as a 640-pound circus performer, has been equally hefty with respect to the role she plays in the project. She is what Richards calls a “linchpin individual," someone who helps identify others in a cemetery. 

By identifying Gertrude, Richards says, they were able to match up other bodies in close proximity by cross-referencing maps and other historical documents. As Richards laments, digging up old, unidentified bodies “gets a little discouraging after a while,” so it makes the finds like Gertrude all the more exciting and important.

Much like the people buried in the cemetery, who worked hard and did the best they could with what they had, Richards and her team continue to scour limited historical records and physical evidence to revive stories of people long forgotten.