- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 23, 2005

TROY, N.Y. - Inside a technology park across the Hudson River from Albany rest the lifelike facial reconstructions of nine seemingly diverse persons: black and white, young and old, male and female.

A look into their past, however, reveals a common thread: They lived, worked and died at one of New York’s earliest poorhouses that housed Albany’s paupers, orphans and mentally ill during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

When the almshouse residents died, they were buried in unmarked graves in a cemetery on the site. For the first time since they were reburied to make way for a $60 million biomedical research laboratory, scientists have re-created the faces of nine persons from skeletal remains in hopes that relatives could identify them.

“Part of the idea of this project is to give faces to the poor people of the time,” said project leader Gay Malin, a facial reconstruction specialist with the New York State Museum.

For a century, thousands of outcasts sought refuge at the Albany County Almshouse on a 216-acre plot of land behind an armory a few miles from the state Capitol. The majority were foreign-born, mostly immigrants from Ireland and other parts of Europe. Many suffered from dental disease and infections ranging from scurvy to syphilis.

The almshouse was shuttered in 1926, and the last 100 residents were transferred to a nearby nursing home. Historical records showed that about 2,400 people were buried in the almshouse cemetery.

In 2002, developers broke ground on a research center on the site of the cemetery and asked a team of State Museum archaeologists to excavate the site. For a year, scientists dug up wooden coffins, exhumed skeletal remains and uncovered personal belongings, including a wedding ring.

Remains of 1,200 people were recovered. Of those, 986 could be identified as male, female or juvenile, said Chuck Fisher, a state archaeologist who hoped the reconstructions would prompt relatives to come forward and identify the remains. But he acknowledged that it would be difficult to match individual remains to the almshouse ledgers because the graves were unmarked.

Before the remains were reburied at the Albany County Rural Cemetery, they were transported to a mobile lab on the site where the bones were cleaned, photographed and analyzed. Of those excavated, nine skulls were intact enough to sculpt a three-dimensional facial reconstruction. Miss Malin created two replicas of each skull to be included in a future museum exhibit.

Miss Malin used clay to give shape to the faces, which then were painted, and a hair historian was consulted to dress the mannequins in wigs based on hairstyles of the time. It took Miss Malin a year to sculpt the skulls in her windowless lab at the Rensselaer Technology Park in Troy.

Of the nine almshouse skulls, six were males and three females. Five were white, and the rest were black. The oldest was a black man known only as “B318.” His bones showed he was malnourished as a child, stood only 5 feet 2 inches and died in his mid-60s. He also was the only one of the nine persons to be autopsied upon his death as evidenced by the hinged skull.

The youngest was a 17-year-old black boy whose bones revealed he suffered from yaws, a tropical infectious disease that causes skin ulcers.

Then there is the bucktoothed woman with the puckered look. Because she was the only resident to be buried in a cast-iron coffin, her remains were 95 percent intact. The woman, who was white, lived until her early to mid-40s. The left side of her nose is broken, possibly from a violent blow, and she suffered from gallstones and arthritis in the knees.

The almshouse faces are mere snapshots of the thousands of residents who passed through the poorhouse, which opened in 1826. According to census records, 123 persons, including 38 children, were the first to take shelter in the almshouse when it opened. The population tripled in 1857, and living conditions drastically deteriorated.

The poorhouse closed 100 years after it opened, a victim of development pressures.

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