By Seth Daniel
It’s a rare occasion when one gets to see over the 8-foot tall concrete wall on Washington Street that is the South End Burial Ground, but once inside, the pastoral green lawn empties out into a thousand unknown stories.
It’s likely the city’s first working-class cemetery, born out of desperation in 1810 for lack of places to put the deceased, and likely containing an estimated 10,000 graves – with more than 90 percent unmarked.
“It predates everything around here,” said Kelly Thomas, project manager for the City’s 16 historic burial grounds. “It’s a green space in a very urban environment, which is appreciated. The ones downtown are large tourist draws. Then, what I think of first and foremost is it is a burial spot. Basically everyone who lived in Boston until Mt. Auburn was built in 1831 was buried here or in Boston. The cemetery component is what’s very important to me.”
The South End Burial Ground came after King’s Chapel, the Granary and Copp’s Hill in the North End, but it was more of a pressing need. The Alderman of Boston at the time had set aside money to purchase the land just outside of “The Neck” – which ran along Washington Street and was the only land connection to Boston.
“This was discussed a lot so it was a priority matter,” said Thomas. “They needed a place to put dead people. They had run out of room downtown. There was no place to go. They were very concerned and it was a major issue at the time.”
When one walks into the Burial Grounds, they see tombs on three sides of the square grounds, with the fourth side being made up of the old St. James Hotel, which faces Franklin Square. There are not rows of gravestones as one might expect though, just open fields with a few tombs in the center and 11 headstones.
“It’s estimated that 10,000 are buried here,” said Thomas. “They truly needed the space. They were burying people four deep downtown. The first burials here were all in the ground and the tombs didn’t exist then. They started building tombs in 1829 so there were first a number of years when they dug in rows. By 1839 it was completely enclosed. By 1831, there were 4,610 bodies in graves. Now, about 99 percent of all the burials here are unknown and unmarked. There are only 11 headstones. It really is quite a mysterious location.”
Thomas said virtually no one of any renown is buried there, and most of the plots were reserved for the working class, while a number were reserved for the poor and indigent. There is an area for infants as well, due to the fact that far more children and babies died during those days.
In 1820, she said, records indicate that a tomb cost $220 or $250 for a corner. The average salary for a male in that same year, she said, was $325 – making a place to be buried very expensive but attainable in the South End.
She said the only person who they know is buried there of significance is the former superintendent of the City’s cemeteries. Samuel Hawes was so much a believer in his newest cemetery in the South End that he decided to be buried there with the masses.
“However, most people here were working-class people or poor people who couldn’t afford graves,” Thomas said. “There are so many untold stories here. There are no grave markers. We don’t even know the names of the people who were buried here.”
That, she said, likely was a great liability – as the City in the 1800s began selling off some of the lots abutting Franklin Square. And that didn’t mean that they removed the graves and the remains of people before building.
First, a piano factory bought some plots on the northeast corner and began constructing the factory there. It was said they didn’t bother removing any of the dead.
Then, in the 1860s, the St. James Hotel purchased 11,000 sq. ft. on the outside edge facing Franklin Square. They were required to move the bodies then, but Thomas said there are accounts from eyewitnesses that both the piano factory construction and the hotel construction hit coffin after coffin.
Thomas said there are accounts of people gathering to watch the excavation because they were unearthing so many dead people.
“It wasn’t like it is today with so many laws and protections,” she said. “It was guys carting off bones and coffins in wheelbarrows. We don’t know if the re-buried them, threw them all in a pit or dumped them in Boston Harbor.”
The hotel failed rather quickly, and in 1882, the New England Conservatory bought the building and another 11,000 sq. ft. of the burial ground at the bargain basement price of 28 cents per square foot. They also built upon the remains, but were required to move the bodies in 1884 to Deer Island.
That filled out the entire northern side of the ground with buildings, which today contain a large amount of apartments and condos.
The site fell into major disrepair in the 1960s and 1970s with graffiti, overgrown vegetation and broken tombs. A restoration effort in the 1980s created her position and led to major improvements there and elsewhere in the City’s historic burial grounds.
Standing in the sunny green landscape, with cars rushing by on Washington Street, and the stories of those who once lived before underneath, Thomas said it can get surreal.
“Sometimes I feel like there’s an alternate reality,” she said. “You walk into a site and its 2017, but you can’t help but think of the stories in your mind of all these people that were once walking around and how they lived their lives. Just the quantity of 10,000 people in this small plot of land. That’s a lot of dead people.”
The last burial in the Grounds came in 1866.