They were considered the lowest of the low, the dregs of the world. And when they died, they were thrown into an unmarked pit and forgotten.
A hundred years ago, life in Upper Peninsula towns like Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, was tough. People died young, people died suddenly, and they often died in horrendous ways. Many worked themselves to death, or drank themselves to death, or were killed on the job in unsafe conditions. And if they didn’t have a family, or if their family didn’t have any money, they wound up buried in a potter’s field, the quaint old term for a mass grave.
The potter’s field in the Soo’s Riverside Cemetery never had any gravestones or monuments to mark it. And after the city stopped using it years ago as a place to bury the unknown and the indigent, the grave was smothered by grasses and forgotten.
“Nobody in town knows the potter’s field is here,” said Caroline Grabowski, a Soo resident, author and historian who discovered the grave site a few years ago and made it her mission to bring it to the public’s attention. “Nobody knows who’s buried there.”
But she does. She pored over documents at the county courthouse, old newspapers at the library and burial records at the cemetery, trying to piece together the lives of these unknown dead, who were buried here between 1890 and 1935. She was compelled to find out who they were.
“They were the very destitute, the poorest of the poor,” she said. “These truly were the forgotten. There was nobody for them.”
Here lies Joseph Caruth, a 45-year-old cook in a lumber camp who got drunk one cold October night in 1902 and wandered into the woods, where he passed out and froze to death.
Here lies Anton Anderson, a 35-year-old loner who drank tainted water and died of typhoid, alone and miserable, in the city hospital, in November 1904.
And here lies James Christiansen, an unemployed laborer from Denmark who felt such despair on the 19th day of the sixth month of his 64th year that he hung himself in full public view at the head gate of the canal during the depths of the Great Depression.
These three lie buried with 281 others in the potter’s field; the skid row of the afterlife; the final resting place for the city’s alcoholics, its criminals, its suicides and its poor.
“There’s nothing but very, very sad stories there,” Grabowski said. “Not one you would say, ‘Well it was a good life, a peaceful end.’ Not in potter’s field. It was a hard life and a sad end.”
The lives of the dead
The term “potter’s field” comes from the Bible, the name given to land unsuitable for growing crops and used only by potters to dig clay and for burying strangers.
Most cities have had a potter’s field, usually relegated to a remote corner of a cemetery, where the poor and unknown were usually buried in cheap wood boxes, one atop the other, lined up in tight rows. It became the final resting spot for the indigent, the widows and the homeless who spent their last days alone and went unclaimed in death. Many came from the poorhouse or the poor farm, places where those receiving public assistance were sent to live and work to earn their keep; places they sometimes never left except in death.
Nowadays, the task is handled in Michigan on a county level, using state funds that are given to any funeral homes that offer to dispose of the unclaimed dead in their county, said Bob Wheaton of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services — though the funeral homes often take on much of the cost themselves. Last year, the MDHHS helped fund burial or cremation for nearly 15,000 such people in the state, with an average grant of about $260 per person.
Grabowski is fascinated by the dead. For years, the 67-year-old has led tours of cemeteries wherever she lived, including in Sault Ste. Marie, where she moved seven years ago after retiring from her job as a high school counselor in Wisconsin. She’s now the president of the Chippewa County Historical Society.
“A lot of people don’t care for them,” she said of cemetery tours. “They think they’re morbid. But to me they’re just rich in history. They tell the history of the town. You find out what kind of jobs they had, what kind of dangers were in town, what kind of diseases killed people. You find out so much. To me it’s so much history. I could talk about the dead all day.”
During her research of local cemeteries she kept seeing oblique mentions of the potter’s field, and she grew intrigued.
“I kept coming across this little notation — 'pf' — I didn’t know what that was,” she said. “It just took me by surprise.”
When she learned what it stood for, she was haunted by curiosity. How could hundreds of people be thrown into a mass grave and forgotten?
Through painstaking research she uncovered surprisingly detailed information about some of the deceased, enough to string together biographies that conjured them back into existence.
“Oh, the things they put in public records,” she said. “I’m looking at marriage records for the church and the priest would put all this information like ‘He’s a wife beater.’ They just put it all down, no political correctness.”
Some of the potter’s field dead left behind fascinating stories.
Like Martin Olson, a 35-year-old who was having a drink with two buddies in a saloon on Dec. 17, 1903, when the place caught fire. The owner managed to get his wife and child out, plus the couple who lived upstairs, and even his horse from the stable in the back. But, he told police and the newspaper, he just forgot about the drinkers, who were too drunk to find their way out themselves. The newspaper quoted firemen saying the men looked drunk even when found burned to a crisp.
“You got the news in those days,” Grabowski said of the newspapers’ colorful articles. “At least you knew the truth of what was going on.”
Some of the dead were killed on the job, like Laughlin McDonald, crushed by a falling tree; William Potter, smashed by a train; Everette Sellender, blown up as he lit a dynamite fuse, and Peter McGregor, who fell off a steamer ladder and fractured his skull.
Some of the dead wanted to escape the hard life of the north one way or another, like Alexander Jeston, a laborer found hanging at his home; Riley Johnson, a window cleaner who climbed to the top of the town’s wireless telegraph tower and jumped; Erick Kailenen, who cut his own throat with a razor; and Charles Edwards, a lumber camp cook who gruesomely drank carbolic acid.
Others left behind only a name; no age, no story: Arthur Hackler, dead in 1894, the day after Christmas. Henry Henderson, dead in 1905. James McQueen, 1897. And “Mrs. Miller” in 1896, who didn’t even depart the world with the dignity of her own first name.
And some of the dead weren’t even recognized by any name at all. They were thrown into the pit and are referred to only as the "Twenty-Five Unknowns." A strangled baby. A suicide at a hotel. Corpses found floating in the canal. Two men discovered dead behind City Hall, showing no apparent cause of death. Twenty-five people with no identity and no history, other than they all wound up alone and dead in Sault Ste. Marie.
“There were lots of immigrants from foreign countries who would come here to work, and they were hoping to raise enough money to go back to their home country or possibly bring their family here,” Grabowski said. “When they died, there was no one to bury them. They were buried here, and I’m sure the people back home never even knew what happened. They just stopped getting letters or whatever, and they were gone.”
Another potter’s field lies in the same cemetery, on the other side of a creek, which separated the Catholic and Protestant graves on the site. And Grabowski’s efforts have inspired others to make a similar effort to bring recognition to that mass grave, too.
“It just seems like something that should not go unnoticed,” said Jim Hendricks of the local Knights of Columbus, who is leading an effort to research the 186 or so dead in the Catholic potter’s field. “We’re still chasing down some of the history of the people. There are people who were poor and infants and all kinds of things. It’s just sad stories.”
Forgotten no more
All those forgotten souls deserved some kind of acknowledgment, Grabowski thought. She put so much work into researching them she began referring to them as “my people.”
But they couldn’t be given headstones because nobody knows who was where within the pit.
And they couldn’t be dug up and reburied, because after all these years of settling sediment and shifting soils all of them were likely just a jumble of bones.
Instead, she came up with the idea for a simple tribute — a small sign listing their names, granting them release from anonymity. It was installed in the potter’s field just before winter, the culmination of months of fund-raising and years of tireless research.
She did all of it in memory of Annie Hendereckson, whose husband bashed her brains in one night in 1913. He was her only family, and with him in jail, there was no money to bury her. Into the pit she went.
And for Jessie Sutherland, a woman who died of heart disease in 1896, age unknown. The local paper bluntly called her a “common drunk.” But at some point in her life she was called someone’s daughter, or sister, or friend. Into the pit she went.
And for Frank Rickley, a 35-year-old laborer and heavy drinker, who on a November night in 1903, got drunk, got tired and laid down on the railroad tracks for a final nap that was cut short by a train grinding over him.
Into the pit he went, along with the 281 others consigned to the potter’s field, the place of last resort to dispose of life’s disposables, a place where they would quickly be forgotten. Until now.
“They weren’t considered good people,” Grabowski said. “But they were all people. They all deserve respect. Because every life is important.”
John Carlisle writes about people and places in Michigan. His stories can be found at freep.com/carlisle. Contact him: email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @_johncarlisle, Facebook at johncarlisle.freep or on Instagram at johncarlislefreep.