January 17, 1882, Wednesday

New York Times

Page 1, 443 words

PHILADELPHIA, Jan. 16.--The committee of City Councils which is investigating charges of abuse at the Alms-house in this city had before it to-day Thomas J. Harrah, who testified that he had heard Guardian Chambers say that all children taken to the Alms-house died, and, as a member of the Society for the prevention of Cruelty to Children, the witness brought the matter before the society in January last, and visited the Alms-house ...  [The full article can be found in pdf, here: ]

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Centuries later, an investigation....

Written By

Christine Leogrande

Release Date


The Discovery Health Channel’s series Skeleton Stories will feature a Philadelphia archaeological dig that unearthed the remains of infants and children buried during the late 1700s in the former Philadelphia Almshouse Burial Ground. The episode premiers on Friday, October 6 at 10 p.m. and will be rebroadcast over the weekend.

The skeletal remains were excavated during the summer of 2004 by Dr. Thomas Crist and his wife Dr. Molly Crist, both professors at Utica College in Utica, NY. Dr. Thomas Crist has served since 1990 as the forensic anthropologist for the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office. Both researchers earned their doctorates at Temple University where they met in 1991.

Skeleton Stories will highlight the husband-wife forensic anthropology team as they and their eight graduate students excavated the coffins of 16 infants and children buried beneath the basement of a Carpenter Street row house. Construction workers had discovered the coffins during renovations of the row house in March 2004.

“We uncovered a 6-ft.-x-4-ft.burial trench that included 13 well-preserved coffins with the remains of infants and children,” Dr. Thomas Crist said. “The pine coffins in this trench were stacked at least five deep and reached 10 ft. below the Carpenter Street pavement outside the house.”

The row house apparently had been built in the 1850s over the former burial ground of the Philadelphia Almshouse, which had closed around 1834 when a new almshouse opened in West Philadelphia.

The Philadelphia Almshouse, built in 1732, was the first American institution to provide hospitalized care for the poor. Initially located at 3rd and Pine Streets, the Almshouse was managed by the City’s Overseers of the Poor, later called the Guardians of the Poor. In 1767, the Almshouse moved to larger quarters at 11th and Spruce Streets, just seven blocks north of the Carpenter Street burial ground site. The Blockley Almshouse replaced it in 1834.

“The shapes, style of nails, and methods used to build the coffins indicated that the burials were probably made between about 1775 and 1800,” Dr. Thomas Crist said. There were no tombstones or other evidence of identification, and shroud pins were the only artifacts found in the coffins.

Of the 16 children found in the burial trench12 had died before their first birthdays, including four premature infants and two newborns. Three of the 16 individuals were children between two and three years old. Although five of the children showed bone markings associated with widespread infections, there was no clear cause of death for any of them.

The most startling discovery was that the heads, jaws, and upper neck bones of the three oldest children were missing, surgically removed before they had been buried. “We knew that early Philadelphia surgeons and their students conducted autopsies in the old almshouse morgue,” Dr. Molly Crist noted, “but this is the first skeletal evidence that children had been subjected to dissections just like the adults who died there.”

Two of the autopsied children were 3-3½ years old when they died, and the third was 5-6 years old. “The third cervical vertebra of one of the children clearly showed cut marks,” Dr. Thomas Crist said, “the key piece of evidence that the children had been autopsied before their burials.”

The discovery sheds new light on the education of physicians in early America at a time when Philadelphia was the center of medical teaching. In fact, the first medical school in the colonies opened in 1765 when the College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania) enrolled its first students.

“What most people don’t realize is that medical students back then had to provide their own cadavers for dissections and practice surgeries,” Dr. Thomas Crist said. This requirement fostered a black market of sorts in human remains as well as numerous cases of grave robbing. “The almshouse solved the problem for many physicians and their students,” Dr. Molly Crist said, “providing a steady supply of cadavers for study and practice, especially amputations.”

This grim chapter in Philadelphia’s medical history will be closed when the bones of the infants and children are reburied in an official cemetery in the city. Anthony Rufo, the developer who was renovating the house, deserves recognition and thanks for taking care of these almshouse children long after their deaths, Dr. Thomas Crist said. “These children were the most helpless residents of Philadelphia and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, even though we won’t ever know their names.”


From fact comes fiction?

It just so happens I recently read a medical thriller written by one of my favorite authors, Tess Gerritsen.

The book, "The Bone Garden" tells a story about the so-called working conditions poor women faced when giving birth at a Boston hospital in the 1800's.  In truth, this book was inspired by Oliver Wendell Holmes, the doctor who found a solution to puerperal fever.... a condition that created orphans out of otherwise healthy, strong women.

As the story progresses, the reader learns, one of the poor, unmarried "new mothers" who died after birth, (and was used as a lesson in human dissection), left an orphan who was not an orphan at all.  The infant had a single, loving, protective aunt, and the infant had a father.... the father being one of the wealthiest and most respected (married) physicians in that community. 

Fact or fiction, the book provides a brilliant glimpse into America's rich history as it relates to men, women, and children.


Pound Pup Legacy