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Grave markers bring history to life

Grave markers bring history to life

A new resident of the Hamilton Hill neighborhood dug up a mystery last week when she discovered a gr

A new resident of the Hamilton Hill neighborhood dug up a mystery last week when she discovered a gravestone buried in her back yard.

All Terry Taylor wanted to do was remove the old patio blocks in her yard. She wasn’t expecting to find out that every one of them was actually a gravestone base — and she certainly wasn’t expecting to actually find a century-old headstone.

But there it was, indistinguishable amid the other stones until Taylor’s friends heaved it over — and screamed to see what was revealed under the dirt. “Gertrude Frank. Died June 12, 1849. The wife of Jacob Frank. The daughter of John and Gertrude Bancker. Aged 22 years.”

“My first thought was, Oh my god, someone’s buried under this apple tree!” Taylor said.

The city historian told her that it’s not just her yard that might have hosted the city’s dead. Much of the Hamilton Hill neighborhood was once a cemetery.

In the mid-1800s, there were at least nine cemeteries there, historian Don Rittner said.

“It’s a great little piece of Schenectady history. I think a lot of people didn’t realize they’re living in a former graveyard,” he said.

The closest may well have been in Taylor’s backyard — her house is on the grounds of the city’s first almshouse, where the poor and mentally ill lived. The almshouse kept its own cemetery behind its building at the corner of Craig and Emmet streets, but the site isn’t on any of Rittner’s maps.

A few blocks away, near what is now Westover Place, seven Christian denominations maintained cemeteries for their parishioners, representing nearly every religious organization in Schenectady at the time. Blacks were set apart in a cemetery located at the bottom of the Summit Avenue hill.

“Everything south of Westover was cemetery,” Rittner said. “Where we are now was the end of Schenectady. When you were out here, you were in the boonies. There was nothing beyond here — just trees.”

When Hamilton Hill was sold to developers, all the graves were moved — or so the residents thought.

“Obviously they didn’t get them all,” Rittner said.

He identified a dozen of Taylor’s patio stones as almshouse headstone bases. However, he doesn’t think Gertrude Frank died at the almshouse.

“This was too nice to be a poorhouse stone — unless the family paid for it. That’s not a cheap headstone,” Rittner said.

He suspects the first owner of Taylor’s house stole the stones to build a patio, showing a disregard for the dead.

“They may have just figured she’s not going to miss it, she’s gone. It’s an attitude that unfortunately persists,” Rittner said.

It’s an attitude that Taylor definitely does not share. She can’t understand how anyone would be able to walk on a gravestone.

“That’s not right,” she said. “Somewhere there’s a body for that.”

Until body and stone can be reunited, Taylor wants to find out everything she can about the poor forgotten Gertrude.

“Until now, who knew who she was,” Taylor said. “I knew nothing about her. Now look what we’ve found out. I didn’t know about all the cemeteries. It’s watching history come to life.”

Gertrude’s father was a carpenter who lived at 4 Yates St., according to the city’s 1841 directory. Her husband was a tailor who lived at 99 Liberty St.

“They’re working class, both of them,” Rittner said. “So yes, maybe she was in the almshouse. Maybe she had a stillbirth and went crazy and couldn’t handle it. There’s all kinds of reasons she could be in the almshouse.”

But it’s unlikely that her family would abandon her if they had the money for an elaborate marble headstone, Rittner said. They also placed an obituary in the local newspaper when she died — an unusual honor for an impoverished woman.

Rittner is leaning toward the most pedestrian explanation: a death in childbirth. After all, he said, she was married just 20 months before she died.

“And she died at 22, so that says she could have died in childbirth,” Rittner said. Then, he speculates, someone stole her headstone for their patio.

Taylor is hoping for a more exotic story, one that would end up with Gertrude buried at the almshouse cemetery. She thinks it’s possible Gertrude worked at the almshouse and died there.

“You think maybe she was one of the ones who ran the place?” she said.

Gertrude’s obituary in Freedom’s Sentinel, a weekly newspaper that was also known as Schenectady’s Cabinet, does not offer any details beyond her familial relations and her death date. But in the week she died, according to the newspaper, there were 212 new cases of cholera in the state and 100 deaths.

Cholera is generally spread by unsanitary conditions, particularly contaminated water sources, rather than passing directly from person to person, according to the Centers for Disease Control. But the bacteria causes explosive diarrhea, which is so infectious that nurses caught the disease if they simply touched contaminated clothing or bedding. Typically victims died within 18 hours.

The 1849 outbreak began in Europe, where more than 14,000 people died in London alone. Sailors brought the disease to the United States, where thousands died as cholera spread from coast to coast. There were than 5,000 victims in New York City, according to historical records.

Rittner is researching Gertrude, trying to find out why she died so young and where her body lies now. He’s hoping she was moved to Vale Cemetery and reburied even though workers didn’t have her marker.

“Unless they really missed her totally, which is a possibility,” he said.

In that case, she’s buried in someone else’s backyard.

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