A few years ago, as crews were constructing an addition to the 1887 Maryland Avenue Montessori School, I’d ask almost daily if anything was found during that day’s excavation. (I'm a longtime member of the school's advisory council.)
When the answer was a consistent “no,” I suggested in a post that maybe, just maybe, it could be deemed conclusive that every trace of the old pest house cemetery that was on the East Side site in the 1850s had been removed.
Pest house was another name for a quarantine or isolation hospital at the time.
Fortunately, I had hedged my bet in that article, writing, “Perhaps whatever remains were at the site have now long since been moved or will rest in peace until some future digging on another part of the site reminds Milwaukee again of this dark chapter in the city’s history.”
On Sept. 17, a Friday, during a small excavation alongside the building’s turret to fix some basement seepage, four bones were discovered and the Milwaukee Police Deparment was called.
Officer Stephon Bell arrived on the scene and according to District 1 Captain James Campbell, he took the bones, delivering them to the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s office on Monday, Sept. 20.
At the time, neither Bell nor the Medical Examiner’s staff knew the history of the site, which has long been city property and home to a variety of institutions, including the school (since 1875, when an earlier schoolhouse was built) and in the 1850s, a cemetery, where some of the victims of the city’s cholera outbreaks were buried.
Over time, the cemetery on the site was forgotten. But not for long.
As I noted in my previous story on the cemetery, as workers were excavating to build a beautiful new cream city brick First Ward Branch School building – designed by no less than Henry C. Koch, architect of City Hall, The Pfister, Gesu Church and Turner Hall – in March of 1887, the old alms house cemetery was rediscovered.
"The new First Ward branch school house between Farwell and Prospect avenues, south of Bradford street, is being erected at the grave-yard of the old pest-house," reported the Milwaukee Sentinel.
"The excavations for the basement and foundations have brought to light a large number of human bones and skulls, nearly all in an excellent state of preservation. The city pest-house was located near the site in 1850. ... Old residents may well remember the cemetery, as in those years many of the graves were fenced in by low railings."
The bones were reportedly removed to another cemetery and that was that.
Or was it?
In 1950, the Maryland Avenue School was to get a new gym/cafeteria addition to the north of the oldest part of the school, the part where the bones had been found.
"A power shovel, excavating for a new addition to the Maryland Avenue school some weeks ago, turned up human bones and an almost forgotten chapter of Milwaukee history," wrote the Milwaukee Journal that year.
"Milwaukee Public Museum scientists and historians who examined the bones and started research into old maps, newspaper files and other historical data, found that the burial spot was once part of the Milwaukee almshouse farm. There, they believe, the dead were hastily buried in the great cholera plague which swept the community in 1849 and 1850. The recently found bones and bone fragments were only 18 inches below the surface, buried haphazardly in ditchlike depressions."
Excavations for the 2016 addition were fairly large and widespread, but no bones turned up during that work.
So it’s easy to see why the initial report last month noted, “It is unknown if the site where the bones were discovered belonged to an old cemetery or burial ground.”
In the meantime, the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s office examined the bones visually and determined them to be human, but also to be “extremely weathered and ... very old.”
When they alerted MPD to this, the department closed the case, seeing no evidence of foul play, according to Campbell.
“There was nothing criminal that was involved in it that could be ascertained,” said Campbell. “The logical deduction that there was some kind of burial there would lend itself that it wasn't a criminal act.
“The Medical Examiner got the Wisconsin Historical Society involved (as required by state law) and obviously the (site) work ceased at that point.”
On Wednesday, I visited the Medical Examiner’s office and Forensic Investigator Michael Simley brought them up in a brown paper bag. On the front was a simple sticker with a case number, bar code and the phrase, “Unidentified Human BONES.”
Spaces for date of birth, date of death and age were blank, because none of that information is known.
There was a tibia from a lower leg, and a fragment of what appeared to be another tibia. There was also a long slim bone that Simley said could be an arm bone.
Simley said the last bone looks like a skull fragment, and pointed out what looks like an eye orbit.
The bones were indeed very weathered and did look very old.
“You see the fractures,” said Simley, “which can happen over time because of the freeze-thaw cycle. Or maybe they were damaged in an earlier excavation. (The fractures) do not suggest foul play.”
There is much that could be learned from the bones – things like age, gender and more – but those details will remain a mystery because no further testing or examination of the bones is planned.
Instead, the basement wall work is complete, the hole has been filled and there is just the matter of a reburial of the bones of our unfortunate early Milwaukeean.
“We are following the further guidance of state law in the disposition process to determine next steps,” said Wisconsin Historical Society’s Director of Communications Kara O’Keeffe.
“Our team is currently in discussions with the school district to find a reburial location. Once a location has been established that will allow us to catalog the site so it’s protected in the future.”
If the bones are to be reburied on the school grounds, I'm hoping the entire community will participate in a ceremony out of respect for the deceased and as a means for teaching the students about the little slice of Milwaukee history they visit each day.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.