Cincinnati Curiosities: Abandoned Graveyards

Cincinnati is just one big graveyard.

Dig almost anywhere around here, and there is a good chance you’ll find human remains. As Cincinnati grew, burial grounds located way out on the outskirts of town got swallowed up by encroaching development. Sometimes, new buildings were erected atop old cemeteries without even moving the bodies.

Cartoon of skeletons in a graveyard by E.F. Hurley.

From University of Cincinnati 1896 yearbook, “The Cincinnatian” (Page 187)

Most Cincinnatians know about the skeletons found recently under Music Hall. That iconic structure was built atop the old Potter’s Field. Across the Street, Washington Park occupies land once used as two “burying grounds,” one for Presbyterians and the other for Episcopalians.

The oldest recorded burial in Cincinnati took place in 1764—nearly a quarter-century before the first settlers arrived here in 1788. The discovery of this skeleton was a curious coincidence according to A.E. Jones, author of Extracts From The History Of Cincinnati (1888), who describes an old man sitting on the veranda of the Old Red Tavern, located just about where the Suspension Bridge now anchors to the north shore of the Ohio River. As he watched some workmen digging a trench on the riverbank, the old man got up and ambled over.

“Leaning upon his cane, he asked what they were digging for. They told him they were making a drain. ‘Well,’ said he, after looking over at Licking and all around him, as if getting the points of the compass. ‘Within six feet of where you are digging there is a man buried,’ and pointing with his cane said, ‘Dig right there and you will find it; if it is not rotten, you will find a bullet hole over the right eye.’ Rather to gratify the old man, than from any confidence in what he said, they dug where he had indicated, and sure enough, about three feet underground they found the skeleton, and the bullet hole over the right eye, in the skull; and the ball rattled in the skull when they pulled it up.”

It turns out the elderly gentleman had been a British soldier in 1764, some 60 years earlier, and had camped with his patrol on that exact spot when they were attacked by Indians in league with the French. One of his comrades fell dead and was hastily buried as the patrol made their escape.

That is hardly the only example of new construction displacing old graves. A brief squib in the August 22, 1851 Cincinnati Enquirer notes that “the old burying ground in the rear of the College building,” between Fourth and Fifth, had been sold to a developer who planned to erect a row of warehouses. Those buildings were later demolished and newer buildings constructed. According to the October 23, 1910 Cincinnati Post, many of the new buildings had curious souvenirs hidden in their basements or back rooms:

“Israel Ludlow, who platted Cincinnati, was buried in the rear of the building on Fourth-st., near Walnut, now occupied by Julius Baer’s floral store. A tablet erected to his memory is still standing in the rear of Baer’s store. . . . Headstones of other pioneer Cincinnatians buried in the Fourth-st. block, which was used as a graveyard early in the Nineteenth Century, are still standing in the rear yards of other business houses in the square.”

Skeletons have been found all over town. When the old Fourteenth District School at the corner of Poplar and Freeman was torn down to build what later became the old Sands Montessori building, a child’s coffin was dug up by workmen excavating the foundation. According to the Post [14 March 1911]:

“The lot on which the school was situated and on which the new school is to be built, is supposed to contain many coffins and bones. The Fourteenth District School was an old structure when it was torn down. It is supposed to have been built on an abandoned graveyard.”

When an insurance executive named Elliott Marfield built a mansion along Vernon near Oak (approximately where the Vernon Manor is located today) in 1895, workers dug up eight or ten skeletons, including some quite identifiable specimens, that had been interred in the old German Protestant Cemetery. The 1883 Robinson map of Cincinnati does not show that cemetery, but it does show another, larger Methodist Protestant Cemetery further west along Burnet Avenue, where a large city parking garage now sits.

Until 1905, the park at the corner of Madison and Erie was a graveyard, according to the Cincinnati Post [30 June 1905]:

“The fact that it was formerly a graveyard will not interfere with its use as a city park, however.”

The Cincinnati Commercial Gazette [21 April 1889] reported multiple skeletons in various stages of preservation when a subdivision was carved into the hills west of what is now Virginia Avenue in Northside. One skeleton was almost seven feet tall.

When Ashland Avenue was extended in Walnut Hills, quite a number of old caskets got dug up. The Cincinnati Post [20 April 1894] noted:

“The street runs through what once was an old graveyard, but which has been forgotten for many years. Older residents say that the burial place was known as the old English Graveyard. Two iron caskets, of oval bowl shape, were turned up by the plows.”

The entire block where Hays-Porter Elementary School is located was once two burial grounds, one for Protestants and one for Catholics. As early as 1886, workmen dug up nearly two dozen skulls and associated bones while preparing a cellar.

In 1911, Delhi Township held an auction to sell an old graveyard along Neeb Road. Since it was adjacent to the old Meyers No. 3 District Schoolhouse, the local school board bought it for use as a playground. Trampled by decades of young schoolchildren, this old boneyard now lies on the campus of Mount St. Joseph University.

And, in South Cumminsville, the wooded area south of Wayne Playground, where Dreman Avenue crosses the West Fork of the Mill Creek, was once the Friends Burial Ground. It fell out of use so long ago that a 1900 newspaper story says it was abandoned and used as a cow pasture.

This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities

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