Plan to exhume graves will proceed

The St. Lawrence County Poorhouse Cemetery is visible at the top of the river bank, while two geese look for a nesting site along the  edge of the Grasse River.

CANTON — A plan to excavate about 16 graves from the St. Lawrence County Poorhouse Cemetery is expected to move forward this summer as planned, now that concerns raised by county legislators have been addressed.

The graves are in danger of eroding into the nearby Grasse River and the plan is to exhume the bodies, study them in a St. Lawrence University laboratory and then rebury the remains on a safer portion of the cemetery site off Route 68 outside the village of Canton.

After their March 27 meeting, some county legislators said they were concerned about the cemetery project spearheaded by Mindy Pitre, an assistant anthropology professor at SLU who plans to involve students in researching the skeletal remains.

Concerns were voiced about whether it was disrespectful to move the bones off-site and whether there were less intrusive ways to limit the erosion problem along the riverbank.

During a lengthy Powerpoint presentation Monday night, Ms. Pitre addressed the concerns, assuring lawmakers the entire project will follow ethical and professional standards. Legislators seemed satisfied with her plan, saying she allayed many of their concerns.

“I’d like to work together so we can kind of preserve this sacred site and give some dignity back to people who probably never had it. That’s the overall arching goal of my project,” Ms. Pitre said, noting she‘s been working on the project for the past three years.

“Everything will be done ethically following the state historical preservation office’s regulations,” she said. “I’m a scientist and I’m trained in ethics.”

About 596 people are buried at the site, with 111 having marked graves, she said.

“What’s really special about this site is we actually have the names of all the individuals who are located in the cemetery, which is great,” she said. ”Although we have the names, we don’t know exactly where they all are.”

The erosion problem is what sparked interest in the cemetery which is on the site of the former St. Lawrence County Poorhouse, known as the “county home.” Built in 1869, the large stone building housed poor people, including men, women and children from the local area as well as immigrants and those with mental illness. More than 600 residents were buried in the home’s cemetery. The home was torn down in 1978.

“It’s pretty obvious we have an issue at the site and I don’t think anybody in this room would argue otherwise,” Ms. Pitre said. “If we don’t act sooner rather than later people are going to end up inside the river so we have to do something.”

Working with teams of students between June 1 and July 15, she said it would take about three days to dig, expose and remove each body.

Ms. Pitre said she’s trying to get the site listed on the National Register of Historic Places. That distinction makes the project eligible for various grant funds.

Canton Historian Linda Casserly said she would like to see a monument and bench placed at the site at some point to memorialize those who lived there.

Based on her past experiences, Ms. Pitre said the burial boxes have probably decomposed and the bones will likely be fragmented because of the high level of water at the cemetery.

Legislators Kevin D. Acres, R-Madrid, David W. Forsythe, R-Lisbon, and Henry J. Leader, R-Gouverneur, all said Ms. Pitre’s presentation addressed their questions.

“I appreciate the value of your research,” Mr. Leader said. “You’ve put a lot of my concerns at ease.”

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