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A century later, another epidemic’s victims are remembered and reburied

Ellen Berkland, a state archeologist, stands at the new gravesite, still without a marker. of 19th-century smallpox victims in Mount Hope Cemetery in Roslindale.
Ellen Berkland, a state archeologist, stands at the new gravesite, still without a marker. of 19th-century smallpox victims in Mount Hope Cemetery in Roslindale.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

A mother and two children. A man in a corduroy jacket. A horsehair wig and a straw pillow. Crucifixes and a rosary. All buried hastily on a Boston Harbor island more than a century ago in simple pine boxes painted in red primer.

The names of these dead are uncertain, but their remains are among 50 victims of smallpox and other infectious diseases that have been removed from an imperiled, unmarked graveyard on Gallops Island and recently reburied in Boston’s Mount Hope Cemetery.

“These are probably the only people on Earth who have been buried twice during an epidemic,” said archeologist and project manager David George, referring to a 19th-century smallpox contagion in Boston and today’s coronavirus pandemic.

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The reinterred remains were removed from the most vulnerable graves in the seaside Gallops cemetery, about one-fifth of the total there. Several coffins had been exposed, and some remains were lost as storms and erosion chewed away at the 16-acre island, about 6 miles from downtown Boston.

“They’re safe now. They’re in sacred ground and they’re not going to be disturbed again,” said Ellen Berkland, a state archeologist who made it her mission to find a new home for the remains. “It gives you pause to think about what happened in the past.”

What happened on Gallops Island was filled with suffering and sorrow for these infected patients, who were housed and treated there between 1871 and 1902.

Some had been dispatched from Boston to the isolated Gallops hospital. Others were newly arriving immigrants, ordered off ships and quarantined on the island before they could reach the city docks. Many of them died in agony within sight of a new American home.

“These people had hard lives," said Berkland, who protects archeological findings for the state Department of Conservation and Recreation.

Moving the remains was the culmination of a yearslong quest to protect the cemetery from increasingly severe storms, rising sea levels, and creeping erosion. That battering has eaten away at a simple graveyard for an estimated 270 victims of smallpox, typhus, yellow fever, syphilis, and other diseases.

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The $579,000 relocation project excavated the first three rows of graves, and bought an estimated 50 to 75 years for the others, George said.

Berkland stood recently beside the new home for the remains, now covered by a topping of soil at city-owned Mount Hope Cemetery in Roslindale and Mattapan. A headstone is expected soon above the underground vault where sealed wooden boxes containing each of the remains have been buried together.

The section of Mount Hope where they rest is called Graceland. It’s peaceful and well-tended, like the rest of the sprawling cemetery that dates to 1852.

“Most of them were city of Boston residents, so they deserve a place,” said Thomas Sullivan, the city’s superintendent of cemeteries. “It just makes sense that they would come here.”

The serenity at Mount Hope is far removed from the struggle and heartache at Gallops, which is owned and managed by the Department of Conservation and Recreation. The island is closed to the public, but the state plans to restore and reopen Gallops in the future.

The coffins found there were simple, just six boards held together by wooden screws and nails. The boxes did not have handles, and there were no decorations. Many would have been made by prisoners on Deer Island, Berkland said.

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“They would have been buried in a hurry," said George, lead investigator and owner of Heritage Consultants in Newington, Conn. "Since the facility was run by the government, they weren’t going to spend a lot of money on the burials.”

Berkland and George had hoped to identify the remains and notify the descendants. Veterans would have been given military honors. But a 1906 city map of the graveyard — complete with name, age, and occupation of the deceased — did not correspond to what they found.

“It’s been known that that cemetery was out there, but no one had known exactly where it was. Everyone thought it was farther back,” George said. “But the island has changed dramatically.”

Instead of relying on the map for identification, the team used skeletal and other analysis to help determine gender, age range, and racial characteristics that included African, Asian, and European origin.

Signs of malnourishment and stunted growth were found. Notches in the teeth indicated some victims had been seamstresses or tailors, who would have held and pulled thread there.

"We had good preservation on some of the remains, and not at all on others,” Berkland said. “It was very difficult to give names to these people. We had hoped to cross-reference them, but it didn’t work out.”

The project was a collaboration of a broad array of government agencies. Berkland wrote the grant proposal in the wake of Hurricane Sandy’s damage in 2012. The National Park Service provided the money. The Massachusetts Historical Commission administered the grant on behalf of the DCR, and the state Environmental Police transferred the remains to the mainland, where they were stored at the city’s archeology lab in West Roxbury until their reburial May 15.

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For most archeologists, George said, “a project like this comes around once in a lifetime. It’s a rare look into the past."

With its poignant evidence of “something we as humans have in common,” the project is a compelling reminder of the leveling effect of death, Berkland said.

The headstone at Mount Hope Cemetery will reflect that common humanity. For 50 unknown and forgotten victims of a past epidemic, its inscription will end simply: “Resting peacefully again.”


Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.