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People Inc., students restoring cemetery; Abandoned site is in Niagara County

An abandoned cemetery, where Niagara County once buried its needy and disabled in unmarked graves, will be cleaned up and marked, thanks to a human services agency and a college class.

Officials of People Inc. were on hand Monday as anthropology students from Buffalo State College began the task of trying to determine the exact boundaries of a graveyard, abandoned for a century, across from the County Jail on the Niagara Street Extension.

There is only one marked grave amid the vines, brush, saplings and poison ivy: that of a wealthy woman and her lawyer son from Newfane, who died of tuberculosis.

Also on the gravestone is an African-American man, Louis Spencer, who at his death in 1884 was believed by some locals to be the oldest man in the United States.

According to an obituary in the New York Times a few days after his death, Spencer, a former slave, claimed to be 115 years old. However, research published last month in The Buffalo News by Deputy County Historian Craig Bacon showed he probably was 86.

His connection to the other people on the marker, Sophia Wilson and Lewis W. Merritt, is unknown.

The county, which sold the land in the 1940s and repurchased the cemetery in 1993, believed the dimensions to be about 300-by-300 feet, according to James M. Boles, president of People Inc. Remnants of a stone wall can still be seen.

Nine students and two teaching assistants, under the direction of Anthropology Department Chairwoman Lisa Marie Anselmi and earth science professor Kevin Williams, will carry out their summer field program by looking for the borders of the burials.

Boles, who published a book about six months ago on how the disabled and elderly were treated by localities, said about 1,400 people were buried there.

The students are using a portable ground-penetrating radar unit, dragged along the ground, as Williams monitors the readings. Williams said the unit can't show the outlines of bodies. "We're looking for disturbances," he said. "It's probably five or so feet that we're going down."

The 120-acre property was once the home of the Niagara County Poorhouse.

In 1824, the state passed a law ordering all counties to establish a poorhouse, which was a place for the destitute, sick, mentally ill or disabled to be housed at public expense.

Niagara County opened its poorhouse in 1829 and operated it on the Niagara Street site until 1915. The grounds included a farm and a stone quarry.

In 1852, the county opened a "pest house," for sufferers of highly contagious diseases, where the jail now stands.

Most graves were marked only by an unengraved stone placed on the ground. Boles said he found several of them while walking the site last year.

Nancy Palumbo, vice president of People Inc., said Orleans Monument Co. of Lockport has offered to donate a stone bench that can be placed at the entry to the graveyard as a memorial.

Boles said the Sheriff's Office will assign crews from its work program, to which some criminals are sentenced instead of jail, to clean out the brush.

People Inc., which operates the Museum of disABILITY History on Main Street in Eggertsville, has become involved in restoring cemeteries connected to past treatment of people who today would be the clients of human service agencies. The Lockport site is the fourth.

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com