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100 bodies buried in a backyard: Is one a Medal of Honor recipient?

As the crowd broke up Saturday at St. Peter and John Episcopal Church in Auburn, Jim Buschman carried a wreath to his pickup truck. He had played a role in Saturday’s Wreaths across America service in this Cayuga County city, part of a national Yuletide effort to put wreaths on the graves of veterans or those who gave their lives in military service.

Buschman is supervisor of Soule Cemetery, a municipal graveyard just outside Auburn. He took a dirt road through the tombstones as far as it would go, then got out and walked through several inches of fresh snow. Buschman left the wreath at the grave of the man for whom it was intended: Lt. Robert Buffum, who earned the Medal of Honor for valor during the Civil War.

“I think about the people in each and every grave in that cemetery,” Buschman said, “and I think of him especially, because he was a hero.”

To Buschman, the quiet dignity of the service was especially soothing because events in the past few months have raised troubling questions:

There is a significant chance that Buffum, and potentially hundreds of other 19th and early 20th Century prisoners from a state prison at Auburn, are not buried in that graveyard, as they were said to be. That group also includes two convicted killers, tied forever to Western New York, whose names take on particular meaning in American history:

  • Leon Czolgosz, executed in Auburn in 1901 after he assassinated President William McKinley in Buffalo.
  • William Kemmler, a Buffalo man who became the first inmate to die in an electric chair when he was executed in Auburn, in 1890.

The official account of what happened to the bodies began unraveling over the summer. Eric Johnson II, a homeowner on Fitch Avenue in Auburn, uncovered human bones while doing some excavation work in his yard. City police responded, and their research determined that Johnson’s property – adjacent to the historic Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn – had once been part of a mass grave for Auburn prisoners whose remains had gone unclaimed when they died.

Johnson’s yard work uncovered what Robert Stoppacher, Onondaga County’s chief medical examiner, described as the remains of a “minimum number” of four individuals. The discovery triggered national interest because the site was where Czolgosz, a presidential assassin, had been buried. Lime and acid were poured onto his casket in 1901, in a garish attempt to discourage grave robbers.

The mass grave where Lt. Robert Buffum, National Medal of Honor recipient, is said to be buried in Soule Cemetery, Cayuga County: Are his remains really here? (Image courtesy of Anthony Lupo)

Supposedly, in the early 1900s, the state moved all the remains – several hundred deceased prisoners – from that plot to a mass grave at Soule Cemetery, a few miles away, when the Fitch Avenue property changed hands. After Johnson uncovered the bones, historians initially speculated that state laborers, working only with shovels and primitive equipment a century ago, accidentally left behind a few bodies.

Now it is clear: They left behind a lot more than just a few. The state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision sent a contractor to Johnson’s house to continue excavating – work that extended into November. Johnson said he was told the state found the remains of more than 100 individual prisoners in his small backyard, a number not so far from half of all the bodies supposedly buried there originally.

Corrections officials would not comment on a total. But Eileen McHugh, the Cayuga County historian, said Johnson’s statement offers an upsetting possibility:

“It would seem,” she said, “that would mean they never moved the bodies at all.”

If so, the result is that the remains of Buffum, Czolgosz and Kemmler could now be in one of three locations. They might still be buried in the property along Fitch Avenue, or at the plot where they are supposed to be interred, at Soule Road – or they could be in a state cemetery in Oneida County, where the state is taking any newly found remains. In response to the discovery in Johnson’s yard, state officials released a simple statement:

“During a recent Ecumenical service the additional unidentified remains removed from 63 Fitch Avenue were respectfully reburied in the cemetery at the Marcy Correctional Facility in Marcy, N.Y. DOCCS will continue to work with the city in the event that any more remains are discovered.”

The bodies were not only those of convicted murderers. They included any prisoners whose remains went unclaimed after dying of illness or old age. The Buffum story is particularly haunting for Buschman, a cemetery caretaker with a deep sense of history, and for Linda Townsend, a Port Byron social studies teacher who organizes the annual Wreaths across America ceremony in Auburn.

According to Townsend’s research, Buffum became one of the earliest Medal of Honor recipients – an award he accepted from President Abraham Lincoln – for his heroism with “Andrews’ Raiders,” a group of Union soldiers who took over a locomotive in Georgia in an attempt to destroy Confederate railroad lines.

Those soldiers were all captured. Eight were executed. Buffum was a prisoner of war, an experience he later described as “written on my heart, as if with a pen of fire,” in a court statement quoted in 1871 by The New York Times. He said he was chained by the neck and kept in “underground dungeons and metal cages” by the Confederates.

He was finally released in a prisoner exchange. While he would be presented with the nation's highest military honor, he soon requested a military leave of absence. His digestive system was ravaged by his imprisonment, and he fell into a spiral of alcoholism and mental illness. In 1871, he shot and killed the owner of a paper mill in Newburgh, according to documents kept by the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.

Buffum was given a life sentence. He was confined in a state mental institution, in Auburn. In 1871, he barricaded the door of his cell and killed himself. His remains were buried in the Fitch Avenue mass grave.

More than 140 years later, Linda Townsend said, it is clear that Buffum was a victim of post-traumatic stress disorder, the mental and emotional wounds that afflict many veterans who witness or endure wartime horrors. That was long before doctors had any idea of how to cope with the harm caused by that condition.

“He risked his life for his country,” Townsend said. “He touched the hand of Lincoln.”

While organizing the service, which always honors several local servicemen lost in wars overseas, Townsend told her students about Buffum’s life. She asked them if they thought he should receive a wreath, considering his service  and what happened after the war.

The young men and women said Buffum not only deserved a wreath, but that his fate was emblematic.

“What it shows,” said Braden York, 14, “is that once these (soldiers) come home, their struggle isn’t over.”

Linda Townsend, a Port Byron teacher, holds a flag that once flew over Lincoln's tomb. She sees Lt. Robert Buffum as a tragic symbol of post-traumatic stress disorder. (Sean Kirst/submitted image)

Townsend, unsure of how to contact Buffum’s descendants, asked Buschman if he would carry the wreath in the service. "He was overwhelmed," Townsend send. The Medal of Honor Society, in 1995, put a special marker on the mass grave at Soule where Buffum is said to be buried, after a long quest to find that spot. Buschman is always conscious of that importance. He often speaks of how he tries to care for each grave as if he had known the person buried there.

Now there is a significant question of whether Buffum, Czolgosz, Kemmler and hundreds of others are buried at Soule, at all, a question that might never be resolved. The remains found along Fitch Avenue have been moved to Marcy, and the excavations along Fitch may be over. Joseph Crawford, Johnson’s neighbor, has lived in the same house for most of his 71 years. His yard was also part of the plot once used as a mass grave. He said he stumbled upon human remains behind the house, when he was a child. The police came, and told his family to stop digging.

Crawford has no plans to ask the state to excavate his yard. The way he sees it, if people are buried there, they're best left alone.

Buschman, too, is less worried about a physical presence than he is about a memory. For years, he has done his best to make sure all grave sites – including those that rarely receive visitors – are mowed, weeded and treated with honor. Saturday, after the ceremony, he walked through the snow until he reached Buffum’s marker.

"I've got the utmost respect for what he did, for his service," Buschman said of Buffum. "The way I always looked at it, he was a hero out here, (buried) in the middle of nowhere."

Wherever he is, whatever happened, Buschman left the wreath for him.

Sean Kirst is a contributing columnist for The Buffalo News. Email him at seanpeterkirst@gmail.com, leave a comment below or read more of Kirst's work in this archive. As an addendum to this piece, here is the full statement Robert Buffum gave to a judge in 1871, as he awaited sentencing. As Linda Townsend would agree, it is 19th century testament to the emotional trauma of war:

This great and terrible war has fetched me where I know stand. But I don't regret my service to my country. Had I a thousand lives, I would give them. I was sent on a military expedition, and was in underground dungeons and metal cages. This is all I can remember, for it was written on my heart, as if with a pen of fire. I was chained by the neck and handcuffed, and nothing to sleep on but the stone floor. We were moved through the South into eight different prisons. Eight of my comrades were executed. Some escaped after years of privation. You are familiar, all of you men, with my history. I would say this, however, that I am as innocent as the child unborn, for I knew not what I did. It was a terrible thing to me. There is not a man for an instant would suppose I would do such a thing, when I had everything to lose by this. By my service to my country I have been made a pauper, a lunatic and a criminal, and I place myself in the hands of the Great Governor of all things, who knows all hearts.

The court heard the plea, and sentenced Buffum to life in prison. Thanks to Hobie Romig, a researcher in Auburn, for supplying The New York Times clipping from 1871, in which this statement appeared.

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