SHORT: A MASS GRAVE DISCOVERED IN MICHIGAN

People were dying in horrible ways.

Riley Johnson climbed to the top of the town’s telegraph tower and jumped.

Erick Kailenen cut his own throat with a razor.

Charles Edwards gruesomely drank carbolic acid, an extract of coal tar, which burned him from the inside out.

Alexander Jeston was found hanging in his home.

Something had gripped the small canal town of Sault Ste. Marie in the early 1900’s. People were suffering. An unexpected and unseen force had descended upon the citizens causing them to behave in strange ways. Those who survived couldn’t or didn’t know how to properly care for the ones in torment. They did their best with what they knew and had to work with.

The unseen force that gripped Sault Ste. Marie back then was not much different from what you and I face today. Life. Some thrive. Some don’t. We don’t always know why.

Riverside’s mass grave is now covered by trees and tall grass.

These are some of the sad stories of those discovered buried in Michigan’s mass grave in the Upper Peninsula. If you had no family or money in the early 1900’s, the county dumped you in an unmarked pit, a Potter’s Field reserved for what was considered, back in that day, wasted lives of society.

Riverside Cemetery just outside Sault Ste. Marie has 282 such stories. Life was tough a century ago in the U.P. Death often came hard. If you dig into the town’s records, you can find out who some of these destitute, forgotten and abandoned people were.

Joseph Caruth, a 45-year-old lumber camp cook, got drunk one cold night in 1902 and froze to death after stumbling out into the woods passing out.

Anton Anderson, a 35-year-old loner, drank tainted water and died of typhoid, alone and miserable in 1904.

James Christiansen, a 64-year-old Danish immigrant, felt such despondency during the Great Depression that he hung himself in full public view at the main gate of the canal. What care and attention he couldn’t get in life, he got in death.

There is nothing but sad stories here. These are not good lives with peaceful ends. Those buried in this mass grave were alcoholics, criminals, suicides, and poor – hard lives with a bitter end.

Several unnamed men burned to death when they were too drunk to leave a burning saloon. The firemen unmercifully told the newspaper they even looked drunk after being found burnt to a crisp.

Some were just accidents, clicking a full chamber in life’s Russian Roulette, with nobody to claim them upon their unfortunate end. Into the pit they went.

Laughlin Mcdonald crushed by a falling tree.

William Potter smashed by a train.

Everette Sellender blown up lighting a dynamite fuse.

Peter McGregor fell off a ladder and split his skull.

And then there are those who didn’t even have a name. Despised in life and erased from all memory forever. Twenty-five people without identity or history other than a brief notation and part of the jumble of bones in the shifting ground of Riverside’s mass grave.

A strangled baby.

A suicide at the hotel.

Corpses fished out of the canal.

Two dead men with no clear cause of death.

Many of those buried here were immigrants who heard the stories of America and came seeking a better life, sending letters to their hopeful families back home. And suddenly, the letters just stopped, forever, leaving no clue about why.

Annie Hendereckson’s husband bashed her brains in one night in 1913. With him in jail, there was no money for a proper burial.

Jessie Sutherland died of heart disease in 1896. The newspaper bluntly described her as a “common drunk.”

Frank Rickly drank way too much one night in November of 1903 and laid down on the railroad tracks. A train ran him over.

A plaque has now been erected to remember those buried there

Whatever they had become, however they were judged at their end, at one point they were somebody’s son, daughter, sister, brother, friend. They were loved and knew love. Their hopes, dreams, and yearnings for relief and better things were the fabric of what kept them going – just like you and me. But, one thing then led to another, as things always do, and before they knew it, they looked back not quite able to figure out how things had come to this.

It’s not much different from what you and I face today. Life. Except with heightened awareness of such human conditions and increased social connectedness, we do better. But even at that, we still struggle with isolation, some more than others. It shows.

If we can look back with hearts breaking even just a little for the tragic souls of Riverside’s Potter’s Field, maybe we can find it within ourselves to look around us now and see what we can do. After all, if we’re not in this together, we’re not in it at all.

Note: That we know anything at all about those buried in Riverside’s unmarked Potter’s Field is due to the hard work of Soo local historian and author Caroline Grabowski. I first became aware of her effort in a Detroit Free Press article. I encourage you to read more of the story here.

18 comments on “SHORT: A MASS GRAVE DISCOVERED IN MICHIGAN”

  1. P. Rich Bigelow says:

    Why is Sault Sainte Marie not spelled Correctly? As a As As a native of Sault Sainte Marie, or abbreviated Sault Ste. Marie, I wince every time I see that someone who has not bothered to check spells my city’s name incorrectly. I do know about the Riverside Potter’s field and I took Caroline Gravowski’s cemetery tour. My husband and I helped her with research.
    So please , make the necessary corrections so that your intro will be more credible.

    1. dmarrin@sbcglobal.net says:

      Thanks! All corrected! I actually typed out “Sainte” intentionally because I thought it would be easier than the abbreviation for the folks following me in countries where English is a second language. I was waffling over which way to type it and your comment made the decision for me. Thanks for taking the time to say something!

      1. Tina says:

        There’s still a misspelling (Saint) early in the article. Thanks!

      2. John Beatty says:

        Sainte is a French spelling and is usually used for writing about female saints (like Sainte Marie).

    2. kanedizzle08 says:

      what do you mean I grew up in sault ste. marie and it is spelled right

      1. dmarrin@sbcglobal.net says:

        I originally wrote out “Sault Sainte Marie” instead of using the abbreviation. I did thinking it would be easier for people in other countries to read. But when P Rich Bigelow commented on the spelling, I saw the point and agreed. I edited the correct spelling.

    3. greg Dean says:

      You need to “check spells” yourself.

  2. Sallie showan says:

    Where is this cemetary located in Sault Ste Marie?
    Thank you.

    1. dmarrin@sbcglobal.net says:

      Riverside Cemetery is located on Riverside Dr between 3 Mile Rd and 4 Mile Rd. The unmarked graves are designated by a plaque listing those buried. I know there have been tours available by the local historian who discovered there was a Potters Field there.

  3. Steve Charles says:

    The stories of those buried in the potter’s field is a fantastic piece of research, but I think “Discovered” is the wrong word. It was never really lost. I worked at the cemetery approximately 25 years ago and everyone knew about the potters field at that time.

    1. John Beatty says:

      I agree with that assertion. Perhaps, “heightened awareness of” would have been a more accurate verb?

      1. dmarrin@sbcglobal.net says:

        I’ve been thinking about Steve’s point and it is fascinating. From the comments so far, folks familiar with the area have always known of the Potter’s Field, which I and others assumed was a “discovery.” I guess that’s where the word came from.
        But to your point, maybe “rediscovered” or “revealed” would be more accurate. I’ve gotta think it through.
        I appreciate all these comments because stories are always collective efforts and these addendums add to the richness and depth.

  4. Jonny says:

    There is a mass Grave in Brooklyn Michigan. They found an old burial site when moving the highway. They relocated all of them.

    1. dmarrin@sbcglobal.net says:

      That is really interesting and provocative. I wonder how many such burial sites have been found or lost. That would be an interesting history. Thanks for posting.

    2. Kathy says:

      I live near Brooklyn and never heard of this. I’m intrigued! Any other info off the top of your head?

  5. Michael says:

    I lived in sault ste. marie all my life and never knew of this history. knowing the extreme conservative and shunning of anything new, you have to have had a connection politically to get ahead, so it probably depressed them all.

  6. Mary Godfrey says:

    I was told that the creek in Pine Grove cemitary is where they threw the babies that where unclaimed. The cemetery on ashmun was bigger they removed head stones and paved over the graves. All the cemeteries have some stories attached to them. I always knew about Potter’s field my mom told me about it.

    1. dmarrin@sbcglobal.net says:

      Wow. That is one shocking and sad statement. Things like that always startle me into thought about our human condition, theirs then as well as ours now. Thank you so much for your comment Mary.

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