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.
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.
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.