The Skeletons of Lagrange Street

Salem is a place where everybody always says that the “past is present” or something to that effect; one discerns the ongoing presence of the past in the old structures and streets and cemeteries. That used to ring true for me, but not so much anymore. I still have a sense of Salem as a palimpest city, though: with layers and layers of history beneath my feet, reinforced when I walk by one of the seldom-ceasing infrastructure projects downtown and see all the cobblestones that lie beneath. I often think of Salem in the nineteenth century, when there was so much new but also so much more old all around, as a time when people must really have been aware of the past in a material way because of the contrast: the factories were so big and noisy and the surviving relics of the “olden time” so decayed, rather than perfectly preserved (if they survive) today. And it seems as if every time one of those relics was demolished for new construction, more relics were found underground, sometimes human remains. Nathaniel Hawthorne has a story in one of his notebooks of a skeleton that was found, in parts, underneath High Streeet, identified by one of the older residents of the neighborhood as a Frenchmen who came to town. It was a notable, but not a shocking, discovery: I perused nineteenth-century Salem and Boston newspapers and regular reports of skeletons uncovered in Essex Country appeared fairly regularly, generally presumed to be Native Americans. Even early in the century, Salem’s great diarist, the Reverend William Bentley, ran over as soon as remains and “curiosities” emerged from the soil: to Winter Island, to Northfields, and to Southfields. Over time, the majority of the reported skeletons of Salem seem to have surfaced in a pretty specific area: in South Salem, along Palmer’s Cove, on a street that was called Lagrange in the 19th century and is now Leavitt. Here is the unfolding tale of their uncovering:

So, some awareness that there might have been an Indian Burial Ground in what was then Southfields as early as the 1850s, and a succession of extractions from 1809 on with no apparent effort to protect the site. Of course not, this follows in the tradition of founding father Thomas Jefferson, who conducted an archaelogical dig adjacent to Monticello even as he noted local Native Americans making “sorrowful” visitations, and Surgeon General Joseph K. Barnes, who directed U.S. Army medical officers to collect the skulls of Native Americans in 1868, so that the craniological collection of the Army Medical Museum could facilitate “the progress of anthropological science by obtaining measurements of a large number of skulls of the aboriginal races of North America.” Later in the nineteenth century, the pseudo “race sciences” of phrenology and eugenics continued to justify this competitive collecting. The reference above to the Essex Insitute’s possession of an infant skeleton is not surprising, given that one of its founding institutions was the Essex County Natural History Society. It’s my only clue as to where any of these skeletons might have wound up (so far), but it is leading me nowhere: the Peabody Essex Museum’s 2018 completed inventory of human remains and associated funerary objects (in compliance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act or NAGPRA of 1990) does not reference remains from the Lagrange area specifically. The inventory includes “the physical remains of 45 individuals of Native American ancestry” taken from sites in Salisbury, Newbury, Ipswich, Gloucester, Marblehead, Revere and Salem. The Salem remains were taken from an “old cistern in Front Cellar in 1993” (????) and south Salem, so this could be Lagrange Street: the cranial fragments unearthed from this site apparently belonged to a teenager. It looks like one skeleton (in the 1892 clip) simply dissolved in the open air, but I am curious about how the rest of the remains were treated, and what became of them. My only remaining thread is intrepid medical examiner Frank S. Atwood, who seems to be taking the remains into professional custody, at the very least. Called to the scene of yet another discovery at the corner of English and Essex Streets in 1909, it is reported that he ordered their burial elsewhere. In just the past year or so, several unmarked graves of African-Americans have been identified and restored, and I’m wondering if that is within the realm of partial possibility for these earlier, displaced, settlers of Salem.

Lagrange Street on the 1911 Salem Atlas: in three years all this would be swept away by the great Salem Fire, and then rebuilding, again.

9 responses to “The Skeletons of Lagrange Street

  • Nancy

    Fascinating article, Donna! I’ve been working on an historical mystery for the last few years, and have learned much about the treatment of historical bones. Some of that history is tragic, but we have come quite a way in forward thinking. “Don’t it always seem to go—that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone? They paved paradise and put up a parking lot…”

  • Nancy

    Yes, I believe it stemmed from finding the Kennewick Man, a 9000-year-old skeleton in Washington state, inciting a two-decade power struggle between scientists and tribes claiming him as an ancestor. Thank goodness it spurred into existence the Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Nevertheless, our thinking still has a way to go.

  • Patti Maclay, MD

    Hi Donna,
    I follow and love your blog!
    In way of introduction, I am on the Steering Committee of the American Friends of Lafayette who will be hosting the Bicentennial of Lafayette’s Farewell Tour 1824 – 1825.
    First question: Do you know if Lagrange Street was named in honor of the Marquis de Lafayette during or immediately after his visit. He visited Salem on August 31, 2024.
    Second question: If you know of or might be interested in joining our Committee working to commemorate his visit to Salem, please LMK. Our plan is to reenact and celebrate his Tour following the exact date he visited cities and towns across the then existing 24 states.
    Vive la Lafayette!

    • daseger

      Hello Patti, I’m not sure about Lagrange, but better: it runs into the main street called Lafayette after his visit! Lots of Lafayette interest here: I connect you to several people and our Federal Assembly Hall, Hamilton Hall, hosted a reception for him: that board might be interested in getting involved–I’ll reach out.

  • az1407t

    Interesting! Does anyone know why the street name was changed?

  • Nanny Almquist

    Thanks Donna,
    Dr Frank S Atwood was my grandfather, Maurice Machado Osborne’s, uncle by marriage being married to Alice Osborne, Theodore Moody Osborne’s younger sister. So fun to see a reference to my extended family in your column. But more importantly when are our museums and institutions going to return all Native American remains so that they can properly be reburied?

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