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  • Writer's pictureMj Pettengill

The Book of Numbered Souls

Updated: May 17, 2022

Gothic, Angel, CC0
Gothic, Angel, CCO

We have always been faced with the challenge of what to do with the bodies of those unclaimed—the ones who, for whatever reason, ended up on the wrong side of the fence.

Today, many are intrigued, longing for more information surrounding the history of mass burial grounds in New York City, across the country, and around the world. Who are these people, and where do they belong?

Witnessing these scenes brings about a shared cry of horror. We live in an era when we can watch live news. How could this be? You might ask. It is impossible to forget and too painful to remember.

This is not new. It is a common occurrence in our history. Sometimes, we must face the difficult task of burying unfortunate victims. A simple recording of names and telling of stories is where I come in. It is called acknowledgment. Even if you disapprove, documentation of one’s life and death is a fundamental responsibility. We are all someone’s child.

I did not set out to become an expert on paupers’ graves and poorhouses. It just happened.

How? Several years ago, I came across a cemetery in rural New Hampshire that has 298 numbered graves. It sits on a hill—a brownish-green wasteland—dry and infertile. It is separate from those named and remembered, who earned their eternal place on the other side of the fence, resting well behind clearly defined boundaries. Those unnamed could not overcome the obstacles in life any more than they could in death. But the fence—old and sturdy—serves its purpose well.

If only I could surrender to uncertainty, I would. However, it was not meant to be. Walking away was not an option. The numbers imprinted on me, merging with my own blueprint. I was forever changed. 

As a Civil War musicologist, research is not new to me. I did not set out to discover this place—these people. It was they who called upon me. I not only answered, but I also embraced the call. That’s how it works in my world. With each new discovery, the pauper cemetery, with all of its soft lichens and moss-covered earth, transformed. It had unexpectedly become my path that was waiting all along.

Upon viewing this burial site in all of its anonymity, I could not shake the sense of torment that washed over me. To me, it was clear—most profound—to re-member these forgotten souls, to reclaim their voices and take into account those who tended to them. How long ago we, as a community, turned our backs on them. 

Somewhere in time, we got lost, having neither mind nor reason. No one bothered to look or ask. It’s common for people to say that they lived near that cemetery for decades, but never stopped or looked. They may have seen it, but had somehow, unknowingly, abandoned their instincts. When someone, such as myself, seeks answers, in the maze of the system, we are quickly separated from our intuition. The light within is extinguished. We try to see in the afterglow, often forgetting what we came for. Not me.

I went to the relevant institutions to enquire about the identities of those buried there. The resistance was unmistakable, immediate, and powerful. I was told not to bother with it because “the records burned in a fire.” 

However, they (I refer to them as gatekeepers) did tell me that they were paupers, known as inmates, of the County (Poor) Farm.

At that time, the county records and the local historical society, located in this particular town, were either inaccessible or of no use to me. I had permission to look in the “vault” in the town hall. That was where the treasure laid in wait. 

First, I checked the master cemetery indexes. All cemeteries in the town were listed, providing grave numbers with corresponding names. Like the other cemeteries, this site was recorded with an ID number and address, but the page was blank.

I couldn’t give up, and I immediately felt a harrowing ache and what I can only describe as a hand pressing down on my chest. Finally, I came across papers tucked away in old property tax assessment records. There were 268 names listed. I determined that they were paupers, or inmates, buried there beginning in 1870. Well-kept funeral home records preceded the town records and did, in fact, make the discovery possible.

I cross-referenced the names with other appropriate sources. I was able to piece together many stories. Not only driven to restore names, I was also curious about what a poor farm was. Up until that time, there were so many lessons unlearned. Even now, my days are full.

This study became my culminating thesis at Vermont College. I was so immersed in this topic and part of our history, that I left my music career. My Civil War presentations shifted to life on the County Poor Farm.

The original piece was non-fiction. Social Narrative was a better avenue for giving voice to those who, along with their names and stories, were silenced and buried in anonymous graves. I emphasize acknowledgment over judgment.

The primary voice is that of a seventeen-year-old, unwed mother, Abigail. Another is a 100-year-old Native American woman, Nellie. The male perspective, also representing the establishment, is a young “farm boss” named Silas. 

Research and character sketches of people at the poor farm inspired the narrators. My intention was to reach a broader audience, restoring life to those whose crimes were that of poverty, old age, disabilities, being orphaned, and more. We have seen today, now, that many conditions continue to plague us. We have not yet figured it out. Where do we go from here?


A choice to go with a particular, small, independent publisher went wrong. I ended up self-publishing. This became a massive lesson. I am talking about the mother of all assignments (for me) in the writing world. The role of an indie-author is a challenge in many ways. It is not for the faint of heart.

So, at first, Etched in Granite was a stand-alone novel. Still, there are so many stories buried beneath these anonymous graves, I continue. I penned The Angels’ Lament-Book Two, and Down from the Tree-Book Three. The fourth book is being crafted now.

The process from the discovery of the cemetery to when the monument was placed, is a book in itself. I may pen this experience one day. Many have suggested that I do. The focus is cultural, intergenerational, and historical trauma integration. It took years for the names of the paupers and poor farm life to be revealed, tolerated, and allowed into the conversation. 

The fear, shame, guilt, and sorrow have been wired collectively and individually into the community for over 150 years. Being able to look, discuss, and acknowledge the paupers, the establishment, social welfare, and the burial grounds, are essential in transforming that which is often unknown yet deeply integrated. 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Getting back to the mass burial site in New York City. In The Angels’ Lament, the male narrator, August Wood, grew up in the streets of New York, where all eyes are on today. He escaped from such an island and was well aware of the goings-on there. He was an orphan, dropped off on the doorstep of a church when he was a baby. 

As sad as it is, these experiences strip you to the bone. It is beyond time for us to view our history. Now, we cannot run and hide from the more than one million people buried in that place that has been revealed to us on the news.

After the release of the first book, I had a memorial placed at the site. I raised funds for the crafting of the monument. It was put in place to identify the people buried there. Once again, I had to go through a fair amount of bureaucratic red tape to get it done. I continued to face opposition up until a week before it happened.

I was able to obtain a large piece of granite from the ruins of the foundation of the original “Farm.” Once the commissioners and others finally did allow themselves to get past their suspicion—collective fear and shame—it was a healing experience (on a variety of levels).

I have a great deal of support from many readers with diverse backgrounds who have championed my research and writing. However, I tend to stay quietly nestled in the wilds of New Hampshire, deep in the woods. I write, play music, and make plant medicine. As I have explained over the years, I’m a perennial hermitess. 

My work has touched the lives of many. Several people have found relatives who were missing from their family trees. I provide names at the end of the book, and I also list them on my website. I have inspired other groups to do similar projects with their local poor farms (state, county, and town).

We must care about the world that we live in. We can and should be brave enough to actually see it. If we do not seek to embrace it, all it will offer is emptiness. We can and must do better. It is time.


 c. 1870 —

Beyond the mournful numbers, lie no more grief or fear. 

No sad or sweet thoughts linger, for those who slumber here.  —MjP


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