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  • Mj Pettengill

The Poor: Lending Their Secrets, Part 5


Still Life Book, Flower

When I stumbled upon two hundred and ninety-eight anonymous graves in Ossipee, New Hampshire, my world would never be the same. Except for three graves, they are marked with numbers only.


My determination, combined with my research, unearthed the identities of two hundred and sixty-eight souls. In the early days of this journey, I was told that there were no records of those buried in the pauper cemetery. I went to the historical society, the local library, the town office, and the county courthouse. The consensus was that the records were destroyed in a fire. Go away.

While sifting through various historical records in the library, I realized that the best place to dig would be the town hall. The vital records may provide clues regarding the causes of death and offer a clear timeline. Committed to restoring these souls’ names, honor, and dignity, throwing in the towel was not an option. I am not one to give up easily.

I was given a free pass to visit the vault in the town hall. Naturally, it is overflowing with records, which is precisely where I needed to be. I looked in the Master Cemetery Index of Ossipee, New Hampshire Cemeteries and found many well-documented cemeteries. The pauper cemetery of my research is part of a section of a public cemetery currently in use.

Every record contains a detailed map, a list of each individual buried, and the corresponding plot number. Each cemetery is assigned a number. The adjoining public cemetery is referred to as #123, and there is a brief reference to cemetery # 123b. Unlike the other cemeteries, there is no list of people buried there. We are talking about a glaring blank page.

To locate cemetery # 123b, I turned my attention to map books. It was essential to validate that I was looking at the correct records. While leafing through the pages, I came across an eight-page list of # 123b County Cemetery. It lists the location as next to #123 Large Ossipee, Route 171, Map 20.

At first, I was ecstatic, but then the magnitude of holding the previously unknown paupers' names washed over me. Accessing real names meant that these people had become genuine, and I sensed them differently than before this discovery. It was a unique sense of relief.

The list contains the grave number, name, birthplace, date of death, and age. This experience offered an important lesson. Leave no stone unturned, as the right information may be tucked away in the wrong place. This was certainly the case for me.

I wanted to authenticate the data on this list, so I continued my research in the town’s vital records. The burials began as early as 1870, and the town records do not start until 1887. I had a seventeen-year time span to investigate. This was possible because the local funeral home—Lords, still in business today—was the source of records from 1870 until the present.

In 1887, beginning with grave number 101, the records are available through the town’s vital statistics. I matched the name, date of death, birthplace, and age on the list with the town records. The records are accurate and consistent. I also recorded any additional information available from the town records. Depending upon who the town clerk was, I obtained data regarding the deceased’s occupation and cause of death. Also, during some years, parents’ names were listed. This information was extremely helpful in weaving together a portrait of the individual with the scope of the culture and poor farm of Carroll County.

For instance, a woman might be listed as a mother of an infant and the father as unknown. It is reasonable to conclude that this woman was an unwed mother. I cringe to think of her wearing a gown of a different color to indicate her immoral status amongst her peers.

I was also able to comprehend the attitude—past and present—towards paupers. In some cases, under the occupation column, they were listed as paupers, farmers, or laborers. There is one woman referred to as an Indian Woman. (In the narrative, she emerges as Nellie.) The same holds true for the mentally disabled and the elderly. Sometimes, the cause of death was listed as senility, insanity, or old age.

When reviewing the statistical data, the results indicate that most of those buried in the pauper cemetery were elderly.

The majority of paupers buried in this cemetery were born in Carroll County and nearby communities. However, along with people from other parts of the country, there were immigrants. Due to the expanding Industrial Revolution and Reconstruction Era, it was common for immigrants to settle in urban areas. Still, some ended up living on the poor farm. This is presented in the statistical information provided in this study.

For unknown reasons, various people listed as buried in the pauper cemetery were mentioned in the funeral home records but not the town records. I distinguished my research origins and recorded the source being either the town’s vital statistics or Lord’s Funeral Home. This statistical data is provided in my research.

The intricacies and social response to this process is a book in itself.

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