Despite burial evidence in Lincoln, construction OK’d

Despite burial evidence in Lincoln, construction OK’d

Plymouth Archaeological Rediscovery director Craig Chartier lifts part of a headstone out of the ground next to the grave shaft he was hired to excavate last weekend, while second-year Rhode Island College anthropology student Shelby Munnelly looks on. (Breeze photo by Nicole Dotzenrod)

LINCOLN – Pieces of a coffin and two grave markers have been discovered by archaeologists excavating a grave shaft at the corner of a site slated for residential development, confirming that the boundaries of the historic Lincoln Cemetery No. 24 once extended well beyond its present borders.

Craig Chartier, director of Plymouth Archaeological Rediscovery, said the discovery that effectively halted the construction of a single-family home was, in fact, a grave shaft, albeit an empty one. The body buried there had been meticulously moved sometime in the past, leaving behind a singular clue to the person’s identity: a footstone engraved with the initials “L.S.W.”

“This burial was definitely opened up and moved,” Chartier told The Breeze. “When people move bodies, they always seem to leave things behind. In this case they took everything but the last inch or so of coffin wood, so they did a very thorough and efficient job.”

Historical records for Lincoln Cemetery No. 24 indicate that a number of gravestones had gone “missing” from the lot over the years, particularly the Keene and Whipple family markers. Last month, a number of the missing burials were discovered at Moshassuck Cemetery in Central Falls, where cemetery records indicate 20 bodies were disinterred from Lincoln Cemetery No. 24 in 1928. No person with the initials “L.S.W.” is listed on those records, making their identity the latest in a string of mysteries related to the cemetery.

The story began in March, when Charles Belshe purchased the property at the corner of Sprague Avenue and River Road from James Walker, with hopes of building a single-family home. At the time, neighbors and local historic groups expressed concerns, noting that the area slated for development was once part of the cemetery property that had at some point been plowed over.

Construction was halted in April after the base of a headstone was unearthed. State laws governing historic cemeteries forbid excavating within 25 feet of a historic burial. In accordance with the law, the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission advised that Belshe undertake an archeological investigation to confirm the cemetery’s true borders.

An archeological scrape of the site was conducted in May by Alan Strauss, director of Cultural Resource Specialists, with Walker operating the backhoe to dig through his former property. Strauss was searching for dark discolorations in the subsoil that would reveal ground disturbance, determining the presence of a grave shaft within the proposed foundation trenches. He found one such spot next to where the headstone base had originally been found.

Strauss reported his findings to the state, which responded that the grave shaft would need to be excavated to confirm whether or not human remains were present. If Belshe chose not to excavate, the feature would be considered a burial shaft and treated as a historic cemetery under state law.

Belshe hired a new team to excavate the grave shaft, tapping Plymouth for the dig conducted on June 7. In a span of a few hours, the dark rectangular stain in the soil gave way to a copper coffin clasp and nails, the bottom half of a large unmarked headstone and engraved footstone, plus the decayed outline of a wooden casket – but no skeletal remains.

“As far as this former grave goes, it’s all clear,” Chartier said. “We will advise the state that as far as we are concerned, (Belshe) is fine to continue construction.”

Chartier said he would advise Belshe to have an archaeological monitor on the site during future work to be sure nothing else is uncovered.

“There is always a possibility of unmarked burials in the lot,” he added, noting that his company’s permit limited his investigation to one grave shaft. “I don’t know how far the cemetery extends outside of its current borders.”

The possibility of additional burials was echoed by state officials, including Jeffrey Emidy, Acting Executive Director of the RIHPHC and deputy state historic preservation officer, who said there are areas of the parcel that “have not been excavated to examine them for unmarked burials. It remains possible that unmarked burials may be present in the unexcavated areas.”

Blackstone Valley Historical Society’s Cemetery Coordinator Ken Postle said BVHS strongly suspects the presence of other burials.

Chartier said property owners can learn a lesson from the case.

“Those who own a lot nearby a historic cemetery should keep in mind that historic cemeteries have ill-defined borders. Just because there’s a fence doesn’t mean the border is the same that it once was.”

The state is expected to recommend that construction of the house be allowed to proceed. With state approval, the project will be back on as planned.

Comments

Did these people not see Poltergeist?

Been feeling bad for months for the new owner who was just trying to make a living and being more than cooperative with the things being asked of him along the way, and still being villainized nonetheless. Happy to hear he hasn’t been bullied out of doing what he planned to do.

I just want to repeat here for the Public Record that reps of BVHS and the Town of Lincoln and the State of RI have been nothing but gracious with Mr Belshe, being under the assumption that we were dealing with an individual that simply bought a lot in good faith and wanted to make a profit building a house...In subsequent conversations where we instructed him and the former owner as to what we assumed were mistakes they made in Cemetery Law interpretation, we were gracious and suggested possible scenarios that involved maintaining the dignity of the dead and building a house free from restrictions for future backyard digging...
The present situation we find ourselves in has been brought about by a stubborn insistence that there is an inherent right to develop a lot where no relatives have cared for or "positively" known about the existence of possible human remains for a century...Imagine if a Native American settlement had been disturbed and that logic was applied...Since these are simply colonials and possible servants and former field hands we are conjecturing about, they don't have the same weight of care or protection due them...
As it stands now, no one will ever be sure that the concrete slab going in covers removed or occupied burial plots, but be sure that there are burial spots there...
Who wins here? Certainly not the family members looking for relatives and certainly not the new owners to be. They can't ever dig a pool or do any kind of excavating beyond basic gardening and who knows what may happen to the foundation slab-You know what Jesus said about building on shifting sand versus on solid rock...Sad...Learn a lesson folks..Legal isn't always right-Lots of stuff is legal, but not moral or right..This is why we are always on the hunt for where the lost yards are that are in the colonial records-We try to stay a step ahead of the loss of history..I have been threatened with a lawsuit for speaking out, but I know that there is an ultimate judge beyond this life whose idea of right and wrong I support,so bullies don't bother me..Please don't give up-There may yet be a surprise here, especially when utilities show up, but regardless get behind BVHS and the other Historical Societies and support efforts to protect our cemeteries...

I feel bad for developer, he was duped. Sold a piece of land that the seller knew about burials and in the past covered them up.

So why is he not halting and pursuing action against seller? Cause he wasn't duped and knew about the history? It is too costly to hire a lawyer to sue former owner regarding duping him in the same?

This is the developers livelyhood? He should know better when dealing with land near historical cemeteries.

Why is the developer who has money on the line allowed to pick the company to investigate? Seems like a conflict of interest. State should have approved companies for this.

It is unfortunate that the developer has to go through all of this when the previous owner was very aware.

It is also unfortunate that the next owner will likely have issues as well and the next owner after that, as long as someone is reminding the town and neighbors that there are possible graves located under and around this soon to be house.

Based on how long humans have walked this earth we are essentially all living on someones grave but for there to be documented proof that this lot was a cemetery, it seems ignorant to not do more.