Spring Street Memorial: Eulogy by Shannon Novak

This is the second of three eulogies that was delivered at the Spring Street Memorial, held on Sunday, October 19th at 4pm at the First Presbyterian Church of New York City.

Spring Street Presbyterian Church Memorial Service
Shannon A. Novak, Syracuse University
October 19, 2014
New York City

As a young boy, Samuel Hutchings was left homeless after his family’s grocery on North Moore Street was destroyed by a fire that spread from an adjacent bakery. In the winter of 1816, he remembered, “we removed to Greenwich Village, as the upper part of the city was then called. It was quite out of town,” he added (1894:9). Here the bucolic countryside was known for its clean airs, and served as a temporary refuge when epidemics swept through the city. Indeed, during a yellow fever outbreak in the summer of 1822, the Hutchings family was joined in the Village by thousands of other city-dwellers fleeing north. This time, many stayed and built a new community—a bustling neighborhood of working- and middle-class households of both European and African American descent.

No longer “quite out of town,” the Hutchings family occupied one such household on Spring Street, and became active members of the abolitionist church just down the block. In the spring of 1825, Samuel’s mother, Lois, died of consumption at the age of 57. Five years later (December 1830), his father Samuel would collapse and die, probably from heart failure, at the age of 70. Both funerals were held in the sanctuary of the Spring Street Church and led by the Reverend Cox. At Lois’s service, Cox preached “Be not slothful” from Hebrews. At the elder Samuel’s, it was “Enoch walked with God” from Genesis. Near the end of his own life, Samuel Hutchings wrote that the bodies of his mother and father had come to “rest in a vault under the lecture room adjoining the church” (1894:9).

Yet their rest, as we now know, would be disturbed. In December 2006, a construction backhoe tore through one of the burial vaults and scattered the remains within. Long before this, the coffins had begun to disintegrate. Many of them had been stacked one upon another, and much of their contents had already spilled out and mingled together. In addition to coffin wood and hardware, there were bits of fabric that had lined the boxes or shrouded the bodies. Personal effects were few, but included coins, buttons, hair combs, ceramic pipes, and decorated saucers; there was a wedding band, a false stone tooth, and a women’s switch (or hairpiece), attesting to concerns with the beautification of the body both before and after death.

Fifty three metal coffin plates were also recovered during excavation, and 37 of these were found to have legible inscriptions, including some names and dates. These dates tell us that the vaults were active between 1820 and 1846. The markers also tell us much about shifting mortuary practices at the time. Funerals were becoming more elaborate, with increasing attention to the individual identities of the deceased. Only some families in the congregation, it should be noted, had the means to sponsor such funerals and to purchase the coffin plates that allow us to name them. These families represented the city’s incipient middle class—the ship masters, merchants, accountants, teachers, doctors, and ministers who initiated and drove the many reform movements of the day.

One of these middle-class figures was the grocer, fireman, and street commissioner, Samuel Hutchings. Though no marker for Hutchings was found in the vaults, his remains were presumably among those excavated from the Spring Street site. In all, some 193 men, women, and children were unearthed there. Only a fraction of these people are named on coffin plates, but others are known from family stories and remembrances. The identities of most remain elusive. With or without names to guide us, my students and I have spent the past seven years trying to tease out stories—“biohistories”—from the skeletal remains. While analysis of our data is ongoing, and the DNA and isotope work is just gaining traction, I want to share a bit of what we have come to understand about the people of Spring Street.

To begin with, as a “burial population,” they are unique. The Spring Street skeletal series is the only large collection of human remains from New York City in the first half of the nineteenth century. This was a vital period of historical transition, marked by rapid urban growth, a rising tide of immigration, and the beginnings of industrialization. The congregation, furthermore, had a unique history of class and race inclusiveness, making Spring Street an ideal context in which to examine social variation, including inequalities in health and prosperity over the life course.

Of the 193 individuals in the vault, 70 died as children (less than 15 years in age). Three-quarters of these died in infancy or early childhood (under the age of 5). Of the adults, nearly half (43%) died before the age of 35. Yet nearly a quarter lived into middle age (35-49) and another quarter to older adulthood (50+). There are a few more adult males (54%) than adult females (43%), but the sex ratio is not extremely skewed. In this light, the people of Spring Street are rather ordinary, in that their mortality statistics are consistent with the city-wide patterns reflected in early municipal records.

These people are unusual, however, in their diversity. They show significant variation in labor and activity patterns, deficiencies and disease, ancestral history and geographic mobility. While some men and women are less robust in form, suggesting little strenuous activity, others show unmistakable signs of heavy labor. For example, there is 46-year-old Lewis Evens, who lived just around the corner from the church and died during the yellow fever outbreak in 1822. Evens was a cartman, a trade central to the mercantile economy of New York City. These men with their two-wheeled carts were ubiquitous around the docks and markets, and recognizable by their “uniform of a white frock, trousers, boots, farmer’s hat and long-stemmed pipe” (Hodges 2012:2). Evens’s body was shaped by decades of heavy labor. His arms and legs were bowed and his muscle attachments pronounced. His teeth show tobacco stains and even the wear facets from holding a pipe. These are the subtle textures of everyday life not always available in historic documents.

Some individuals had chronic or serious illnesses, including rickets, tuberculosis, syphilis, and cancer—conditions associated with the ills of urbanization. Sixteen-year-old Louisa Hunter, as David mentioned, suffered from an illness that began when she was a young child and flared up cyclically, as indicated by disruptions in the growth of her teeth and bones. This may have been tuberculosis, though other chronic infections could have been involved as well. An older woman, whose coffin plate was unreadable, suffered from breast cancer. Though she lived past the age of 50, her cancer had metastasized and spread throughout her skeleton by the time she died. Alongside such cases of chronic suffering, many other individuals at Spring Street apparently overcame serious afflictions to survive well into middle age or beyond.

While the remains tell us much about variations in health, they also suggest significant differences in ancestry and geographic origin. Morphological features of the bone, teeth, and hair suggest that people from diverse and distant populations had made their way to the city and were interred together in the vaults at Spring Street. Some were European immigrants, seeking new opportunities in the emerging market economy; others were descended from African slaves who had become New Yorkers by force. Such patterns are now coming into focus through the use of biomolecular techniques. For example, a young man about 14 years of age has stable isotope signatures indicating that he was a recent immigrant to the city. The food he ate and the water he drank are consistent with an inland, temperate region of Europe, such as the German or Slavic lands. A more specific determination of his geographic origin must await DNA analysis, which is still in process. Hair that was recovered when we screened the soil from the vaults has been analyzed microscopically and seems to be of African American origin, though again, molecular work will help us clarify such issues of ancestry.

Having sketched our emerging understanding of who the people of Spring Street were, I would like to conclude by considering who the people of Spring Street are. As the stories of these past New Yorkers become interwoven with our own, a new community of friends, students, and scholars has formed. Family descendants, Thomas Hutchings, Chad Hunter, and Frank Natrass, have graciously shared records and recollections. Then there are the institutional descendants, those on the Presbytery’s Spring Street Committee, especially David Pultz, who has been an outstanding advocate or our work. Archaeologists, Elizabeth Meade, Doug Mooney, and Tom Crist, provided the foundation for our studies at Syracuse University. There are the photographers, the radiologists, and the biomolecular specialists, including Jodi-Lynn Barta, Stephanie Gladyck, and Joan Coltrain. Finally, there are the many students who passed through my lab over the last seven years—some, who are here today. To us, the Spring Street remains are much more than scientific specimens. They have captured our imaginations and gathered a new array of people who otherwise may never have come to know one another. For this I thank and celebrate all of the people of Spring Street.

Shannon Novak