Erie County Poorhouse Cemetery

For the capstone assignment this quarter, I chose to research the Erie County Poorhouse Cemetery. It seemed fitting to look into something close to home, and the site of the Erie County Poorhouse is actually within walking distance to my family home.

Figure 1: Erie County Poorhouse and Hospital 1896 (Tokasz 2017)

Today, social safety nets are taken as a given- unemployment, social security, and medicare are institutions millions of Americans rely on, but less than a century ago these services didn’t exist.

During the 19thcentury, the United States population exploded and the nation’s urban centers ballooned. Buffalo was no exception, and the 1825 opening of the Erie Canal ushered in an era of unprecedented industrial and economic growth (Goldman 1983:34). With the growth of industry and population came a similar growth in the number of disabled, unemployed, and impoverished. Old systems of localized care (usually run by families or parishes) were unable to keep up, and the new system of poorhouses promised to rehabilitate those in need.

In its 97 years of operation, the Erie County Poorhouse treated over 180,000 individuals(Ledgers 1861-1952). During that time thousands died and were buried in the Erie County Poorhouse Cemetery.

Figure 2: Hayes Hall 2002 (LaChiusa 2002)

In 2008, an infrastructure update on the University at Buffalo’s South Campus revealed human remains from the Erie County Poorhouse Cemetery, and following a 2012 NY Supreme Court order, researchers were able to excavate and study the remains. What they found gives us insight into the lives of people who are not mentioned in history books- the blue-collared immigrants who worked hard to make a life in a new country- the backbreaking labor they undertook to earn a living, the things they ate to survive, and the struggles they faced on a daily basis.

Projects like these help us reflect on our current society and help us realize our progress and our shortcomings. It helps us connect to the past on an emotional level and it helps us care about the people around us.


Goldman, M.

1983    High Hopes: The Rise and Decline of Buffalo, NY. State University of New York Press, Albany, NY.

LaChiusa, C.

2002    Buffalo Architecture and History: Hayes Hall.In University at Buffalo. Chuck LaChiusa with permission from the University at Buffalo School of Architecture and Planning, Buffalo, NY.

Ledgers, E. C. P. H.

1861-1952       Erie County Poorhouse Ledgers. Buffalo & Erie County Public Library, Buffalo, NY.

Tokasz, J.

2017 372 nameless dead, exhumed in 2012, are headed back to the grave. The Buffalo News. Buffalo NY.


Connections Through Cooking

For the digital story telling lab/ blog post, I chose to tell about how I developed a passion for cooking. With the assignment falling around Thanksgiving break, I knew I would be in the kitchen, and with an influx of free labor (my roommate’s little brother was visiting, so I convinced him to act as cinematographer/ camera-guy), I was able to get decent B-roll. I spent a good deal of time closed up in my closet and covered in a blanket in order to cancel out street and neighbor noise on the voice-over, but all in all, I’m happy with the final product.

On the Origins of Ordinary

When you think of a beer bottle, this is what comes to mind. It’s amber, cylindrical, long necked… Nothing about it should strike you as bizarre. It’s just a normal bottle. But that in and of itself is interesting, isn’t it? Why is this bottle the bottle? This particular example is from a time when this type of bottle was becoming the commonplace style. It is one of the first fully automatic machine made glass bottles. Based on the embossed mark on the bottom of this bottle, it was made my the F. E. Reed glass company, headquartered in Rochester NY, between 1924 and 1929. This is not to say that the bottle was manufactured in Western NY, though that would be a fun coincidence,

The bottom of the bottle reveals an Owen’s Scar- a telltale mark left by the machine that made it

as the F. E. Reed company had manufacturing plants throughout the United States, supplying breweries nationwide with bottles for their beers. The advent of the fully automatic Owen’s Machine likely helped perpetuate this style of bottle as the dominant beer bottle design, as the same exact bottle could be mass produced at each plant throughout the country. Just like beer bottles of today, the only difference between bottles around the country would be the label that was glued upon them, as time has torn away the label that was once affixed to this particular bottle, there is no way of knowing its true origin, but the magic of this bottle is not in its uniqueness but in its ubiquity.

Making the Most of the Macabre- Interpreting Grave Markers

As late October rolls around, bringing with it the Sleepy Hollow palette and a light chill to the air, it seems only fitting to do an exploration into one of the more spooky aspects of historical archaeology. Each member of the historical archaeology was assigned a plot of the nearby Calvary Cemetery and took data on ~15-20 grave markers. As much data as could be derived was gathered including size, shape, material, epitaph, dates, form as well as many others. For this blog, I decided to look at frequency of burial for each 5-year period from the earliest grave marked to the most recent to see if I could find any trends. With n=224, we should expect the data to be representative of the cemetery as a whole, but given that there was no method to stone selection outside the initial assigned area, there could be some misrepresentation. That being said, there are a few periods that stand out. The first large spike in deaths comes in the period between 1915 and 1919- a time that coincides with one of the most deadly flu epidemics the world has ever seen: the Spanish Influenza. The most impressive spike comes during the late 30s, and as a recent transplant to the Western United States, I am not familiar with any epidemic or natural disaster from that time outside the Great Depression, though I don’t know how the depression affected death rate either. The general increase in burials over time makes sense just as a function of increased population, for even though life expectancy continues to rise, no one has beaten mortality yet. All in all, this was a very applicable look at how historical archaeologists interpret data, and it felt good to remember individuals who passed away years ago, and pay them respects once more.

My Life as Oscar the Grouch

I may not be green, or furry, or a monster for that matter, but I did spend the last week living in the garbage. This isn’t everybody’s idea of a good time, but if Oscar can embrace it, so can I.

My Spirit Monster

In brief, my task was to look at a week’s worth of garbage from an anonymous individual and interpret it to try to get a look into this person’s life- what types of information can you learn from what someone has thrown away? Yes, this is legal- even if it hadn’t been voluntary (California v. Greenwood).

To be honest, there wasn’t that much that I felt I could accurately interpret from the trash that wasn’t immediately evident. It was obviously someone who ate meat, as there were chicken and bacon among the objects in the garbage. Yet, as this exercise would have been pointless if no one made any bold assumptions, I pushed myself to use a little imagination- I started small: this person probably has a car… I mean, they shop at multiple different grocery stores and visit different arts and crafts places- this would be a hell of a lot easier if you weren’t dependent on bus schedules. Next, I assume this person has long hair because as a short haired person, I have never had a need to throw away my hair. It conveniently flows down the drain never to be seen again. Growing up in a household with sisters and a mother, there was ALWAYS long hair in the trash- pulled from combs, brushes and the shower drain. The long hair was my first and only real epiphany. I’m sure for others the trash spoke volumes, sang even, but for me the trash mumbled and whispered. Could I assume this person’s gender based on what was in their garbage? Not really… there were no targeted ads that were thrown away, there were no diagnostic artifacts of sex or gender, and if the garbage isn’t going to tell me, I’m not going to assume.

One of the more striking outcomes of this study was the difference between my expectations of what one would throw away versus the reality of the assemblage I was given. My discard habits definitely influenced my ideas of what people throw away. The things I expected to see were the things I throw away on a weekly basis, but the things I saw reminded me that individuality is apparent in the garbage record- everyone throws away things unique to their identity, whether or not it tells who they are.


About Me- Alec

A totally not staged photo of taking levels…

For a first blog post, I think it makes sense to talk about what I know best- myself. I am a first year graduate student at the University of Washington, having just moved to Seattle from Buffalo where I was in the Master’s program at the University at Buffalo. I have been interested in archaeology since I was a small child, so younger me would be thrilled to find out that I’ve participated in excavations in Portugal, Spain and France as well as throughout Western New York as a member of the UB Archaeological Survey team. I am currently interested in Western Mediterranean archaeology of the first Iron Age.

Outside of archaeology, I am a huge Buffalo fan. This goes for our sports teams (go Bills, Sabres and Bisons!) as well as the city itself. We don’t have wildfires, hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, tsunamis, mudslides, avalanches, volcanic eruptions or other major natural disasters. Sure, it snows, but with the invention of the snowplow and salted roads, you hardly ever think about it. They say people who move to Buffalo cry twice; once when they find out they have to move to Buffalo, and once when they find out they have to move away.