Many genealogists have found skeletons in their family trees, meaning that their research has revealed a so-called black sheep or some nefarious activity in their family’s past.
The city of Vincennes has hidden skeletons too, although not the proverbial kind. Any community as old as Vincennes has history buried beneath its streets. There are dozens of reports through the decades of both the 19th and 20th centuries of human skeletons being accidentally unearthed in both the city and out in the county. Most were found by workman who were undertaking some kind of construction project.
A number of these remains were obviously those of Native Americans (there are countless examples of the latter being inadvertently dug up in both Knox County and Lawrence County, Illinois). Some were likely the bones of early pioneer settlers, and others, due to their location and age, were unexplained, what locals suspected could have been long ago murder victims. These were the days well before modern forensic science, so there was no way for officials to learn much about the bones.
It will come as no surprise that some of the skeletons were found in what had been the old Frenchtown part of Vincennes, in the vicinity of, or under, the Old Cathedral. In the autumn of 1903, Thomas Richardville was excavating for a new furnace beneath the church when he came upon the skeletal remains of two children who were thought to be pioneer French residents. Some of the bones had already turned to dust.
On Nov. 18, 1920, employees of the Vincennes Water Supply Co. were working at First and Church streets when they dug up two skeletons that had only been about 30 inches below the surface. Those remains quickly began deteriorating when exposed to air. They were left where they lay, and earth was placed back over them. It was believed that this area had once been part of the Old Cathedral Cemetery.
On Oct. 23, 1933, a skeleton was unearthed on the grounds of the then under construction George Rogers Clark Memorial. Those bones, likely a Native American or a soldier, also quickly crumbled to dust.
Other skeletons turned up in unexpected places, leading to much speculation as to their origin. On Aug. 22, 1908, excavation was underway for a building next to Fred Marone’s Saloon at Second and Busseron streets, when a skeleton was found about 3 feet down. There was no sign of a coffin, but there had been trash placed above the body. No one could explain when or how it had come to be there, but conjecture was that it may have been a crime victim.
Today, uncovered human remains would be sent to a lab for analysis, but after that find was made, in a morbid act, the skull was put on display at Marone’s Saloon for patrons to see. It was one of three skeletons found in the city that year.
Sometimes long-forgotten cemeteries were inadvertently disturbed. In June 1939, Work Projects Administration employees were excavating in preparation for construction of the physician’s home near the Hillcrest Tuberculosis Hospital when a skeleton was uncovered. Evidence of a deteriorating coffin surrounded the bones. What was termed a “pest house,” where people with infectious disease were sent, had once operated at that location, so it is likely that an old cemetery with either no markers, or long since decayed wooden markers, was located there.
Another example of a mysterious discovery of remains in Vincennes occurred on Oct. 19, 1951. On that day, a contractor was tearing out the chimney of a home at 318 Center St. while digging a basement for a furnace, when he found the mummified skeleton of a baby in the base of the chimney. The bones were partly covered by a decaying blanket. Police were notified, but were at a loss to throw light on the gruesome find. The house had had several owners over time. The current occupant was Dorothy (Mrs. Walter) Daugherty. This find, too, went unexplained. As the Vincennes Sun-Commercial said: “The case is being written off as an unsolved mystery of the past,” which serves as an apt description for all of the bones that were discovered through the years.
Brian Spangle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.