Charity Hospital Cemetery No. 2: Archaeological Investigations from 2000s

In the early 2000s, New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (RTA) planned a route change to the streetcar line on Canal Street so that its terminus would extend to Canal Boulevard. By 2004, RTA  hired Earth Search, Inc. (ESI), a local cultural resources management firm, to conduct an archaeological survey of the neutral ground of Canal Boulevard pending subsurface disturbance in order to locate any historic properties eligible for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP), or related to the cemetery Charity Hospital Cemetery No. 2 partially excavated by UNO in 1980s. The human remains were brought to Louisiana State Museum’s Forensic Anthropology and Computer Enhancement Services (FACES) for processing and analysis. 

During the course of ESI’s archaeological work at Canal Boulevard, historians conducted a chain of title on the property and research from the antebellum period when it was established as a cemetery until the early modern period when it was converted into a travel lane. In light of this new intensive historical investigation, ESI historians discovered that the cemetery affiliated with Canal Boulevard was in fact Charity Hospital Cemetery No. 2.

Archaeological excavations within the neutral ground of Canal Boulevard confirmed that the entire expanse of Canal Boulevard had been used as a cemetery and that the burials had not been removed when the property had been converted to a road. In order to comply with State Burial Laws and Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NRHP), ESI recommended that RTA exhume any burials that could be affected by the extension of the Overhead Catenary System poles required to move the streetcar line’s terminus to Canal Boulevard. 

In total ESI exhumed ten burials. Most of the burials were of adults or teenagers. One of these burials included two wooden coffins, one for an adult and another for a child that appeared to be between one and five years of age. Another excavation exposed the burial of an adult positioned with one hand crooked over the torso, around which archaeologists documented osseous fragments of a child 1.5 to 2.5 years of age and/or an infant or a perinate 32 weeks to gestation.

The apparent care taken to bury and to position these burials belies the macabre condition of these remains. Multiple saw marks were observed on long bones, either from amputations from Charity Hospital, or autopsies from Charity Hospital’s medical school. Saw marks on cranial fragments and recovery of disarticulated skeletal remains were clearly the result of autopsies or post-mortem medical experimentation. Additionally, laboratory analysis of these ten burials subsequently identified a total of twenty-three individuals across them. This comingling of remains were likely the result of multiple episodes of interring old burials to make room for new burials, in addition to the placement of foreign limbs from amputations into the coffins of the dead by Charity Hospital staff.

Remains were also affected by the physical transition of the space from its use as a cemetery to a roadway. Burn marks on skeletal fragments were noted in one burial that had been disturbed by the installation of sewer and water pipes, likely in conjunction with the extension of Canal Boulevard in the early twentieth century. Almost the complete cranium of this same burial had been separated and displaced underneath the waterpipe. Another burial located near the utilities had been soaked in what smelled to be creosote, a caustic and toxic chemical widely used during the early twentieth century. 

The artifacts recovered from this site accentuate the indignity that came from the property’s later use as a dumping ground after the cemetery officially closed. Few artifacts were recovered from the burial soils themselves other than white-prosser buttons from undergarments and coffin hardware. Of these, there were only two metal pieces recovered: a saints medal and necklace medallion, neither with clear inscriptions. In stark contrast to the paucity of artifacts recovered from the burial soils, the layer above that was saturated with garbage from the early-twentieth century.

Charity Hospital was a critical resource for the city’s poor and marginalized people who had scant access to health care or proper burial services otherwise. Over the years it was in use, it is estimated that nearly 50,000 people were buried here. While some of the names of the dead were recorded, there has yet to be located any spatial markers to find where they were buried. Even the boundaries of Charity Hospital Cemetery had been all but forgotten over time. As Charity Hospital Cemetery No. 2 transitioned from burial ground to dumping ground to boulevard, most of the people once interred beneath still remain.