New Castle County Hospital/Almouse Cemetery at Farnhurst The "Cemetery in the Woods"
Historical background. This cemetery is also known as the “Cemetery in the Woods” and is located mostly under the embankment built in the late 1950s for the I-295 ramp to the Delaware Memorial Bridge (the "FAI-1 interchange"). The graves that were not covered up by the ramp are located in a triangular piece of land at the southwest corner of the Holloway campus, in an area heavily overgrown with trees and shrubs. The eastern border of this area is the paved road known as Baylor Boulevard. Along the northeast-to-southwest edge of the triangle is a (currently under construction) section of the Wilmington to New Castle Greenway, and to the south is a partly paved road that runs along the fence bordering the bottom of the I-295 embankment. The entire DHSS Herman M. Holloway, Sr. Campus, including this triangular section of land, is part of a single parcel, #1000900007, with a street address of 1901 North Du Pont Highway, New Castle, DE 19720.
This cemetery served both as the burial grounds for people who died in the Almshouse and had no family who claimed them, and as the “Potter’s Field” for the indigent of New Castle County from 1894 to 1933, including unidentified bodies found in the county and stillborn infants, coroner’s cases, and a few other random people (like three members of the Frisby family, who were killed in a car accident nearby). The burials are indicated by small numbered granite markers, similar to the ones in the Spiral Cemetery, but laid out in long, straight rows facing east. The number of burials is not at all clear – different sources report anywhere from 2,399 to over 4,000, although the highest number recorded in the final death book was grave #2312. One newspaper report states that 85% of the original cemetery was covered by the I-295 embankment.
Various dates of interment are also reported. The cemetery was established when the Almshouse opened in 1884. One source says the last burial was 1923, but we know this is incorrect. The last "Death Book" from the Almshouse survives and is located at the Delaware Public Archives. It records the last burial as happening on September 6, 1933. I suspect that once the Moore's Lane Potters' Field near Swanwyck/Castle Hills was opened, no one else was buried in the woods at Farnhurst. The Almshouse itself closed in the spring of 1933, and the building and responsibility for the cemetery were transferred to the Delaware State Hospital. More research is needed to determine all the sources of the indigent population buried in the cemetery. No one seems to know what happened to the burial records for this cemetery except for the final book – they may have been destroyed in the fire that burned the building in the 1960s.
In 2007, and archeological survey was carried out prior to road improvements being made to Baylor Blvd. This is known as the "2007 DERET Report." 2007 – DERT REPORT OF PHASE I ARCHEOLOGICAL INVESTIGATIONS FORMER NEW CASTLE COUNTY ALMSHOUSE BURIAL GROUND DELAWARE STATE HOSPITAL AS PART OF I–295 IMPROVEMENTS FROM I–95 TO LANDERS LANE NEW CASTLE COUNTY, DELAWARE, Prepared for Delaware River and Bay Authority Route 295 and New Castle Avenue Wilmington, DE 19720; Prepared by Tod L. Benedict, Wade P. Catts, RPA, Katherine L. Farnham, Robert F. Hoffman; John Milner Associates, Inc. 535 North Church Street West Chester, PA 19380; In association with Rummel, Klepper & Kahl, LLP 81 Mosher Street Baltimore, MD 21217 January 2007. This is a detailed archeological survey and report. This is available from the state, or Kathy Dettwyler can forward a pdf copy.
From 2014 to 2016, Hal Brown and Katherine A. Dettwyler undertook, voluntarily, to try to determine who was buried in this cemetery. Over the years, many people have claimed that there were no records. It is true that most of the “death books” from the Almshouse cannot be found, but Kathy D. found the final one, covering the years 1926 to 1933, hidden in the Public Archives in Dover, mis-filed under a totally unrelated listing, which gives information about each person and their grave number. Additionally, Certificates of Death on file at the Public Archives tell where a person died, and when, and where they were buried. By searching the on-line records, Kathy D. was able to find many CODs where the person died at the New Castle County Hospital at Farnhurst, the COD was signed by the director of the NCCH (as opposed to being signed by the director of the Delaware State Hospital), and where the place of burial was described as “Potter’s Field” or “Farnhurst” or “Hospital Cemetery” during the appropriate years. Kathy D. put this information into a MS Access database, and Hal Brown used this database to create a www.findagrave.com entry for the New Castle County Hospital Cemetery at Farnhurst. We were able to identify over 1,100 of the people buried in the cemetery, and a separate Microsoft Access Database was created for this cemetery. Most of the burials from 1926 to 1933 have designated grave numbers, and a few others are specified by grave number on their CODs. A further source of information is www.newspapers.com, but no one has yet researched these on-lines files for more names. The facilities crew at DSH, under the auspices of John McDermott, helped Kathy D. clear some brush and trash from the site in 2015-2016, and also built a ramp across a ditch to the site, for easier access from Baylor Blvd., the road that leads back to the Baylor Women’s Correctional Institution.
It is clear from the death certificates examined to date that the majority of individuals buried in the Farnhurst Cemetery in the Woods were poor, old, single, African American men. One newspaper story claims that there are a number of Civil War veterans buried in the cemetery, but that has yet to be confirmed or refuted (it may have been referring to the Moore's Lane Potters' Field). There were also many many many stillborn or very young infants buried in this cemetery.
The last time the cemetery area was cleaned up was sometime during the late 1930s or early 1940s, when the Director of the Delaware State Hospital, Dr. Mesrop Tarumianz, was able to get WPA workers assigned to the task. By 1958, the cemetery was again neglected and brush-covered, and the State Highway Department decided to cover up most of the cemetery with the I-295 embankment. According to a newspaper report in the Wilmington Morning News on September 11, 1958:
“[The State Highway Department] intends to erect a marker near the freeway embankment indicating that beneath the tons of earth was once located the cemetery where almost 2,400 indigent men and women were buried. . . [Deputy Chief Engineer Miller] said, “The Highway Department will clean out what is not covered up and maintain that remaining area in good
As far as can be determined, the graves were promptly forgotten, no marker was ever erected, and the area was not maintained. Today, the area is overgrown with tree, shrubs, and vines; a falling-down fence surrounds part of the area.
Additionally, the area seems to have been used as a dumping ground for many tons of construction debris, household furnishings, and garbage, including a couch and a washing machine. It will take a major clean-up effort to restore the cemetery to the dignity it deserves.
Until recently, only a handful of individuals were even aware that the I-295 ramp had been built over a cemetery, and even fewer realized that some of the grave markers were still visible in the woods. Once these facts were brought to our attention by Hal Brown, committee member, the Friends of the Potter’s Field committee added the “Cemetery in the
Woods” to our charge for restoration.
Accomplishments to date. The following tasks have been accomplished for the Farnhurst Cemetery in the Woods:
An application was made to the state Cemetery Board to register the cemetery, which has been completed. It is not eligible for funds from the Distressed Cemetery Fund, however, because it is on State of Delaware property, and therefore should already be taken care of by the state.
Several committee members have trekked back into the woods to survey the area and see what work needs to be done to restore it. John McDermott and the grounds crew have done a lot of clearing of trash and brush, and constructed a ramp for access from the road -- making it possible to reach the site without wading through the drainage ditch.
Work has been completed on the death certificates from 1811-1933 (online through www.ancestry.com and www.familysearch.org) and on the Death Book (1926-1933) at the Delaware Public Archives. Kathy Dettwyler entered all these data into a searchable database, and Hal Brown put the information up on www.findagrave.com under New Castle County Hospital Cemetery at Farnhurst.
Priorities for the future. Another source of information about who might have been buried in the Cemetery in the Woods is the local newspapers from the time, which can be found online and are searchable, for anyone with a subscription to www.newspapers.com [Kathy Dettwyler has a subscription, but is currently working on her book about the patients at the DSH]. If anyone wants to volunteer to take on this task, please contact Kathy at email@example.com Future plans include trying to pin down who is responsible for the upkeep of the cemetery and lighting a fire under them to get the cemetery cleaned up and marked with a historical marker. Additionally, the names of the deceased buried here could be cross-referenced against various databases including the “US Civil War Soldiers 1861-1865,” the “US Colored Troops Military Service Records 1861-1865” and Russ Pickett’s “Delaware Civil War Memorial Project” to try to identify veterans.
In the fall of 2017, Faith Kuehn initiated steps to reactivate the "Friends of the DSH Potter's Field" committee to continue work on the restoration of Cemetery in the Woods.
Comments from Dr. Mesrop A. Tarumianz about the Almshouse Cemetery
Research at the Delaware Public Archives revealed the following comments made about the Almshouse Cemetery and the need for a new Potters Field in 1933 by Dr. Mesrop A. Tarumianz, recorded in the minutes of the monthly meetings of the Delaware State Hospital Board of Trustees, subsequent to the shutting down of the NCCH and the take-over of the land by the Delaware State Hospital. From 1933. #themorethingschange
Nov 2nd. 1933.
“On October 6th the New Castle County Hospital was abolished and we made arrangement to take care of 97 remaining patients, at the Delaware State Welfare Home’s expense. One wing of the building was thoroly (sic) cleaned, partitioned and put under a graduate nurse’s supervision.
“Price and Price surveyors of Wilmington, have completed the surveying of the property of the Trustees of the Poor of New Castle County that was transferred to the Trustees of Delaware State Hospital. The property includes an area of about 1 ½ acres, which has been utilized as “Potters Field”, this cemetery is in abominable condition. As I understand the commission of the Delaware State Welfare Home in Smyrna, will not take care of “Potters Field”. I recommend to request the Levy Court to purchase property near Wilmington, and create a new “Potters Field” for Wilmington and New Castle County. Also request the Levy Court to appropriate sufficient funds to fence up the present “Potters Field” after proper cleaning, refilling, draining and possibly planting some few trees, etc. in the same. In case the Levy Court will not agree to re-establish decent conditions in the present “Potters Field” I suggest the Board to authorize to spend the sum of $200.00 for this purpose.”
“Since it is the desire of the Board that the “Potters Field” should be located in a section apart from the Delaware State Hospital grounds, Dr. Prickett moved that the Building committee be authorized to communicate with the New Castle County Levy Court and the State Welfare Commission, regarding the establishment of a new “Potters Field.”
December 7th. 1933.
“As per your authorization the members of the Building Committee and your Superintendent met with the members of the State Welfare Commission and the representatives of the New Castle County Levy Court on Nov. 13th. Those present were, Mr. Gawthrop, Mr. Hall, Dr. Tarumianz, representing the Delaware State Hospital, Dr. Candee, and Mr. Metten, representing the State Welfare Commission, Mr. Speakman, Mr. Lester and Mr. Wigglesworth representing the New Castle County Levy Court. It was decided to establish a new “Potters Field” for New Castle County, far away from the State Hospital. The Building Committee and myself agreed to take care of all the requests for “Potters Field” until April 1st. thus giving the Levy Court and State Welfare Commission ample time to purchase land and establish their new cemetery.
Two newspaper articles from 1920 & 1993 about the NCCH/Almshouse Cemetery in the woods -- "Potter's Field -- Last Home of State's Derelicts: 1676 White Stones Mark Burial Spots of City's Derelicts" (1920) and "Potter's Field -- Final Haven for Friendless: County's Acre at Farnhurst Hides Life's Ghastly Failures"
Two newspaper articles about the Almshouse Cemetery published in the Delmarva Star, one in 1920, the other in 1933. Note that the second one repeats many of the same sentences as the first one! "Flotsam & jetsam . . . "
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