Really cold case

Scientists examine bones uncovered at a New Haven construction site.

Eight years ago, construction workers clearing ground for an expansion of Yale New Haven Hospital’s emergency room found a human bone on the site. After police determined there was no foul play involved, they called in Nicholas Bellantoni, then Connecticut’s State Archaeologist, who called in Gary Aronsen ’04PhD, who runs Yale’s Biological Anthropology Laboratories. The scientists found the skeletons of two men and two women. The four had lived and died in the first half of the 1800s in southwestern New Haven—known, then and now, as “The Hill”—and home to many working-class immigrants at the time. Many were Irish Catholics, and many were buried in the long-forgotten Christ Church cemetery, now partly covered by the hospital.

Aronsen assembled an international team of historians, geneticists, geochemists, and anthropologists to examine the remains; they reported their findings in PLOS One. The bones and teeth of all four skeletons showed signs of repetitive physical labor, relatively poor diet, infectious disease, tooth damage from clenching ceramic pipe bits between their teeth, and, in the case of one woman, low bone density, likely due to an early-onset estrogen deficiency. Surprisingly, the women and one of the men may not be Irish or English. “The chemical signatures and DNA of their remains point to births, and early lives, in central to southern Europe,” says Aronsen.

The lone Irishman, whom the researchers had labeled “B2,” gave the team a different surprise: his neck vertebrae had been broken in a fashion “consistent with death by judicial hanging,” Aronsen explains. “We can’t say for certain, but B2 might be James McCaffrey, a 37-year-old Irish immigrant who was hanged for murder in New Haven in 1850 and buried at Christ Church cemetery.”

The remains of all four will be reburied next spring by St. Mary’s Church in New Haven. Their discovery, Aronsen points out, shows that “the immigrant story hasn’t changed all that much. It was clear, in their bodies, that they were struggling.”

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