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Skeletal Remains Found In Upended Tree; The Death Investigator Exhumes Skull

by Thomas MacMillan and Melissa Bailey | Oct 30, 2012 4:30 pm

(19) Comments | Commenting has been closed | E-mail the Author

Posted to: Downtown, Superstorm Sandy

Melissa Bailey Photo Thomas MacMillan Photo (Updated 11:30 p.m.) A homeless woman made a spooky Halloween’s eve discovery on the Upper Green: bones from a centuries-old human body unearthed by a giant oak tree toppled by Superstorm Sandy.

The woman, Katie Carbo, made the discovery around 3:15 p.m. near the corner of College and Chapel streets. Visible among the roots of the tree is the back of skull, upside down, with its mouth open (pictured). It is still connected to a spine and rib cage.

Carbo called police, who confirmed the discovery. Detectives headed to the scene to investigate.

Sgt. Anthony Zona said the police do not suspect foul play. He noted that that part of the Green long ago served as a burial ground.

“That body has probably been there a long, long time,” Zona said.

“Twenty-four years on the job,” he added, “and different things just happen all the time.”

Melissa Bailey Photo At 6:55 p.m., Alfredo Camargo arrived on scene from the state medical examiner’s office. His title: “Death investigator.” (Seriously.)

The police had set up a bright spotlight so Camargo could work.

He zipped up his Tyvek suit, put on white rubber gloves, then climbed into the hole in the tree to check out the skeleton.

He then came out and pronounced: “It’s going to take us a while.”

He brought a toolkit with hand-held rakes, sifters, trowels, and brushes. He predicted the job will take at least a couple of hours—if it doesn’t rain.

Melissa Bailey Photo Camargo got to work digging out leaves from the hole.

Melissa Bailey Photo Camargo passed bones out to Gary Aronsen (pictured), a research associate in Yale’s anthropology department, who put them into individual, labeled plastic bags.

Sgt. Sam Brown grabbed a tarp on which to put the bones.

How The Discovery Happened

Carbo may have been the second person to find the remains, but the first to report it to authorities.

Melissa Bailey Photo The tree fell at around 6 p.m. Monday near the peak of Superstorm Sandy. A stone marker at the foot of the tree (pictured) identifies it as the “Lincoln Oak,” planted in 1909 on the 100th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s birth. 

Thomas MacMillan Photo A local artist, Silas Finch (at left in photo), saw it fall. He started rooting around—for hours—in the root ball upended along with the tree looking for old coins. He even came back Tuesday morning to dig some more.

At one point he found what he thought was a human bone. It was about a foot long, Finch said. He called his friend, a fellow artist and New Haven historian named Robert Greenberg.

“No way there could be human bones. It’s an animal bone.” Finch recalled Greenberg telling him. “Lo and behold, it’s definitely not.”

Thomas MacMillan Photo Then Carbo (pictured), a Green regular who participated in Occupy New Haven protests earlier this year, spotted bones in the tree as she looked at it Tuesday afternoon.

She remembered thinking, “Wait a minute, that doesn’t look like a regular rock.” It turned out to be a skull. She touched it, a piece came off, and she could tell it was bone, she said.

“I took a stick and unearthed it more,” Carbo said. “It was just crazy. I just couldn’t believe it. I knew it was a cemetery here.”

Thomas MacMillan Photo Soon a rib cage, a spinal column, and a skull were visible, complete with open mouth and a full set of teeth.

A crowd gathered. Sgt. Anthony Zona said detectives had been notified and were on their way.

“This is someone’s family remains. It should be given a proper burial,” Carbo said.

Thomas MacMillan Photo Silas Finch was back at the scene, recalling his initial discovery.

“It was really creepy,” he said with a shiver. “I was literally down in that hole directly in front of that skull.”

Carbo said she wasn’t creeped out. “I feel like it was just someone’s earthly shell. Their soul is long gone from here.”

Melissa Bailey Photo At 5:30 p.m., a crowd gathered near the scene and a TV news crew showed up. A detective obliged quizzical passersby by pointing to the skull.

Melissa Bailey Photo Curtis T. (at left in photo) passed by on his way to a homeless shelter. “You think it’s the hurricane?” he said about the tree’s uprooting. “I think a dead man trying to tell a tale.”

Melissa Bailey Photo At 6:30 p.m. police showed up with a large spotlight used to illuminate crime scenes. They flooded the root ball with light, attracting a growing crowd. The cops set up a perimeter with “crime scene—do not cross” tape.

Melissa Bailey Photo Greenberg (at center in photo) opened a binder of historical documents and announced a hypothesis: The skeleton could belong to a victim of smallpox, interred in what amounted to a “mass burial site.”

As evidence, he cited a passage in the New Haven Green chapter of the book, “Historical Sketches of New Haven.” The book describes how some notables, beginning with Martha Townsend, were buried in the walled-off cemetery behind the Center Church on the Green. Others were buried in the rest of the Upper Green, apparently with great density.

“Sometimes, at the dead of night, apart from the others, the victims of smallpox were fearfully hid here,” the book reads. “The ground was filled with graves between the Church and College Street; sixteen bodies having been found within sixteen square feet.”

The last bodies were buried there in the 1700s, Greenberg said. In 1821, the stones were moved to the Grove Street Cemetery, and the ground was raised to level off the Green. The bodies remained behind.

Cops planned to guard the bones tonight on the graveyard shift.

Melissa Bailey Photo At 7:45 p.m., rain began to fall. The death investigator erected a white tent to protect the work.

The crowd grew impatient as the work progressed. They pressed forward against the crime scene tape in attempt to see the skull.

“Give a dog a bone!” cried an onlooker, holding his dog on a leash.

Melissa Bailey Photo At around 10 p.m., the death investigator sawed off a root that was in the way, then reached in and plucked the skull from the root ball. To the crowd’s chagrin, he didn’t hold it up for all to see. Aronsen, the anthropologist, quickly placed it in a paper Stop & Shop bag. The skull appeared to be fragmented.

The exhumation will continue “at least through tomorrow,” according to police spokesman Officer Dave Hartman.

Hartman said the extrication serves a historical, not a forensic, purpose. The objective is to honor the dead through preservation.

“We’re not going to let bodily remains end up in the public works chipper,” he said.

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posted by: tonybaldwin on October 30, 2012  4:44pm

Ummm…the whole upper green is littered with bodies.
The stones were moved to the cemetery on Grove St., but not the bodies. This is common knowledge. It’s even acknowledged on Wikipedia.

see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Haven_Green

posted by: MeowLeFae on October 30, 2012  7:12pm

Even so, it’s still an odd find…. the skeleton has to be 200 or so years old at the very least!

posted by: RCguy on October 30, 2012  7:20pm

Wow, a full cast of characters having their way with the bones prior to the arrival of professionals. Thank God they were finally stopped from playing with the remains.

posted by: Kate D. on October 30, 2012  9:56pm

Was it necessary to identify two folks as homeless in this piece?  It’s no better than people gratuitously mentioning a person’s race/ethnicity/sexual orientation/religion, etc. in conversation (e.g., “my daughter’s teacher is _____”).  Irrelevant details like this reveal personal biases and perpetuate the public’s perception that they are pertinent findings.  They are not.  You wouldn’t have written that the bones were found by a poor person (irrelevant, right?), but somehow it felt okay to “out” these two people publicly as homeless.  Folks move in different circles and should maintain the right not to be identified as homeless when they are able.  For shame, New Haven Independent.

posted by: BenBerkowitz on October 30, 2012  10:02pm

RCGuy,

I had similar sentiments. When we first stumbled upon the crowd I was in awe with the rest. It took me a sec to step back and call the police and of course Paul. Seeing it up close without any of the police around in the first few minutes of its discovery was truly surreal.  A number of people mentioned the Halloween coincidence but it never dawned on me.  It really was a beautiful thing to see a human dead hundreds of years tangled in a 100 year old Oak.

posted by: Hazel Rah on October 30, 2012  10:17pm

What kind of person are you making fun of a medicolegal death investigator?  It is not a mail order program!  Here is a good example from the St. Louis Medical School Dept of Pathology: This basic course is designed for investigators, law enforcement officers, forensic scientists and physicians (not forensic pathologists) who investigate deaths for Medical Examiner/Coroner offices. It is designed to provide basic information for those who are new to the field or for those who want to learn more about death investigation. Additionally, it satisfies the continuing education requirements for 17 professional organizations. Completion of this course qualifies the attendee to participate in the Master’s Courses, a series of advanced death investigation conferences. This is a training course, not a certification program.

I agree with the comments below that thankfully a trained physical anthropologist and a death investigator showed up before anyone tampered with the scene. 

Perhaps you could research the credentials of the death investigator and compare them with your own journalistic pre-requisites for a job and see how you stack up?  Good luck.

posted by: streever on October 30, 2012  11:04pm

Hazel Rah:
I don’t think they were making fun of the profession. The title of “Death Investigator” is simply not something one sees every day, and they probably were a little “awed” by it, in the traditional sense of surprised/excited/sense of disbelief. Like, “Whoa! Death Investigator! Cool job title.”

posted by: Paul Wessel on October 31, 2012  6:06am

I love all the characters in this story.  It has all the makings of a great play about New Haven past, present and future.

posted by: William Kurtz on October 31, 2012  7:19am

Hazel Rah,

I read the ‘Seriously’ bit as acknowledging that ‘Death Investigator’ would be an interesting title to have on a business card. It’s refreshingly direct and specific, too, in the era of euphemism. No doubt Mr. Camargo always draws a crowd at party when asked, “so what do you do?”

The portrayal of his important work was respectful and illuminating.

Nothing to go tharn over. ; )

posted by: RCguy on October 31, 2012  8:15am

pwnd

posted by: Freeto on October 31, 2012  9:08am

To Kate R., I’m disappointed that you feel the need to comment on this amazing story only to shame the reporter, and the entire paper, for reporting the facts of the case rather than selectively editing out the details your cult finds too inflammatory to be known.

Why stop at being offended by the label of “homeless”? Spend long hours questioning the dark intentions of the reporter identifying a man as an “artist”— why is that pertinent to the fact that he was ostensibly grave robbing? Are they saying all artists are grave robbers? Are artists free of conscience or squeamishness the rest of us might feel rooting around in a grave for treasure?

How about the identification of Carbo as an Occupy Protester a woman! Why is that pertinent to a story about bones in a tree? Are they saying all women are anti-capitalist, park-dwelling, corpse discoverers?

For that matter, why identify the various jobs of the officers on the scene? Can amateurs not, through perseverance, equal access to education and personal choice learn to be good crime scene investigators? (Sorry for the judgement-based use of the term “good”.)

This story could be told much more concisely and free of bias if it read, “the remains of a person were found by another person. Some other people: looked for coins, examined the remains, and talked to people.” Why has the paper disregarded the impending global-warming catastrophe and chosen to waste excess hours of electrical energy? What’s their agenda?

If there’s no shame to being homeless, and these people self-identified as homeless, then the personal choice to live in this specific park where a giant oak was upended revealing 200 year old human remains is both pertinent and adds depth to the characters of the story being told. It flipped over in their living room! Filled with body parts!

You reveal your own bias. Shame on you.

posted by: Threefifths on October 31, 2012  10:16am

I want to know if bones belong to Jimmy Hoffa?

posted by: FromTheHill on October 31, 2012  10:22am

Great story.  Just in time for All Hollows Eve

posted by: BuckNaked on October 31, 2012  3:58pm

“Cops planned to guard the bones tonight on the graveyard shift.”  Hooo-hooo! Buncha comedians ovathere!

posted by: DebEst on October 31, 2012  4:09pm

Kate D.

I’m with you! Gratuitously mentioning a person’s race/ethnicity/sexual orientation/religion, etc. is exactly the same as explaining that the people that found the remains lived in the park where the remains were found.

Perhaps the public hasn’t got the news that the “H-word” has been banned from common use. Everyone, it’s true. Please update your manuals of style to reflect that “Homeless” (I apologize) has been defined as hate speech and all instances should now be replaced with “Non-traditionally Housed”.

I’m off to repaint the signs for the H-word Shelters downtown.

posted by: ehopkinz on October 31, 2012  5:56pm

Thank you, Freeto. That’s the best laugh I’ve had all day. Well said.

posted by: rabbit on October 31, 2012  6:17pm

If they really want to “honor the dead,” they’ll put the bones back in the ground and plant another oak on top of it. I doubt I’m the only one who has loved ones who were buried under trees. Hopefully one day in this country we’ll quit treating people’s bones like things (oo! Halloween cool for Twitter! oo! Geronimo’s skull for our little secret society lair!) and take them out of glass cases and off lab shelves.

posted by: rwelcome on November 1, 2012  9:53am

Wow a body is found where bodies lie… Real question is whats going to happen to that historical tree! The town should have it sawn up and donated to local artists or historical buildings for proper use. If that tree is made into firewood its a damn shame.

posted by: zebrawoman1 on November 4, 2012  10:26pm

Also product placement,“Aronsen, the anthropologist, quickly placed it in a paper Stop & Shop bag.” Quick plug for Stop & Shop and for being “green” because it was a paper bag.

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