(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.”
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.
Camargo got to work digging out leaves from the hole.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.