Q. My girls like to hear a bedtime story about my many "adventures" when I was a kid. One involves the explorations my brothers and I did of the wooded area just north of Illinois 161 and North 17th Street. About 100 yards north of what are now the MetroLink tracks was an overgrown and presumably forgotten cemetery. Every tombstone was about 18 inches high and shaped like the Washington Monument. But there were no names on them, just a number. I recall one of my brothers later saying he had gone to the library and found the cemetery to be a relic of the cholera epidemics that hit here in the 1830s and '40s. He said people died so fast that graves were pre-dug and markers pre-engraved. I'm wondering what you know, so I can give my girls the rest of the story.
-- Todd Eschman, of Belleville
A. If your parents were like mine, they occasionally would cry in exasperation "You're driving us to the poorhouse!" when family finances became a bit tight.
By the time I was in school, that expression was just a figure of speech. But for more than a century, St. Clair County ran a very real poorhouse for vagrants, immigrants and others unable to provide for themselves financially.
Thousands of the county's most destitute residents would find shelter there throughout the decades. When they died, they usually were buried nearby in the Old Paupers Graveyard, their final resting place marked only by those small, numbered stones you and your brothers found.
This sad tale began Jan. 17, 1844, when the county commissioners asked Sam Chandler and Simon Stookey to find land suitable for a poorhouse and farm. They bought a 40-acre tract for $450 from Henry Milton on what would become Old Caseyville Road, just north of those MetroLink tracks.
A year later, the circuit clerk ordered all county residents caring for paupers to bring them to the new poorhouse that had been built for $846.37. Eventually, the farm would include two wards for women, two for men, a house for older men, another for the disabled, a dining room and numerous outbuildings.
In time, it would become its own little community with stables, barns, a laundry and a morgue. In May 1890, kitchen and furnace buildings were erected. Its hospital boasted an operating room, a room for sterilizing equipment and a tubercular department. In 1924, a separate dormitory to house employees was added.
The population and length of stays varied. In 1853, for example, residents were listed by nationality; a census of nearly 200 included two Hungarians, 47 Irish, 90 Germans and three Danes. Its longest resident was likely a Mollie Bey, who arrived as an orphan in 1859 -- and died there in 1915 at age 72.
She would join literally thousands of others buried in that graveyard next to the poorhouse. Now, their legacy lives on only on those stone markers and yellowed death certificates.
According to one of the handwritten notices dated July 30, 1860, a 30-year-old Ireland native named Julia Kiltsey died of "congestive chills." Another certificate states that a deaf and mute infant died of "the effects of teething."
Your brother was partially right, however. During the area's sporadic cholera and diphtheria outbreaks, some victims apparently were buried quickly in fields like these to slow the spread of these deadly plagues. As a result, some began calling it the "old-pest cemetery" -- although, back then, "pest" also referred to the mentally retarded and the physically handicapped as well as the sick, historians say.
By the time of the Great Depression, it was the poorhouse being driven to the poorhouse. The county said townships were not paying their fair share for their indigent residents, which it estimated at 45 to 50 cents per person per day. Township officials complained they were being gouged, saying that the figure should have been more like 37 cents.
The financial crisis came to a head in 1955. A St. Clair County Board committee found that townships were paying $90 a month for each resident at the poorhouse, far more than the $58 other institutions would have charged. Within months, the St. Clair County Home and Hospital was closed and the remaining 65 residents were transferred to other area nursing homes and hospitals.
Now, the living quarters, smokehouse, pigpens, chicken coops, and corn crib are all gone, leaving only those small, numbered markers to provide mute testimony to the charity those poor souls once found there.
Final note: If you and your brothers remember seeing more elaborate headstones, it was the Badgely family cemetery that lies adjacent to the paupers graveyard.
Just for fun: What do yam and charm have in common?
Answer to Wednesday's trivia: The country of Australia takes its name from "australis," the Latin word for "southern."
Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or firstname.lastname@example.org.