Sometimes it takes a little good detective work to uncover and solve an historic mystery.
Earlier this month, construction workers began excavation work at a site on the Yale New Haven Hospital campus as part of the regional medical center's project to build a new addition onto its emergency room at 20 York St.
The expansion was moving along according to plan until July 11, when work on the addition suddenly stopped due to an unexpected find: excavators had unearthed human remains.
The skeletal remains of four people were found under the driveway of the emergency department's main entrance, which was being removed as part of the expansion project.
Clearly buried for some time, officials called upon Dr. Nicholas Bellantoni, the state archaeologist and a professor at the University of Connecticut, and Dr. Gary Aronsen, a professor with Yale University's anthropology department, to help identify and carefully remove the bones, as well as to determine the historic significance of the find.
The exhumation was conducted over a four day period — from July 11 to July 14 —with the assistance of a team of high school students under the direction and supervision of Bellantoni. The students are taking part in an archeology program at UConn this summer.
After they were exhumed, each skeleton was individually taken to the Yale's anthropology department for further study to possibly uncover their age, sex, ethnic origin and the possible cause of death. The remains will then be reburied in an existing cemetery.
And while the care of the remains have, at least temporarily, been entrusted to Aronsen and Yale's Department of Anthropology — where they continue to reside — it has been the gumshoe historical detective work of one North Haven resident that has successfully revealed the reason why the bodies were found at the hospital site and why the came to be forgotten.
"This is a mystery — well, it was a mystery," Howard Eckels said with a laugh.
Eckels, a retired veteran state police detective and freelance photographer, was tapped by the university researchers to photograph and document the exhumation of the four bodies at the Yale New Haven site.
Since then, the amateur historian has been piecing together the answers to the mystery surrounding the remains.
Although initially working with the hypothesis that the skeletons were from the colonial or perhaps Civil War eras, Eckels eventually determined through meticulous research through public records, historical publications and newspaper clippings that the four bodies were buried there as part of a Catholic cemetery during the mid-1800s.
In fact, much of the hospital's emergency room now rests upon the old cemetery.
"It turns out that there was a cemetery there that had 550 people in it," Eckels told Patch.
"And they unknowingly built an entire hospital upon a cemetery ," he said. "So when the construction people started dragging people up recently, it came as quite a surprise."
But how had the cemetery and the people buried there come to find themselves long forgotten? To find the answer to this questions, Eckels started at the beginning.
During his research, he found the the emergency room site had at one time been the location of New Haven's first Catholic church, Christ's Church, which opened its doors in 1834. Like many churches during that time period, the Christ's Church had its own cemetary on its property where it buried parishioners who had passed away.
Eckels, who grew up in New Haven, said the burials at the emergency room site are not completely consistent with what one would expect to find in a religious cemetery.
"They were just buying people with no order or plan… it's not like the cemeteries we have today," he said.
The original church was unfortunately destroyed by fire in 1848. But 10 years later, St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church was built on the same site.
The new church continued to bury its parishioners in the old cemetery, which was located between the church and the rectory during the St. John the Evangelist era, Eckels said. He added that an elementary school and convent were also part of the complex.
Eckels research, however, found that St John's stopped using the original cemetery at the site in 1851 after a new Catholic burial ground, St. Bernard's Cemetery, opened. From that point on, the cemetery where the emergency room stands today was no longer in use.
But the bodies and the tombstones remained — that was, until, one of St. John's priests decided to have all of the grave markers removed in 1898.
"I guess he wanted it to be an open space," Eckels said, adding that New Haven newspaper articles during that time period reported many of the parishioners were outraged with his plan.
"There was even a court injunction filed to try to prevent him from removing them," he said.
But the priest prevailed, and the markers eventually were removed and relocated to St. Bernard's Cemetery.
"They moved the headstones but left the bodies," Eckels said.
Once the tombstones arrived at St. Bernard's, however, they went missing.
"No one seems to know what happened to these headstones," Eckesl said. "They just disappeared."
And this may be why no one from the early 1900s onward was aware of the old cemetery at the 20 York Street site: the headstones forever marking that they had lived and that they had died were gone.
Eckels said there is no recording of the cemetery in any public records, including those of the church itself or the Catholic Archidiocese of Hartford, from the late 1800s on.
With no tombstones to mark the grave sites and the cemetery not registered in any offiical cit, state or church publications, over time the existence of the burial ground was, quite simply, forgotten.
"This is very unusual," Eckels said.
So, in 1969, when the archdiocese relocated St. John the Evangelist to a new complex on Sylvan Avenue, selling the York Street site to Yale New Haven Hospital, no one had any idea that buried underneath the ground were hundreds of former city residents.
Eckels said when they were building the original emergency room building, workers "came within inches" of discovering the four bodies located earlier this month, but they remained undisturbed for another 40 years.
Interestingly, one of the construction projects at the site may have helped to preserve the remains, as a seven-inch thick concrete pad was laid directly over the discovery area as part of that work. Eckels said this provided the remains with "unusual physical protection from the elements."
"It all adds up to being quite a find," he said.
Currently, Eckels is working on finalizing the list of all of those who were laid to rest within the cemetery from 1834 to 1851.
It is a painstaking process that involves spending long hours in the annals of the city of New Haven's public records department, sifting by hand through the "Birth Book" and the "Death Book" and the various other documents kept by city clerks during the mid-1800s.
Eckels said he had found through the development of the cemetery list that some 50 to 60 percent of the people buried at the site were small children.
"You have to remember, back then, you didn't have vaccinations," he said.
He added that he hopes to have the list with the more than 550 names completed by the end of this weekend. From there, Eckels will meet later next month with Bellantoni and Aronsen to finalize and coordinate their findings together.
Eckels said there is no intention doing any more site work within the area where the four bodies were found. And that any additional burials that may be there will continue to remain there.
There is one remaining question, however, that Eckels is determined to answer. Three of the four bodies were found buried on top of one another. Although that it something that was frequently done during colonial times, Eckels said, it was unusual in later time periods.
And so, after digging into the site's historical background, he has developed a theory that at least two of three bodies are related to one another.
"You develop a theory and then you go to the public record," Eckels said
When Christ's Church held its dedication ceremony in 1834, a bizarre accident occurred killing two parishioners — a grandfather and his grandson — while also injuring several others, after the building's organ balcony collapsed.
"So that church had bad luck from the beginning," he said.
Eckels added that the grandfather's dying wish was to be buried with his grandson.
"And those two people would be buried in this cemetery," he said.
Additionally, Eckels' research has found that the grandfather and grandson were Russian Jews who had converted to Catholicism. At that time, most Christ's Church parishioners were either Irish born or of Irish decent.
And so, Eckels is hoping that once an ethnic profile is competed on the four bodies by Aronsen, it will be clear from the findings that two of the individuals are of Eastern European descent — solving one of the final pieces of an almost two-centuries-old puzzle.
"It it's there, let me try to solve it," he said.