A Historical and Osteological Analysis of Postmortem Medical Practices from the Albany County Almshouse Cemetery Skeletal Sample in Albany, New York

Kim Lusignan Lowe


Interest in skeletal samples from cemeteries to reconstruct social, historic, and demographic aspects of the past has increased in recent years (Saunders and Herring 1995; Grauer 1995). These analyses offer insight into how the population lived and how the individuals were treated after death. In 2002, the Cultural Resource Survey Program of the New York State Museum carried out excavations of the Albany County Almshouse cemetery, in which 1427 skeletons were exhumed. This cemetery was in use from 1826 to 1926 and included inmates of the almshouse, unclaimed individuals, and individuals from the nearby rivers and penitentiary (Phelps 1881). Almshouse interment and record of death ledgers also indicate that indigent Albany County residents unable to afford burial elsewhere and Albany Medical College specimens were also buried within the almshouse cemetery.

Within the almshouse skeletal sample, some individuals show prevalent postmortem cut marks on the skeleton. The primary goal of this paper is to investigate the techniques of dissection with respect to anatomical teaching at the medical college. The interest lies in the quality of the dissections and the locations of the cuts. The reasoning for this is to determine that the cuts were done within a teaching institution rather than a professional setting, a dissection versus an autopsy. As such, those individuals with postmortem cut marks in the skeletal sample from the almshouse cemetery are hypothesized to be cadavers that were acquired and utilized for dissection in the teaching of medicine at Albany Medical College and were also from the poor classes of Albany County, New York. A secondary goal of this paper is to determine if those buried within the cemetery are representative of the individuals from that time period.

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