Date of Award

December 2017

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Patricia B. Richards

Committee Members

Stanley H. Ambrose, Bettina Arnold, John D. Richards


Bioarchaeology, Historic Cemeteries, Law, Midwest United States, Strontium Isotope Analysis


The Milwaukee County Poor Farm Cemetery is an umbrella term used to describe the four cemeteries that were used by Milwaukee County from 1878 through 1974 for the burial of the indigent, unclaimed, institutionalized, and anatomized. Three of these cemeteries remain undisturbed. The primary focus of this research is the twice-excavated Cemetery II (Wisconsin Burial Site 47BMI0076), in use between 1882 and 1925. Archaeological excavations in 1991-1992 and again in 2013 resulted in the recovery of over 2,400 individuals from this cemetery location.

In Wisconsin, legislative efforts to govern indigent burial and dissection mediated competing aspirations between medical education and the social contract of decent burial implicit in common law. The archaeological record of Cemetery II (47BMI0076) attests to the resulting void, providing evidence of divergent interests between the poor and professionals, individual and institutional decisions, and the reality of “decent burial”.

Approximately one-quarter of Cemetery II (47BMI0076) interments excavated in 2013 did not meet expectations for standard, institutionalized pauper burials and have been associated with the local medical establishment, including the medical colleges, County Hospital and pathology laboratory, and the Coroner’s Office (Richards et al. 2016). Current analyses suggest that a comparable pattern exists within the burials excavated in 1991-1992. Outstanding questions related to the practices that resulted in these two general categories of burials, here identified as Categories A and B, persist.

This dissertation utilizes strontium isotope analysis, a geochemical method that is applied to human skeletal tissue, to address outstanding questions at the intersection of the body and law within the Milwaukee County Poor Farm Cemetery context. Two primary questions informed the research goals of this project. First, were specific immigrant groups targeted for the postmortem investigative practices, especially dissection, that frequently resulted in Category B burials? Second, what contributions could be made to what is known about the burial population through the application of strontium isotope analysis contextualized with historical documentation?

To generate information on individuals’ natal regions, this project created strontium isotope profiles for 62 individuals interred at the Milwaukee County Poor Farm Cemetery. The first and third, and where necessary, second permanent molars of 62 individuals and one dog were sampled for enamel apatite, producing a dataset of 123 strontium isotope signatures. This dataset comprises three groups: individuals from Category A burials, individuals from Category B burials, and a bioavailable 87Sr/86Sr group to identify locally born individuals.

This research demonstrates that there was no targeted selection of a specific immigrant population for dissection on the part of Milwaukee’s early medical colleges and institutions. Rather, the factors that led to an individual being interred in a Category B burial may have been more opportunity-based, such as the relative utility (freshness) of a corpse and availability. Further, the strontium isotope signatures produced have been used to interpret and complement historical document research, refine current understandings of internal spatial and temporal organization within the southwestern portion of Cemetery II (47BMI0076), and contribute to the identification of 10 individuals.

The strontium isotope research conducted for this dissertation is grounded within a wider social and anthropological context, exploring what can be learned about immigrant experiences, the experiences of socially marginalized people, and the legislative relationships of the state to the body that continue to define lives and death today.