"Buried...like a Human Being" at the Milwaukee County Poor Farm Cemetery: a Bioarchaeological Approach to Defining Fetal and Infant Personhood Through Biological Development, Historical Discourse, and Diapering
Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy
Patricia B Richards
Bettina Arnold, Jean L Hudson, Joseph P Gray
Bioarchaeology, Cemetery, Childbirth, Feminism, Milwaukee, Personhood
The ambiguity of life is visible in the complex sets of beliefs that cultures develop around abortion, stillbirth, and neonatal death. This research grew out of ambiguities surrounding bioarchaeological methods of age estimation among fetal and infant remains and the need for additional lines of evidence to define what a prenatal or postnatal age contextually means, how these definitions were upheld or challenged, and what impact these definitions had on the mortuary treatment of these bodies.
Discernment between fetal and infant skeletal remains is important to forensic investigations and bioarchaeological questions of personhood, infant mortality, and maternal health. However, skeletal and dental methods of age estimation often lack the precision to determine whether decedents survived birth. Over 450 subadult burials recovered from the Milwaukee County Poor Farm Cemetery with estimated ages-at-death under one year were considered in this study. Dental and osteometric estimations of age were compared with material culture recovered with individuals. The Milwaukee County Poor Farm Cemetery, located in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin served as a burial ground between the late 19th and early 20th centuries for patients of Milwaukee County institutions, unidentified or unclaimed individuals from the Milwaukee County Coroner’s Office, and individuals whose surviving relatives and friends could not secure burial elsewhere.
A feminist approach was taken in order to recognize the systems of power that contribute to and enforce oppression. The rise of professional medicine in the United States throughout the 19th century transformed pregnancy and childbirth into pathological conditions, allowing physicians access and control over women’s bodies. Medical discourse around the value of prenatal life validated the criminalization of women who failed to carry a pregnancy to term. To compare how my categorizations reflect the language used in historic texts, I drew from primary sources that identify the names and ages-at-death of those who were buried at the MCPFC.
Across the multiple components of this research, patterns indicate that the construction of personhood progresses with age. The anonymity and ambiguity of fetal entries suggest that these remains were more likely to be subject to abandonment or informal disposal. Higher association with burial inclusions also suggests interaction with a county institution, medical school, or the coroner’s office. It also suggests that older decedents, particularly those who survived beyond two weeks after birth, had stronger connections with family and continued to be cared for after death. Perinates encompass the gray area between viability and late-term birth. The category recognizes the potentiality of life, without drawing conclusions about the outcome of pregnancy. The burial treatment and discourse surrounding the MCPFC suggest that in this context, the attribution of personhood began after viability and was a process, not an isolated event. Personhood was not given fully at birth because the sustainability of life itself was uncertain. Yet as individuals moved beyond two postnatal weeks in age, the precarious personhood became more firmly established through clothing, names, and documented relationships with parents.
Charles, Brianne, ""Buried...like a Human Being" at the Milwaukee County Poor Farm Cemetery: a Bioarchaeological Approach to Defining Fetal and Infant Personhood Through Biological Development, Historical Discourse, and Diapering" (2019). Theses and Dissertations. 2049.