That Other Form of Madness: A Multidisciplinary Study of Infectious Disease Within the Milwaukee County Poor Farm Cemetery
Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy
Bettina Arnold, Joseph P Gray, Trudy Turner
bioarchaeology, DNA, historical archaeology, Milwaukee, tuberculosis
Between the years of 1882 and 1925, the Milwaukee County Poor Farm buried several
thousand members of Milwaukee’s indigent population in what would later be designated
Cemetery II. In 1991 and early 1992, after discovery of the cemetery during construction of parts
of the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center, 1,649 burials were excavated. The graves had long
been abandoned and the headstones bulldozed, leaving a register of burials without any obvious
way of associating each individual with their identity. A copy of the register is curated at the
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Archaeological Research Laboratory. The Milwaukee
County Poor Farm was a vast complex of buildings that included a county hospital, a
tuberculosis sanitarium, an orphanage, and housing for the poor. The graves typify those of
pauper burials, containing few grave goods and therefore few ways in which to reassociate the
individuals with their names.
My dissertation is one of many collaborative projects that focus on the Milwaukee
County Poor Farm Cemetery and aims to restore as much identity and humanity as is possible to
these long forgotten, disenfranchised citizens of Milwaukee County. My contribution to this
project is to use traditional bioarchaeological methods, combined with molecular biology, and
incorporate material culture analysis and historical research to provide a comprehensive look at what it was like to live in the early 20th century in Milwaukee County as a pauper with an
infectious disease. This dissertation also presents molecular biological data from dental calculus
rather than bone tissue as a way of moving away from destructive analysis for DNA work in
bioarchaeology. In order to apply molecular biological techniques to archaeological material, it is
typical to rely on extracting DNA from bone tissue, since other material may not be available.
Regardless of how much bone is needed, and for ancient DNA in particular this can be up to a
gram, this is a destructive technique that is being applied to an individual’s remains in most
instances without their consent. Dental calculus, calcified dental plaque, is now being explored
as a way of obtaining DNA from a deceased individual that would not destroy any of that
person’s biological material. However, with the ability to analyze the DNA from a deceased
person can come the assumption that we have all of the information that we need about them and
their cause of death. This dissertation takes a holistic approach to bioarchaeology and combines
the discussion of post-mortem agency and theories of suffering to advocate for a new paradigm
for bioarchaeological work.
In order to meet the aforementioned goals, I developed a multi-scalar research protocol.
First, I analyzed the individuals from the MCPFC who had vertebrae present to look for signs of
tuberculosis. I then extracted bone and dental calculus from their remains and extracted DNA
from both sources. I used Polymerase Chain Reaction to examine the extracted DNA for
evidence of Mycobacterium tuberculosis, Brucella species, and Streptococcus pneumoniae. The
results from this DNA analysis were analyzed using Fisher’s Exact Tests and were combined
with the material culture data from the 1991/1992 excavations. Finally, in order to support the
goals of this dissertation and of the larger MCPFC project, I used the data at hand to reconstruct the lives of the poor who suffered and died from infectious diseases in a time before effective
treatment was available.
Werner, Helen Marie, "That Other Form of Madness: A Multidisciplinary Study of Infectious Disease Within the Milwaukee County Poor Farm Cemetery" (2019). Theses and Dissertations. 2266.