Date of Award

August 2019

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Patricia Richards

Committee Members

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.