A grove of oak trees stands guard over a pretty little square of land in a South Tacoma neighborhood. Tall grass sways gently, and butterflies flit among the dandelions.
At first glance over a broken-down fence, the 2 acres inside look empty and park-like.
Then you see them, the headstones, a dozen or so scattered around in no particular order.
Even then, the site offers no hint that more than 1,600 people are buried here, all laid to rest between the 1880s and 1920s in what then was the Pierce County pauper cemetery and now is a forgotten memory.
Among them is Carl William Alex Gildenmeister, a sailor born in Prussia. His ship docked in Tacoma days before he drowned on the waterfront in 1900.
And Hannah Flodburg, a 33-year-old woman born in Sweden. She died in 1891, the day before “infant boy Flodburg,” who also is buried there.
Two were robbers killed in a gunfight, and one was a logger who fell off a train. Others died of tuberculosis or suicide or simply old age.
Many went to their graves nameless.
Researchers say either the county never kept a record of the burials or lost it, possibly in a fire.
If not for a curious funeral director who started six years ago to collect the names of the dead, they would remain hidden in handwritten ledgers kept by individual funeral homes across Tacoma.
Bill Habermann enters the names on a genealogy website, along with other details from public records, so they can be found by searching historians and family members.
“It gives me something to do,” said 79-year-old Habermann, who works at Piper-Morley Funeral Home in Tacoma and calls this project his hobby.
The retired elementary school principal shrugs when asked about it, admitting some people think he’s crazy.
“No one needs to know I do it,” he said, “but these people need to be recognized someplace.”
Burials begin by 1888
Pierce County bought land for its pauper cemetery from the adjacent Tacoma Cemetery in 1885, according to a history written by the Heritage League of Pierce County.
The plot also borders Oakwood Hill Cemetery on the west and the Tacoma Mausoleum on the south, forming a small historical burial district where South 52nd Street meets South Junett.
Many counties had pauper cemeteries. This one, which bears no signage and no entry, is fenced by wire on the uphill side and wood down below.
The burials had begun by 1888, the earliest Habermann has found so far.
It was for O. Yungstrom, who died Oct. 5, 1888, according to the upright gravestone bearing that inscription. It says the person was 44 years old, but doesn’t say if O. was a man or a woman.
It’s one of only 18 stones still visible, although Habermann suspects others lie beneath the grass and brambles.
How could people who died as paupers afford gravestones? Habermann guesses that family members of a few later found the money and came back to mark the graves.
Burials went on for four decades.
Tacoma’s four funeral homes at the time — Piper, Mellinger, Storlie and Buckley-King — were on a rotation, Habermann said. Each was responsible for burying the poor for three months before passing the duty along to the next.
The county paid them $4.50 per burial, which included the box, the delivery and the digging.
Fried Steigler, a local historian, told The News Tribune in 1990 that epidemics sometimes prompted the cemetery to bury the dead, “three or four deep.” Workers were paid $10 to bury, by night, the unidentified bodies of disease victims.
The county was responsible for the cemetery’s upkeep.
The Spectator, a weekly newspaper in Tacoma, wrote about the pauper cemetery in 1901. Its appearance sounds similar to the way it stands today — “partially inclosed (sic) by dilapidated and weather-beaten fencing.”
“For fifteen years,” the story said, “this small tract has been set apart by the county as a burial place for paupers and penniless persons whose relatives could not be located, and yet it is safe to say that there are many among the oldest residents of Tacoma who do not know of its location, even at this late day.”
It spoke of “tangled shrubbery and mounds of earth, bare and unshapely,” mounds that indicate “several hundred persons who lay down the burden of life and left behind no record of their existence.”
It offered stories of people who discovered loved ones in the “Potter’s Field,” such as the man who came to Tacoma searching for a wife who deserted him and their three small children.
“He had long sought his erring wife and had finally traced her to Tacoma,” the story said. “His intention was to seek her out, offer her pardon for her wrongdoing, and try to induce her to return to the home she had wrecked. …”
“He found her — found her in the ‘Potter’s Field,’ ” where “that suffering man knelt and wept as only a strong man can.”
A mother came, too, searching for her son, “a wild boy,” who ran off in his teens.
“From time to time they heard of him, as he would occasionally send brief letters home,” the story said.
Finally, she traced him to Tacoma and found him in the pauper cemetery. She had his body exhumed and took him home for reburial, where she died shortly afterward.
The Spectator editorial a week later was pointed: “The condition of this lonely and forbidding spot is a public disgrace. ...
“Not even a record is kept of the unfortunates who are buried there. Over the grave of each is placed a small headboard at burial, on which is written with a pencil the name of the deceased — if it is known — that is all. This writing is soon erased by the elements.
“The potter’s field of Tacoma should be brought out of chaos into order. A proper respect for the memory of the dead demands it.”
Yet the burials went on for another quarter century.
The story picks up in the Tacoma Daily Ledger in July 1927 with a front-page headline: “SLIPSHOD BURIALS IN POTTER’S FIELD AROUSE INDIGNATION.”
William Harlick, who lived near the cemetery, had complained to Tacoma’s city health officer about a body in a wooden box buried in a shallow grave, and left only partially covered for two weeks.
The doctor contacted County Commissioner Henry Ball, who ordered P. Oscar Storlie of the South Tacoma Undertaking company to fill the grave.
Ball wasn’t happy.
“That seems always to have been the thought with these burials,” he said, “to get them underground the easiest and cheapest way possible.”
Habermann has heard stories from a woman who lived across South Junett Street from the cemetery and said neighbors sometimes complained of the smell. Kids occasionally carried home human bones, she said.
Commissioner Ball called for the county to find land outside the city for a new pauper cemetery, but in the meantime, the county kept burying people there.
Ten months later, the Tacoma City Council stepped in.
It passed an ordinance establishing fines of up to $300 and a jail term of up to 90 days for anyone burying a body in the “county indigent cemetery.”
Habermann’s last noted burial was of Andrew Jackson, “about 45 years of age, born in Finland. Died Feb. 28, 1928, Tacoma, Wash. Cause of death: asphyxiation by fuel gas, suicidal or accidental. Single. Logger.”
In 1973, the county sold the land back to Tacoma Cemetery.
“We mow it once or twice a year,” caretaker Christopher Engh said. “We prefer to keep it a little wild.”
“It’s not open to the public, in part because it’s not the safest place,” he said, citing the steep hills.
In his 15 years at this job, only one person has come looking for someone buried there.
Remembering the forgotten
Habermann first learned of the pauper cemetery 10 years ago while leading history tours of the adjacent Oakwood Hill cemetery.
“People would point over the fence and ask what was back there,” he said.
He researched the site through newspaper clippings at the Tacoma Public Library. Unable to find a map of the burial grid commonly kept for cemeteries, he turned to Piper-Morley’s own records.
The funeral home’s bound ledgers listed each death it had handled since George and Maude Piper opened the South Tacoma establishment in 1908.
In the oldest yellowed ledgers, each hand-written line listed the name and age of the deceased, the length of the body, the date and cause of death, the next of kin and the cost of services performed.
They also listed the place of burial. “County” meant the pauper cemetery.
Habermann pulled out the ledgers and ran his finger down the columns. When he found someone buried in the pauper cemetery, he copied down the information and began keeping it in three-ring binders.
After finishing with the Piper ledgers, Habermann moved on those kept by the Mellinger funeral home. He also went through burial listings kept by the Tacoma-Pierce County Genealogical Society.
He hasn’t had access to all the funeral home ledgers, and he knows some from Storlie ended up in a trash bin.
“I’m sure there’s another 500 people,” he said.
Habermann didn’t stop with just the burial records.
He cross-referenced the names with the Washington Secretary of State’s digital archive, surfacing death certificates for some of the dead, which he added to his binders. And he tracked down military records and newspaper stories about the deaths.
Then he painstakingly entered all of it into an online database called findagrave.com.
Findagrave.com was created in 1995 and invites volunteers to document gravesites of people in their families or their communities. Family history researchers depend on it to locate ancestors, while others search for the final resting places of famous people.
Habermann is responsible for nearly all of the 1,601 entries for people buried in Tacoma’s pauper cemetery. Each of his bears a tagline: “Created by Bill H,” along with the date he entered it.
Several descendants have discovered the database and added information and stories about their ancestors.
Thirty-two messages have been left for Habermann at findagrave.com.
“Bill: Thank you for the transfer of Ruth Saltz at the Pauper Cemetery,” wrote P. Fernandez in 2012.
Ruth Ann Saltz was the infant daughter of Knowlton Ross Salz and Anna M. Lloyd, according to the database. She died on the day she was born, July 31, 1924, cause unknown.
“Myself and my family are appreciative of your hard work,” the message says, “and the opportunity to include little Ruth in our research and the family tree where she belongs.”
Keeping the past as part of the present
Nowadays, if you die in Pierce County and you fall into two categories — both indigent and unclaimed — the county cremates your body and disposes of your remains.
Last month, the county announced it would scatter the ashes of 37 people from a sheriff’s patrol boat in Puget Sound if no one claimed them by Aug. 1.
Three were spoken for, and on Aug. 17 ashes from the other 34 — most who had died during 2014 and 2015 at ages that ranged from 33 to 87 — were spread into Carr Inlet.
It’s a respectful solution to a real-life problem, if you ask Habermann and fellow funeral director George Nelson. And it’s probably better than burial in a cemetery.
Habermann’s practical side surfaces again when you ask if his ultimate goal is to mark all the graves in the pauper cemetery or have it better maintained or open to the public.
He knows those things cost money, which is hard to come by. Besides, there’s no way of knowing who is buried where.
Mostly, he worries the little cemetery could be covered over with dirt and reused for more burials. He’s heard that’s possible when a cemetery is abandoned for more than 100 years.
That’s not under consideration, said Ron Messenger, president of Tacoma Cemetery and New Tacoma Cemetery in University Place.
“It’s incorporated as part of a larger cemetery that’s still in use,” he said, so it wouldn’t be considered abandoned. “We have no plans to reuse that property at this point.”
In the meantime, Habermann’s research continues. Someday, he’ll donate his work to the library, he said.
Does it make him sad to think about the hundreds of people buried in the pauper cemetery?
“Feeling sorry about it is as close as I come,” he said, but he takes joy in sharing the stories he’s learned.
More than that, it’s a sense of duty and history.
What’s important, he said, is “putting this down on paper so it isn’t lost forever.”