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The Dead of Snake Hill Volume 58 Number 3, May/June 2005
by Kristin M. Romey

A man's search for his grandfather sparks an unusually moving excavation along the New Jersey Turnpike.

[image] Archaeologists found the remains of Patrick Andriani's grandfather buried beneath several feet of landfill at the former site of Snake Hill, an institutional complex that housed an almshouse, a penitentiary, and a lunatic asylum. (©2003 Steve Hochstein/Harvard Studio) [LARGER IMAGE]

It was a story heard too often during the heady years of immigration: people who left the safety of their families in the Old World to take a run at success, only to disappear forever into America's booming metropolises. Some made it, but many fell ill, or out on their luck, and ended up in the almshouse, the asylum, or even the penitentiary. And when they died, their unclaimed bodies were delivered to the institution's cemetery.

Leonardo Andriani was one of these people. A decorated sailor who served in the Italian navy during WWI, he came to the U.S. after the war and worked as a longshoreman in Hoboken, New Jersey. He sent money back to his wife and children in Italy and would visit when he had the chance, eventually making plans to bring to America his 16-year-old son, whom he had met only twice.

Before he could realize his plan, the 54-year-old Andriani died alone in the Hudson County Hospital for Mental Diseases (formerly the Lunatic Asylum) on Christmas Eve, 1948, from a heart attack. He had been taken there a few days earlier, perhaps as a result of disorientation after possibly suffering a stroke, and upon his death was buried on the grounds. Leonardo's son settled in the U.S. in the 1950s and searched for his father's grave with no success.

Some 30 years later, Patrick Andriani, Leonardo's grandson, obtained a copy of his death certificate and renewed the search in the county archives. "It listed him as being buried in the Hudson County Burial Grounds," recalled Andriani, a Roxbury, New Jersey, marketing executive, "but when I tried to find out where this place was, county officials either told me it didn't exist, or that the bodies were all moved to some other place long ago."

In 1820, a county poorhouse farm was established on 200 acres of land in what would eventually become Hudson County, directly across the river from Manhattan. By the end of the century, it had become the sprawling Snake Hill complex, named perhaps for the black water snakes that lived in marshes along the property. The complex included an almshouse, penitentiary, lunatic asylum, and tuberculosis, smallpox, and isolation hospitals, as well as three burial grounds that took in not only the dead of Snake Hill but also the unknown and unwanted from surrounding municipalities such as Jersey City and Hoboken. In the twentieth century, the grim amalgamation of institutions was given the cheerier designation of Laurel Hill.

Snake Hill's institutions steadily emptied out after the Depression and the institutional complex was eventually razed. The burial grounds were buried deep in landfill and forgotten. In the mid 1990s, the New Jersey Turnpike Authority (NJTA) was contemplating the purchase of 10 acres of the former institution property for a $235-million highway-interchange project. A survey of the potential project area suggested that between 600 and 900 burials might be present there. Follow-up research revealed burial registers and maps that recorded 9,781 burials at the institutional complex between 1880 and 1962. Leonardo Andriani was register number 6,408.

The turnpike authority was readying to petition Hudson County Supreme Court for permission to remove remains from the project area and reinter them in a mass grave in a nearby municipal cemetery when it discovered in the county archives the decades-old paper trail of Andriani's hunt for his grandfather. Since he was a direct lineal descendant of a possible individual the NJTA was preparing to disinter, the authority was legally obligated to inform Andriani of their plans, and to name him as a plaintiff in the court petition. "[The NJTA] basically wanted to go in and rebury people without identifying them," Andriani recalled. "But if they found the cemetery, I wanted to find my grandfather."

Andriani and the turnpike authorities arrived at a court-approved agreement in January 2003: the NJTA would pay for a careful archaeological excavation that would enable identification of individual burials. The authority would also pay for the reinterment of all individuals and their personal effects, as well as a monument commemorating their reburial. It was an agreement that was to put into motion one of the largest, most complex disinterment projects in U.S. history.

Kristin M. Romey is deputy editor/senior writer of ARCHAEOLOGY.

* See also, Louis Berger Inc.'s webpage on the project.
* Extensive information, a full burial ledger, and archived news articles are available at (see "New Jersey cemeteries").
* The Society for Creative Preservation documents the interiors of America's remaining asylums.

© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America