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Libraries mount photo exhibit of paupers’ cemetery

Karen Callan at the potter’s field at Mayflower Hill Cemetery; (left), a photo she took there. Karen Callan at the potter’s field at Mayflower Hill Cemetery; (left), a photo she took there. (Photo at left by Karen Callan; above, Paul E. Kandarian for the boston Globe)
By Paul E. Kandarian
Globe Correspondent / April 15, 2012
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They are just rows of numbers on decaying metal markers in a paupers’ field at Mayflower Hill Cemetery in Taunton, near the Raynham line.

More than 1,000 people were buried there from 1862 to 1962 - the indigent, the unknown, and the insane - many from Taunton State Hospital, all laid to anonymous rest.

Photographer Karen Callan of Raynham has given them recognition in a compelling exhibit titled “Anonymous Among Us: Images From a New England Potter’s Field,’’ which opens at the Raynham Public Library on Wednesday.

About 30 photographs will be displayed in Raynham, and a smaller exhibit will run at the Taunton Public Library.

Callan, a graphics designer in the publications office at Bridgewater State University, first spotted the graveyard when she was driving by and was struck by the short metal markers in long rows, hundreds of feet long.

“I did know it was a potter’s field,’’ she said, using a name coming from biblical times when fields of clay used for pottery were useless for agriculture but acceptable for burying the dead. “I didn’t know the history, and did some research and found that many of the dead were from Taunton State Hospital.’’

At first, she said, her photographic eye was drawn to the appearance of the sweeping rows of markers - small vertical figures of iron, or flat markers of iron or stone - next to a cemetery of the more recognizable kind, with monuments and markers bearing family names and dates of death.

Then she started researching the dead in the graves, taking advantage of detailed records at the the Taunton Cemetery Department.

“That really humanized it for me,’’ Callan said. “For example, they have a lot of babies buried there, buried with unrelated adults to use the space to the best advantage. Occasionally, bodies were removed to other cemeteries and those plots used for newly deceased.’’

The causes of death read like an antique medical journal: dropsy, diphtheria, chronic mania, melancholia, paresis, smallpox, and one “of brain,’’ a listing that mystifies Callan.

One grave, the records show, contains the remains of Jane Toppan, aka Jolly Jane, a notorious, yet largely forgotten, female serial killer.

She was born in 1857, given up for adoption, and indentured as a teen to the Toppan family in the Boston area. She became a nurse, who, after her arrest in 1901, reportedly confessed to poisoning 31 victims, including some at Cambridge Hospital.

Toppan was found not guilty by insanity and sent to Taunton State Hospital - known in its early years as the Taunton Lunatic Asylum - where she died in 1938 and was interred in the potter’s field. The exact marker is missing; her grave number, 984, is on record at the cemetery department, and Callan said she knows roughly where Toppan’s grave should be.

Particularly chilling are the grave records of the young. The first pauper’s grave to be recorded, Callan said, was on July 21, 1862, a 7-year-old girl.

“It says ‘English’ on her death records; in the beginning, they would put where the deceased were from originally, if they knew,’’ Callan said.

She returned to the site over two years, recording grave markers in all seasons, from the delicate dew of spring to the thick snow of winter, shooting thousands of photos. She also took note of the nearby graveyards where the dead were known and memorialized with ornate headstones.

“Juxtaposed to that are these markers,’’ she said. “And like those in the other graveyard, these people had families and friends. They battled debilitating illnesses, mental and physical, and parents mourned babies and children for whom they had hopes and dreams.’’

Some of the photos show markers flush with the ground. Some are hard to see, covered by grass or dirt. Others have been pushed slightly out of the ground by weather, in one instance revealing a marker shored up with an old Chase and Sanborn coffee can.

“Karen’s photos are evocative of a time and period that is almost faded from memory,’’ said Eden Fergusson, library director in Raynham. “If you look through the photos, the poignancy of that whole time is overwhelming. The fact that the dead are marked with no names, but numbers, reflects the sadness of it.

“But Karen did a beautiful job of evoking tender feelings of that sad period of our local history,’’ Fergusson said.

Callan self-published a book of 94 of the photos, many of which will be displayed at the libraries.

She donated one copy of the book to each library, and stressed that she is not selling books; she published only enough for herself and to donate.

According to Callan, potter’s fields are common to many cemeteries.

At Hart Island in New York, for example, a researcher is doing a project on that field that is the resting place of about 800,000 of the city’s indigent dead. Callan said she may do similar photo projects in Foxborough and Bridgewater.

Above all, she said, the message she hopes her exhibit will impart is one of respect.

“I just want this to be respectful, to make other people stop and think about it,’’ she said. “Right next to the potter’s field are these cemeteries with beautiful, ornate stones and names, but at the potter’s field, I never saw anyone visiting a grave at any time.’’

By doing the exhibit, she said, “I’m hoping to give the nameless a voice.’’

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