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Milwaukee County Almshouse and Poor Farm Cemeteries

Milwaukee County Wisconsin Genealogy

THE DEAD

Due to the fact that there are nearly 6,400 names in the burial register book the names have been broken up by years.

The list on this website is far from complete. It was a work-in-progress. (see note below)

The records do exist for the poor farm. The news I received in Summer 2013 is the original records are no longer being kept at the Milwaukee County Buildings and Grounds department. The original Burial Book is now at the Milwaukee County Historical Society. It is not generally available to the public. Copies of the records are available on microfiche at the Historical Society.

I also understand as of Feb 2013 a complete copy of the burial book can be found at the:
Wauwatosa Historical Society
7406 Hillcrest Drive
Wauwatosa, WI 53213
Phone: 414-774-8672
They welcome research inquiries.
Fees may apply.
Website

List of Burials

Below I have included a list of burials as was completed in the late 1990s from the burial books. This list is far from complete.

Please note: Please be sure to read the history of the Cemeteries, as there were several Potters Field within Milwaukee County. The exact locations of these burials is not known.

1872-1934 1893-1913 (partial), there are very few for the years 1914-1934
1935-1974 1956-1974 (complete)

At this time there are a number of memorials on Find-A-Grave (7,571). The note on Find A Grave states the list reflects only a small percentage of the total names in the Burial Book.

HISTORY OF THE CEMETERIES

The Milwaukee "County Farm" Cemetery (a.k.a. Potter's Field) was used during the years 1872-1974. This cemetery was used for the poorhouse inmates and also for burial of other indigent people and transients for whom no funds were available for burial. The cemetery may have been in use prior to 1872. However, there is no documentation of burials occurring before 1872. (see article on 1849/1850 cholera epidemic burials).

A total of five pauper cemeteries have been located to date within Milwaukee County.
There was one on the east side North of North Avenue and East of Oakland (discovered in the 1950s near St. Mary's). See articles on the Cholera Epidemic and St. Mary's.
The remaining four are on the Milwaukee County grounds.
The second cemetery was discovered in April of 1932, during construction of a nurses' home. See article
The third one is where the most recent burials are and is known as the Milwaukee County Cemetery.
A fourth cemetery was found in 1991 west of the Milwaukee County Cemetery very near where the second cemetery was located.
A fifth cemetery were found in 2000 in a small wooded area less than a quarter-mile northwest of the graveyard between Watertown Plank Road and the Menomonee River.

More on the Potters Field Cemeteries

It has been reported, that the Superintendent of the Poor was often delinquent in the care of the cemeteries. A Milwaukee Sentinel newspaper story in 1878 was titled, "A Disgraceful Potter's Field". The article went on to complain of coffins popping out of the ground and insufficient dirt covering the coffins.

The Register of Burials for the Milwaukee County Poor Farm began in 1882 and lasted until 1974. Most of the burials were from the Almshouse, County Hospital, or transported from area hospitals or the downtown morgue. There were 431 unknown persons listed. Ages were not recorded until 1898, and cause of death not recorded until 1908.

ALMSHOUSE HISTORY

In 1852, Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors purchased a county farm for $6,000 to act as a poorhouse. They named it Almshouse. Admission to the Almshouse required a number of things: a judge's order documented poverty lack of any relatives or friends that would take you in and the signatures of two County taxpayers.

Many of the common causes for admitance were:
Deaf and dumb inmates
Disabled by blindness
Disabled by old age
Disabled by disease and loss of limb
Epileptic
Feeble minded
Alcoholism
Out of work

Soon after the Almshouse was established it became clear the facility was not suitable for all the inmates. In 1858, the county opened a second facility for children. The Lady Elgin steamship disaster of 1860, resulted in a huge influx of orphans. Many of these orphans were sent to the Almshouse creating a need for a large facility which eventually developed into the Home for Dependent Children and Infant's Hospital in 1898. In 1860, a hospital was also established to separate and care for inmates with contagious disease. This institution evolved into the present day Milwaukee County Medical Complex.

In 1878, the Milwaukee County Insane Asylum was built, consisting of a facility for the chronically ill called South Division and a North Division which cared for patients with acute illnesses.

In the 1880's the Almshouse went through a couple of name changes. In 1883 it was called the County Farm for Inebriates and Idiots and in 1885 the Milwaukee County Retreat for Weak and Feeble Minded Persons.

In 1917 the name was changed to County Infirmary. The infirmary was torn down in the mid 1970s and replaced with a parking lot.

More information on the Milwaukee Almshouse can be found Poorhouse Story.

GRAVES OF PAUPERS AND UNKNOWN

NOTE: The burial record transcriptions were found online at another website.

After numerous attempts between 2003 and 2006 to contact the creator of the above site (Jennifer Fleischmann's Poorhouse Files) and getting no response, I thought it a wise decision to copy the genealogical data found there to this site and keep it in case the site ever was taken down. In late 2005 I noticed that that account had been hacked and there was malware on the website. No one was maintaining the site, and it was in jeapordy of being removed. I did not want all that valuable research and pain staking transcription work to be lost so I put it up here on behalf of Jennifer and have been adding to it.
Update: The original files that contained these transcriptions was last updated in 2001 and have now been offline since February 2006

In the Potter’s Field Sad Stories Read on Shingles in the County Cemetery

GRAVES OF PAUPERS AND UNKNOWN
H.R. Russell, of Cleveland, Finds a Home at Last
Gottfried Blaedow's Resting Place
Poor Blind Bob
The Never Identified

Source: The Daily Republican-Sentinel, (Milwaukee, WI) Sunday, December 24, 1882; pg. 11; Issue 9; col A

A little way south of the complex of rickety old buildings, belonging to the County Farm, to the Town of Wauwatosa, there is a stretch of undulating ground, enclosed by an old-fashioned post-and-rail fence, on which the county's weeds do whatever work they are ordered to do for the benefit of the monstrous economical undertaking commonly called the County Farm and Almshome.

In spring and summer times, when the fields sienna the barren spot please the eye by the abundance of sprouting and ripening grain, that spot, waste and almost bare of vegetation save a sparse grassy sward, looks like an ominous interrogation mark amidst the budding and blooming vegetation. The query of the wanderer, put to any of the old and infirm pensioners, who idle about in the bright sunlight, will readily be answered by the remark: "That there is the Potter's Field." The paupers do not like the south-side aspect of their abode on account or the close proximity of their last resting place on this side of !he great unknown, preferring rather to saunter down the little hill to the roadside to look at what traffic goes to and fro the thriving little village near by. The Potters Field, or, as it is officially called, the Almshouse Cemetery, is a dreary spot at its best, that Is, in summer time when shy little wild flowers make feeble attempts to peep out of the sod, and it is a question whether it dos not look better In winter time under the cover of snow which hides the dreariness of the place from the gaze of the casual or intent observer.

THE DEAD LEFT TO BURY THE DEAD.

There was a time, not many years gone by when one would be advised not to visit the Potter's Field until a thick layer of snow was on the ground, to avoid the possibility of finding some body only half buried. In those days a carelessly nailed box of rough boards containing the remains of the unfortunates who breathed their last in the squalid surroundings of a sick ward in the Alinshouse would be dropped from a farm wagon into a small trench, and the sod would be laid just as carelessly over the box, which often fell to pieces during the operation. Only a pauper" was the leading idea, and the last rites were performed accordingly. Of late the Board of Supervisors have seen to it that the trench is dug deeper, and that the boxes have the shape of a coffin, though, the burial of the county's dead has become a job for the lowest bidder. The present undertaker, who receives $3.25 per capita, makes even an attempt at ornamental coffins, such as the price Warrants.

PREPARING THE BODY.

The body is laid out in a shroud with the head resting on a pillow; the coffin is from smooth boards, with a coat of varnish; something like a grave is dug, and a little symmetrical hill is formed over the remains of the unfortunates, who, at the end of their perhaps often eventful lives, were nobody's friend. The graves now form rows, and at the top end of every little hill there is a shingle containing. the name of the deceased, In case some friend should remember them and charitably provide for them a resting place in one of our beautiful "cities of the dead."

That, however, has never happened; buried and forgotten, they sleep their last long sleep, the hundreds of people at whose cradles love perhaps dreamt as beautiful dream of happy and bright futures. Moreover, "they wouldn't keep", as an old man remarked to a reporter for The Republican-Sentinel. The ground, on account of its undulating formation, is moist, and drainage is out of the question with the highly economical town members of the County Board and their eternal cry for retrenchment.

KNOWN TO NO ONE.

The little wooden shingles at the top end of the graves reveal many a strange history to the knowing observer. There are but few of those hearing the single word "Unknown. The last one of the unknowns was buried on Sept. 25. He was a man whose body was found at the foot of Albion street, in a trench, alongside of the embankment of the Northwestern Road. The trench contained scarcely six inches of water, sufficient however, to drown the unfortunate, who fell into it headforemost. It is supposed that he fell off the bank while in a drunken stupor, and suffocated, his face being embedded in the muddy streamlet. Then there are two "unknowns" whose bodies were fished out of the river early last spring, in a state of decomposition which rendered identification out of the question. That trio completes this year's contingent of unknown to the silent inhabitants of Potter's Field.

FOUND A HOME AT LAST.

"H. R. Russel, of Cleveland", reads a shingle. His body was found Oct. 1 near St Francis. He had undoubtedly committed suicide, and letters found on his person to his relatives in Cleveland denoted that he was a man of good education, who came out West to find a home for "Dear Mary and the little ones". His relatives never responded to the request of the Coroner to take charge of the body, and the striving wanderer found rest from life's vicissitudes in a pauper's grave, Close by rests what is left on earth of Gottfried Bleedow, the professional "vag", whose home for years was the House of Correction. There is the body of the murdered baby of Annie Kramer, the mother now awaiting trial for infanticide, left by the scoundrel who ruined her and the cell of the State's Prison before her. The body of Carl Voeltz, who swung himself into eternity in a cell of the West Side Police Station, is buried here, and the body of Winfeld Medley, the colored man who died in a cell in the Central Police Station, having been booked for being drunk while in reality he was a dying man when the officers found him. Fritz Hechtle, who displayed perhaps the greatest ingenuity in his life by hanging himself to a door knob, lies close to Alexander Lippitsch, the immigrant, who first shot himself and then jumped into the river, ending a life which was once a promising one in his native country, Austria, where he was a merchant prince.

"POOR BLIND BOB"

"Poor Blind Bob," the ambulant advertising sign, who froze to death in gutter of the alley back of Fueldner's planing mill, is here "bedded warm in Mother Earth," and the last one, the baby of Mary Anne Sandrock, the young woman who was "married in distress" by her betrayer. and then deserted to fight life's battle, doubly hard for a disgraced girl to a Christian community. These are a few of the "Coroner's cases" of the last three months, and the list could he stretched threefold. Then there comes the contingent of paupers, who die in county institutions and whose remains are net claimed by relatives. They all rest here, "buried at the County's expense," as it reads in the records, and these records and a small wooden shingle are the only "monuments" of many a checkered career. It is a sad and touching walk in these bright and joyous Christmas days, among the rows of little hills in Potter's Field.

GRAVES IN POTTER'S FIELD GIVEN TOUCH OF SANCTITY

Roses and Lilac Bushes Adorn the Resting Places and Caretaker Remembers Persons Whom Relatives Forgot

Source: The Milwaukee, Sentinel, Jul 20, 1930

Probably the most doleful job in Milwaukee county is held by Ray Wagner.

He supervises Potter's field, that obscure burial plot near the county infirmary where the city and county's unknown dead are buried with their mysteries. One of his major activities has been to direct removal of 6,000 to 8,000 bodies, interred at the old burial lot, to the new cemetery. The removal was necessitated by construction of the new county hospital.

Potter's field at best is a dismal place. But it has been dignified under Mr. Wagner's care with rose and lilac bushes planted around the fense. It has been adorned a bit, despite the fact that it is between a rubbish dump and a pig pasture.

The dismal picture is brightened by Mr. Wagner's interest in the work. He is a former service man who has seen much of death. Instead of callousing him, he thinks it has made him more tender hearted. It was Mr. Wagner, then of the Twenty-second division, who on Aug. 4, 1918, drove Capt. Arthur A. Mitten an Maj. Dirk Bruins across the German lines at Fismes, when they were captured by the enemy.

Helped on Battlefields

He has seen German and American prisoners in camps, and helped to carry dying men from battlefields.

"That was all somewhat like this," he said, "We never knew who they were nor where they came from; yet we did know that somewhere, someone one cared. I feel a surge of tenderness creeping over me each time I lower a body in the ground. Maybe it's just a new born baby not wanted and so done away with by its own mother; maybe it's some withered old man who shows too plainly even in death that he has been an acute alcoholic-no matter, they are all human beings.

At present, Mr. Wagner's assistant is William Edwards, 71, who has been an inmate of the infirmary for two years. In the last three months, he has lived in a little shack near the field; helps to keep at least a dozen adult and baby graves dug in advance, waters the flowers and turns away nocturnal intruders. "D'ye know" he says indignantly, "most every night I have to get out of bed to tell people they can't park here? They come to quiet Potter's field to spoon, and I just won't have it-it isn't right for them dead people, and they don't have to stand for it."

Third are Unidentified

Since 1925, 800 graves have been established in Milwaukee county's Potter field. Fully one-third of the adults buried are unidentified, according to Mr. Wagner. At least three-quarters of the babies buried are illegitimate. Yet each grave is carefully marked with a copper number and the year of burial. The marker is fastened securely to a creosoted cedar post and a record of all burials is kept.

Yet in all the time since he has held the job, Mr. Wagner says he can almost count on his fingers the number of such requests. Visitors to Potter's field are pitifully few. Only three marble markers have been placed there since the cemetery was establised, and only six exist and were moved from the former site.

County Provides Casket

Under Mr. Wagner's directiion, the county provides a casket, a hearse, a shroud or a sheet for indigent or unidentified persons who die. The cost of the casket, made by inmates of the county institutions, is $15.50. It is a simple pine box, painted black; it is lined with white cambric and finished with a bit of lace. Mr. Wagner is always glad to welcoe a new minister or priest for burial services. When no one comes, he demands a simple reverence from curious onlookers, and bares his own head as the casket is lowered.

Yet burial he believes to be a futile end. He points out that the present Potter's field will be all too small in a few years more, and the necessity for removing it will again arise. He hopes that the requst often made by the county buildings supervisor, F.J. Ocflein, for cremation of those persons who would otherwise go to Potter's field, will be fulfilled.

See 1967 article on maintenance and upkeep of cemetery


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PLEASE NOTE: I am not affiliated with any of the cemeteries or organizations listed on these pages. I am happy to answer general questions, but would not have more specific information other than what you see listed without doing additional research. If you need help with your research, please see the lookup page for a list of volunteers and paid services that can help.

This genealogy website maintained by Ellen M. Rohr
Brookfield, WI
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