Deep under a quiet field in Oakland lay 500 mysteries.
Maybe more than 500. Even the number is a mystery.
"At first I thought this was a place to run your dog," said Gaye Lenahan, a docent at Mountain View Cemetery. "But there's all these people buried in it. I thought, 'What is their story?' Turns out to be kind of a sad story."
The field is called Strangers' Plot, a few peaceful acres of lawn and redwoods near the cemetery entrance. From 1863, when the cemetery opened, until World War I, Alameda County sent the bodies of its poor, unknown, suicides and criminals to the Strangers' Plot for burial.
Lenahan just published 15 years' worth of research about Strangers' Plot, but even in this age of DNA testing and technology, information is scarce.
The field bears no sign. Records are scant. The bodies were crammed in 2-foot-wide plots, with no markers or tombstones. On the cemetery map, the area is simply labeled "S."
"We know all about the rich and famous people buried here," said Lenahan, a retired paralegal from Piedmont. "But these people are just ignored. They don't fit the profile of a fancy cemetery."
Mountain View Cemetery is indeed one of the fancier places in the East Bay. Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the 226-acre expanse of oaks and rolling hills at the end of Piedmont Avenue in Oakland is on the National Register of Historic Places. Charles Crocker, Domingo Ghirardelli, Henry Durant, Henry J. Kaiser, Samuel Merritt and other founders of the West are buried on its leafy slopes.
But Strangers' Plot tells a different story of the West. Its inhabitants died of gunshot wounds, drowning, hanging and explosions, according to cemetery records. Twenty-two of the bodies were men killed in an 1880 dynamite blast at Fleming Point in Berkeley. Twelve were labeled simply, "unknown bodies from 14th and Harrison."
Hundreds of the graves belong to infants. How or why their tiny bodies ended up in Strangers' Plot, no one knows.
The lone tombstone in the field is for William Holmes Mabien, who killed himself on Christmas Eve 1871, at age 68. As a suicide, Mabien would have been prohibited from burial in the main cemetery.
"But someone obviously cared enough for him to put up a stone," Lenahan said. "All it says is, 'Rest in Peace.' "
But perhaps the biggest mystery is the Chinese presence. Hundreds of the bodies are identified with Chinese surnames, cemetery records show.
At the time, Oakland had several thriving Chinatown neighborhoods, with a solid population of several thousand Chinese and Chinese Americans. They came to California for the Gold Rush, to work on the railroad, to open shops, become shrimp fishermen and work in the farm fields.
Most were single men who hoped to return to China or bring their families here eventually. But the Exclusion Act of 1882 banned Chinese immigration, stranding those who had already arrived.
Many of these men sent their earnings home and would have probably died alone, explaining why so many might have ended up in unmarked graves for the indigent.
The Exclusion Act also forced many Chinese families to lie about their birth and death records, which also confused matters relating to burials.
"It's a very tangled, murky history," said Oakland author William Wong, who's written extensively about Bay Area Chinese history. "A lot of people relied on these tight-knit, insulated family organizations, which might explain why there's not many public records about who's buried where."
Fran Toy, a minister who grew up in Oakland's Chinatown, said prosperous Chinese families at the time would have brought the bodies of loved ones home to China for burial.
A few dozen bodies at Strangers' Plot have been exhumed, most likely moved by families when money became available.
But the hundreds that remain, obviously, were not prosperous people.
"It's sad this happened," Toy said. "These single men had pretty miserable lives. They lived in cramped little apartments, worked all the time, and then died alone."
Places like Strangers' Plot still exist, but these days they're either nondescript crypts shared by thousands of the indigent, or the waters of the bay. Bay Area county coroners handle hundreds of indigent remains a year, although thanks to modern technology almost no bodies are left unidentified.
"It might take a while, but sooner or later, we always find the family," said Alameda County Sheriff's Lt. Riddic Bowers, who works in the coroner's office. "And we keep the records forever, so if someone comes forward and says 'I want to retrieve Uncle Fred,' we can give them Uncle Fred."
Counties spend about $500 per body on disposing the indigent. Some counties, such as Alameda, keep the cremains in a local crypt in perpetuity, while others, like San Francisco, eventually have the ashes scattered in the bay.
Ashes scattered in bay
Such was the fate last week of a 72-year-old Manteca woman who died with nothing - no money, no friends or family willing or able to claim her. San Joaquin County arranged with Bay Area Cremation and Funeral Service to sprinkle her ashes in the bay.
So on a foggy, chilly morning, the firm's president, Clint Love, stood on the rear deck of a 46-foot power boat and gently poured the woman's ashes, and the ashes for four other indigent, into the depths off Angel Island.
"There's a sense of freedom," said Love, who said the number of indigent cases his firm handles increased 18 percent last year. "They are finally free. They're very much at peace."
A Catholic priest read a short prayer and the boat's captain recorded the exact longitude and latitude. The whole process took about three minutes.
No agency tracks indigent deaths, but the departed souls are hardly forgotten. Even a century later, their mysteries haunt historians.
Back at Mountain View Cemetery, docent Lenahan gazed across the quiet meadow and paraphrased the biblical reference to unmarked graves for the poor.
"The potters' field ... from which all that come ... the strangers, the friendless poor," she said. "For the longest time I thought this was just a grassy hillside. But there are people here."
Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2011/01/23/BA0O1H1H2P.DTL&ao=2#ixzz1CBfaw8VB
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