During a walk through Collins Cove in Salem last year, local historian and Salem State University alumna Jen Ratliff ‘18 discovered the remains of a burial site of an unknown person. The site is now recognized as the last vestige of the city’s 19th century Almshouse and its graveyard.
“This is a site that I live nearby and was familiar with. I always felt like there was a story to it. I’d walk by it on the way to the Willows, and think, there is something there, a history.”
After receiving her bachelor’s degree in history from Salem State and working in the university’s archives, first as an intern and now as a part-time employee, Ratliff said she gained the skills to solve the mystery of what happened to the Almshouse and the people that were once buried there.
Ratliff said, “I learned a lot of the skills I needed to do this at Salem State. To be able to recognize where I should be looking for records, what type of information to scrutinize, and what type of information to record in my history of the site. All the projects that I did, and the internship experience I got, prepared me for this type of project and gave me the confidence to start it on my own.”
In January 2019, Ratliff began conducting research in various locations, including the Salem State archives. Ratliff discovered that the Almshouse was built in 1816 and functioned as charitable lodging for Salem’s impoverished residents, who often died of various illnesses, like smallpox, and were later buried in the house’s adjacent makeshift graveyard.
She said the house was active until the 1950s when it was condemned, razed in 1954 and sold by the City of Salem to condominium developers in the 1980s, under the condition that the cemetery be preserved.
Despite this agreement, Ratliff’s research points to a lack of preservation of the graveyard.
“During construction of the condo complex, at least five headstones were reported to have been uncovered, yet their whereabouts are unknown. The burial site remains unmarked and is only identifiable by the remnant of a single slate headstone. The names of those who rest here have yet to be discovered, though with additional research their identities may be revealed,” Ratliff said.
According to the Salem News article, “Forgotten graveyard: Advocate wants Almshouse burying ground memorialized,” dated November 25, 2019, the site, now home to condominiums, has a public footpath “that runs along the back of the condo units and leads directly to the burial site” without any indication that there was ever an almshouse or a cemetery in the area.
In an effort to remember the forgotten and misplaced historical site, Ratliff, powered by her passion for documenting history, began advocating for an Almshouse plaque of remembrance in September of 2019.
“It’s really a part of being a public historian to do what you can to make sure public history remains available and remains in context.”
Ratliff brought the case to the Salem Historical Commission, which reviews applications for work being done on properties in Salem’s four local historic districts and maintains an inventory of historic resources.
When news of the petition went public, Ratliff’s professors from Salem State began to reach out to her, offering their presence, assistance and guidance.
Ratliff said, “On the night that I presented to the Historical Commission, Dr. Donna Seger, whom had been my capstone professor, was there and put in a good word for me and my research.”
Ratliff added, “Dr. [Emerson] Baker, who is now the vice provost for academic affairs and was once my professor, asked me if there was anything that I needed help with.”
Ratliff said it was great to have the support of other professionals in the field whom she could bounce questions off of, emphasizing the importance of staying in contact with college professors.
On November 6, 2019, with the support from her professors, the Historical Commission decided to back Ratliff’s proposal by voting to write a letter of support to the city in favor or installation of two signs, a memorial plaque near the cemetery site, and informational sign about the Almshouse on Collins Cove.
As of today, Ratliff is currently working with the City Solicitor's office to design signage, which, pending funding, they intend to install this spring.