'A pauper's shame:' A biocultural investigation of trauma, impairment, and disability in the Erie County Poorhouse Cemetery, 1851-1913
Byrnes, Jennifer Frances
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The purpose of this investigation is to use traumatic injury data from both skeletal and historical sources from the Erie County Poorhouse and associated cemetery to examine, assess, and discuss physical impairments at this place in time. This will facilitate the overarching goal to discuss impairment as it relates to disability and social identity within this sample, as well as how this discussion contributes towards the interdisciplinary field of disability studies in bioarchaeology. Between 1851 and 1913 some of the poorest residents of Erie County were buried in the poorhouse cemetery, consisting mainly of the unclaimed bodies of those who died at the poorhouse complex. A large salvage excavation effort took place in 2012, resulting in the identification of 482 burial locations containing a minimum number of 376 individuals. Based on historical research, over half of those "relieved" by the poorhouse were immigrants, most of whom were either Irish or German. The Irish were at a higher risk of falling into poverty due to severe British-bestowed social oppression in Ireland. This led to disproportionate frequencies of Irish admitted to the poorhouse compared to their overall population in Erie County during that time. Disability studies embraces many avenues of thought, each advocating different theoretical models such as the medical, social, and interactional. The medical model understands disability through the premise that impairments need to be dislodged from individuals. The social model views disability as socially constructed through social barriers, and that disability will be removed as soon as the barriers are removed. The interactional model acknowledges that both the body (impairment) and social factors have roles to play in the formation of disability, and is therefore the only model suitable for conceptualizing disability in bioarchaeology. Interactional theory also allows for a more integrated discussion of identity, intersectionality, and embodiment. Traumatic injuries are normally used in physical anthropology to determine causative factors, such as accidental or violence-based injuries. This study moves away from the dominant research paradigm in an effort to assess the resultant physical impairment of the individual. By examining frequencies, patterns, and demographic trends, the interplay and relationship between physical impairments to individual identities comes to the forefront. Of the 207 adults that met the completeness criteria with at least 75 percent of their appendicular skeleton present for this study, 67 individuals (38 males and 9 females) displayed macroscopic evidence of trauma to the appendicular skeleton. At least one fracture was identified among 35.1 percent (n=34) of the males, and 18.4 percent (n=9) of the females. At least one fracture was also found among 17.5 percent (n=7) ambiguously sexed adults and 42.9 percent (n=9) of indeterminately sexed adults. As a whole, 29.3 percent (n=39) of middle and middle/old adults displayed antemortem fractures. Seven of the 13 old adults displayed antemortem fractures (53.8%). Only 18.4 percent (n=9) of the young adult sample displayed antemortem fractures. The majority of the fracture locations for males were in the leg and ankle, while females had more wrist fractures. Three individuals (2 males and 1 ambiguously sexed adult) had bony signs of dislocation, consisting of two glenohumeral and one radiocapitellar joint. Twelve individuals displayed traumatic myositis ossificans, most of which were male (n=9), mainly afflicting the long bones of the lower limb. Two ambiguously sexed individuals had healed amputations of the lower limb. A modified modern clinical assessment was utilized to produce a whole person physical impairment rating for each individual. Due to small sample sizes, only general trends could be observed. Females tended to have less severe physical impairments than males. Middle and old adults tended to have more severe physical impairment ratings than young adults. This research represents and attempts to move beyond preliminary theoretical integration of disability studies and bioarchaeology and towards a more theoretically robust model backed by new methodology that yields quantifiable results. My interpretations of these data shed new light on the lived experience of a minority group--the impaired and disabled--that is severely underrepresented in the documentary record. Potentially, these findings may be relevant to a broader audience of scholars in the rapidly growing field of disability studies.