Whose names and stories do we remember? How do we choose which to preserve? How – and why – do we perpetuate those that we remember?
Western student historians working at Woodland Cemetery grappled with these questions and more as they worked toward curating “Lost & Found,” a guided historical walking tour that resurrects stories of individuals buried in the cemetery’s Potter’s Fields. Graves of immigrants, individuals who lived in poverty or in institutions, as well as those that didn’t meet the moral code of the time were buried in this space, without much thought to preserving their memory for future generations, according to Arts and Humanities and Faculty of Information and Media Studies students Levi Hord, Leah Abaza and Thomas Sayers.
Along the back fence, where lots couldn’t be sold lay those who weren’t allowed or couldn’t afford to be laid to rest among their neighbours and families. Hord and Abaza worked to unearth some of these names and stories.
Alicia Helena Wilson
In July 1925, a woman washed up on the bank of the Thames River and was discovered by two 13-year-old boys. With time running out before her body completely decomposed and with no identification made, she was sent to the Potter’s Fields. At some point after her burial, the mystery woman was identified, named Alicia Helena Wilson. Her body was exhumed and moved to Ingersoll, though records and details are scarce. Her grave at Woodland is empty and her resting place today is unknown.
William Wilson was a burglar who was shot in the chest and throat by police in a heated standoff after robbing Cole’s wood-turning shop in February 1904.
He and his accomplice stole tools and diamonds from various locations across southwestern Ontario. Wilson was unknown to the police prior to his demise but it was believed he immigrated to Canada from America only a couple of years before his death.
Since he had no next of kin to anyone’s knowledge, his status as a criminal warranted his burial in Woodland’s Potter’s Fields.
Dr. Bucke & The Asylum Graves
The London Asylum for the Insane opened its doors in 1870. Their 500 beds were filled instantly with those whom records refer to as ‘lunactics,’ ‘idiots’ and ‘degenerates.’
People were shamed for going to the asylum and, in some cases, families mourned an individual’s committal as though they had actually died.
Those who were not claimed by their families upon death were sent to the Potter’s Fields.
One of the asylum’s doctors, Dr. Richard M. Bucke, prompted experimental surgeries on those committed, including hysterectomies and lobotomies.
Ting Yeung Wong
Woodland’s records all indicate that Ting Yeung’s name was “Ing” but the proper translation of the Cantonese characters on his marker reveals his name to have been “Ting.”
Knowing the racist social climate that the Chinese Immigration Act promoted in the late 1800s, this discrepancy was likely a product of poor translation and miscommunication, according to the students.
The same is true for many records of other immigrants who spoke little English. Today, we must ensure that our records are filled with correct data so that future generations are remembered and history is preserved, said Hord.
Before Woodland Cemetery opened in 1879, it existed as St. Paul’s Cemetery (now the Western Fair District).
When the bodies were moved from St. Paul’s to Woodland, their “Potter’s Field” was also transferred.
The “unknown dead” from St. Paul’s Potter’s Field are remembered along with Johnathan Mitchell, a 27-year-old carpenter who was living at the Asylum when he died from suicide.
John Kelly was one of 200 people who lost their lives May 24, 1881 when the steamboat Victoria wrecked in the Thames River.
He was born in Ireland before moving to England and then immigrated to Canada, where he worked as a labourer.
Along with John Kelly, others from the Victoria Day Disaster are buried in the same lot – including Alice and Edward Williamson, Henry Abey, Lotticia Swanwick, and Glanville G. Wiseman.
Emma Wilson & Esther Barnes
Emma Wilson was 19 years old when she died from “suicide at the brothel.” The press described her as an “abandonned female tired of life” and went on to make a spectacle of her death, warning against the fate of a sinner. She lays unmarked in the Potter’s Fields.
Esther Barnes, in comparison, is often portrayed as a heroic feminist. She was charged for keeping a bawdy house but successfully fought in court and lays buried in the cemetery’s Lot R – not the Potter’s Field.
IF YOU GO…
Hear and see these stories in person. Western students will lead you through a guided walking tour of the Potter’s Fields on Saturday, July 7 at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.