In 2006, construction on the future Trump Soho uncovered the burial vaults of the Spring Street Presbyterian Church. Syracuse University Anthropology graduate student Meredith Ellis and Bioarchaeologist Shannon Novak, author of House of Mourning:A Biocultural History of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, have been analyzing the human remains and material artifacts to gain greater knowledge of this congregation. My interview with Meredith Ellis, whose dissertation, tentatively titled The Remains of Childhood in a 19th Century Abolitionist Congregation, reconstructs the lives of SSPC’s children, reveals how urbanization, evangelicalism, and the burgeoning abolitionist movement shaped a religious community. For a full story on Novak’s lab and the SSPC remains, see the Spring 2012 issue of Maxwell Perspective, available here as a pdf.
Please tell us a bit of the history of the SSPC during the period when the vaults were in use. How was the church influenced by the Second Great awakening?
During the time when the burial vaults of the church were in use, the city was changing, quite drastically. The church was built in 1811 in what was known as the 8th Ward. It was on farm land at the time. Within the next 20 years, the neighborhood of the church grew and urbanized into a mixed class, multiracial center. Soon, Spring Street had a market along the docks at one end; businesses and residences along its length, including a fire station, the church, and a glue factory/tannery; and several blocks of brothels at the other end. Like other groups, residents of Spring Street reacted to the burgeoning technology and market revolutions in this country that challenged previous ways of life.
The Spring Street Presbyterian Church pastors participated in the religious revivals of the Second Great Awakening in a few ways. First, we know that the Reverend Henry G. Ludlow, pastor at the church from 1828-1837, hosted at least 6 revival events during his time at Spring Street. Additionally, both Ludlow and his predecessor Samuel H. Cox were active abolitionists. They were part of the founding group of the Third Presbytery, a break-away synod of Presbyterians who supported immediate emancipation of slaves, and of the American Anti-Slavery Society, which had the same goals. Both pastors reached out through tract distribution and education programs to children, the poor, and African Americans. And from pieces of sermons that we can find today, we know that they were likely involved in other reform movements associated with the Second Great Awakening, including temperance, Sabbatarianism, and body reform.
What have you learned about the backgrounds of the parishioners? Who belonged to this church?
The church appears to have drawn congregants from the local neighborhood. Census data indicates that the neighborhood and church included working-class and middling class families. Reverend Ludlow said in 1828 that the church was home to 300 people “most of whom belong to that class of person who cannot afford to purchase or hire a pew in our city churches.” We know from archival sources that the neighborhood included shopkeepers, blacksmiths, grocers, cartmen, and cabinet makers, among others. Additionally, we know that households around Spring Street included nuclear families and extended families, both of European and African ancestry, as well as boarding houses.
This is one place where the skeletal remains can help as well. From the remains, we know that indeed some of the parishioners were working very hard: large muscle attachments, repetitive use injuries, and the occasional traumatic injury suggest that some of those buried in the vaults performed heavy manual labor on a regular basis. And yet, we also find individuals with far fewer skeletal signatures of work. These individuals were leading less stressful lifestyles. Additionally, we have at least three separate instances of gold dental work: two individuals with gold fillings and one with a gold bridge.
Skeletal remains can also give us some insight into ancestry. We have some skeletal markers consistent with those of African ancestry and some consistent with those of European ancestry. We hope to receive grant funding in the future to further investigate this issue through DNA analysis.
What do the bones tell us about the way the congregation put its religious beliefs into practice?
This is a really important question, and something we think about quite a bit. Basically, we are trying to understand if the individuals practiced what they preached. The inclusion of African Americans in the burial vaults with European Americans would be good evidence that, at least in terms of welcoming those of African ancestry into their faith, the congregants we true to their word. Other questions are more elusive: did they practice temperance? Sabbatarianism? These are less clear. Body reform movements that targeted dietary practices are an issue we can begin to address as we look at dietary patterns. We are doing this by using stable isotope analysis, which tracks the signature of carbon and nitrogen, which is absorbed from the food that you eat. In addition, diseases of deficiency in the children, including rickets, scurvy, and B12 deficiency, may suggest how the time and also perhaps the church influenced diet.
Your dissertation focuses on the children of the Spring Street Presbyterians Church. What do their remains reveal about evangelical childhood?
Great question. To me, they reveal a few things: First, we need to remember that the remains of the children act as perhaps the best barometer of the conditions at the time. Adult bone continues to grow and turn over regularly, with complete replacement taking place every 7-10 years. For children, however, bone turn over is much faster, approximately every year, because they are growing so quickly. So their remains offer us a window into their more immediate environment. I think the high rates of metabolic conditions that we are seeing in the children’s remains are our first clue to life at this time in this location. These conditions are results of dietary deficiencies (a lack of Vitamin C, D, and B12) and living conditions (low access to sunlight). The rates these conditions appear in the remains directly implicate how parents, and perhaps the church, were instructing the children to live. Does the lack of access to sunlight mean children were being kept indoors, or clothed tightly, or working inside? Do the missing vitamins from food mean that the diet was purposefully restricted by ideology or just simply unavailable to these classes?
I think the other important thing that the children’s remains teach us about an evangelical childhood is that there is no one evangelical childhood. The variety we see in the remains—healthy and sick, working hard manual labor and not, and early and late weaning—suggests that there were a variety of childhoods in the church. The young are sensitive to epidemics, and from the records we know that children of all classes and lifestyles were taken by cholera and yellow fever, and even that the Reverend Cox lost three children in a month to scarlet fever. Some of the remains show heavy muscle development for the age of the children, with large deltoid muscle attachments, or even a case of healing cranial trauma, for example. Others show no signs of day to day life. Isotope data suggest some children were weaned early, which would facilitate the mother working or being outside the home, while other children were nursed quite late, which suggests an entirely different parenting strategy. So the evangelical childhood was really a diverse experience, and we can begin to show this diversity through understanding the remains of the children of the Spring Street Presbyterian Church.