Biology Faculty Proceedings, Presentations, Speeches, Lectures

An analysis of the methods and purposes of post-mortem examinations as observed in a pauper cemetery

Event Name/Location

76th Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists / Philadelphia, PA, USA

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Proceeding Title

Program of the 76th Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists


The Milwaukee County Almshouse Cemetery was the place of burial for the indigent of the city as well as residents of institutions for long term care. The cemetery was in active use from 1884 to 1925 and included an estimated 6,400 inhumations. Mitigation excavations of a construction impact area recovered 1,649 burials of which 588 were non-adults and 1,061 were adults at the time of death.

Data were gathered on intentional alterations of 114 adults that are likely to have been associated post-mortem examination. Two methods were used to remove part of the cranial vault with the most common being a circular cut to remove the calotte and the second removing only the frontal bone by a cut above the supraorbital ridge with a right angle cut at various points of the frontal or parietals. Post-mortem examinations of postcranial elements were observed in only 13 instances.

Individuals with evidence of post-mortem examinations were analyzed for indicators of pathology and only 42 percent exhibited features interpreted to be a consequence of trauma or infection.

Autopsy records from the Milwaukee County Coroner’s Office were examined for the period from 1920 to 1925. Comparisons of cause of death listed in the autopsy report are made with cause of death listed in the almshouse cemetery registry. The records lead to the suggestion that the almshouse residents were less likely to be autopsied than the general population.

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