Nobody alive today knows who the 1,887 people buried in Woodin Street Cemetery are. None of their bodies are marked with gravestones. The only clues to their identities are little rocks that were interred with them, but these rocks have long sunk into the earth. Attached to these rocks are bronze discs with identification numbers. The only rock that hasn’t descended below ground commemorates a man named Lorin C. Hay, who died in 1960. It was dedicated by his son Larry, and reads “I LOVE YOU DADDY.”
The last burial was on Nov. 30, 1984, for a man named Raymond Shea. The cemetery closed in 1985. Since its closure, the Woodin Street Cemetery of Hamden, Conn., has deteriorated to the point that it no longer resembles a burial ground; rather, it simply looks like a small field enclosed by forest. The space has descended into general disarray. There used to be an engraved metal plaque demarcating the cemetery, but it has since been stolen. Fallen trees have not been cleared from the area. Most people don’t even know the cemetery exists.
Bill MacMullen wants to change that. He wants to fix the gaping hole in the mortuary roof. He wants to replace the missing lettering on the gate. Using ground-penetrating radar, he wants to locate the discs in the earth and link the disc numbers with records of the deceased: he wants to identify the bodies. He hopes to completely restore the Woodin Street Cemetery.
MacMullen is an architect, Navy veteran, and historical reenactor. Officially, he is the Architectural Capital Projects Coordinator at the City of New Haven and has been working with the city for the past 19 years. “I was lucky,” MacMullen said, “because I started doing architecture in high school. I was 15 years old. I lied about my age to this architectural firm… They put me in a drafting room with an old guy teaching me how to draw lines until I got more and more responsibilities.” He’d been interested in architecture as a career path ever since his engineer uncle recommended the profession to him as a child, having seen MacMullen’s drawings of buildings. At the time, he wrote out the word “architect,” and decided he liked the way it looked. He attended Yale for Naval Science until the program was discontinued in 1971 because of the Vietnam War, and he consequently transferred to Boston University.
For many years, MacMullen worked out of Boston — that is, until he got an offer from a developer in Boston called the Beacon Company to work on a $144 million project in New Haven. Elm Haven was a run-down public housing project, and MacMullen was tasked with redeveloping its 23 acres into the residential neighborhood now known as Monterey Place. That project led to another, then another, and ultimately he decided to stay in New Haven. Since then, his work has included the construction of the new Q House, the community center and fixture of the Dixwell neighborhood; the implosion of the Veterans Memorial Coliseum, the former New Haven sports and entertainment center, to make way for Gateway Community College; and the erection of a monument in the police station commemorating officers who died in the line of duty. MacMullen says that he is trying to make a difference through his work. He wants to make people as comfortable as possible in the spaces he converts because “the more comfortable people are, the more successful they are.” He went on to say, “I figure I’ll only be here for a while…at least while I’m here, I want to be able to say I did a number of things that have some value.”
A bizarre event from 1994 incited MacMullen’s passion for history. He was Executive Director of the Naval Shipbuilding Museum of Quincy, Mass., when, one day, he received a package. The museum frequently received donations, so he didn’t think anything was out of the ordinary. But as an intern was carrying the box, the bottom collapsed and a skeleton rolled out. A note was glued to the skull, requesting for these remains to be sent to the Surgeon Major in Fort Warren “for interment up North.” Reading the note, MacMullen realized, “This guy was never buried.” With this revelation, he set out to uncover everything he could about the identity of this body.
He sent one intern to Washington and another to Boston to look up identification records. He called the University of Massachusetts’ Forensic department to examine the body. What they learned was that the man was African American; he was five foot eight; he’d chewed tobacco; he’d likely done a lot of manual labor in his life; and appeared to have either died from shrapnel or a bullet. The interns returned with two I.D.s: he was either a man named Abraham Jenks or Abraham Jenkins.
As MacMullen tells it, Abraham Jenks had been a laborer in the Confederate Army. He was wounded and captured by Union forces and then sent to a hospital in the middle of Boston Harbor. While there, a Surgeon Major asked him why he was fighting for the Confederates since he was African American. Jenks clarified that he wasn’t fighting: he was only building roads and hauling things. The surgeon told him, “You should be fighting for your freedom,” to which Jenks agreed, so he traveled to Maryland to join a specific regiment of the Union Army. He was killed at the Battle of the Crater, just before he would have arrived in Richmond. Because he’d told his fellow soldiers to contact the surgeon in Boston in the event of his death, his corpse was shipped to Massachusetts. But nobody could track down the surgeon and Jenks’s body was left unclaimed. For ten years, his body was kept at a funeral home, then his remains were moved into smaller boxes. Eventually, the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), a Civil War veterans’ group, offered to give him a proper burial, but ended up placing his body in a basement and forgetting about it. When their last member died in 1956, GAR dissolved, and members’ relatives were allowed to take belongings from the basement. One woman found the box containing Jenks’s body and donated it to the Naval Shipbuilding Museum where MacMullen worked.
MacMullen wanted to give Jenks the burial he deserved — but not just any burial. He wanted to recreate what a funeral would have looked like in 1864. So he obtained a formal death certificate from a coroner. Then he contacted around 700 historical reenactors to attend the event. A local funeral parlor agreed to make a coffin from the era. Stop&Shop donated big tents, coffee, and beans. The cookie company G.H. Bent made hardtack, a simple type of cracker commonly eaten by Civil War soldiers. An encampment was installed in the park where the funeral was held; cannons started to show up, along with people on horses. At this point, MacMullen was very interested in historical reenactment: he, too, was measured for a uniform and joined the procession. About 34,000 people attended Jenks’s 1995 funeral; the local church overflowed. Jenks, a man who had for so long been denied his funeral rites, finally got to rest in peace.
“People aren’t aware of the past,” MacMullen said. “A lot of the times they’ll look at a movie and think that’s what [war] was. Or read a book. But try and live it, do the same thing and you’ll get a whole different perspective. It wasn’t fun. It wasn’t heroic. It was boring.” Because he wants to better understand the realities of war, MacMullen continues to reenact historic scenes after Jenks’s burial. Recently, he did one event in Ohio, on the shores of Lake Erie, for the 75th anniversary of D-Day. He played a soldier from the Commonwealth forces — the first one ashore and therefore responsible for telling comrades where to go on the beach. In October, he will attend another World War II reenactment in Stowe, Mass.
MacMullen leads a life dedicated to historical reenactment and conservation because he believes he can “learn something from it.” He learns from each figure he plays and gains “a little more understanding for what it was like to be them.” His ambition to restore the Woodin Street Cemetery stems from similar reasons: “I want to find out as much as I can about who they were.”
The bodies buried in the Woodin Street Cemetery currently dwell in obscurity, having been neglected by the living. A sign arching from the gate enclosing the graveyard once read “Unto the Least of These,” a biblical reference that reveals that those entombed there were poor people — people with nowhere else to go. That very sign is now missing many of its letters, so that it has become almost indecipherable. Perhaps the people interred in Woodin were allowed to be forgotten because they were “the Least of These.” But MacMullen refuses to let this stay the case.
When he unearths the rocks buried with these bodies, he will refer to the Woodin Street Cemetery Burial Book, in which almost every interment has been documented. He will look at the number of this disc appended to the rock and refer to a lot number. This lot number will reveal Name and Date of Death: Eloise Horning (1–16–1933), Mary Patton (5–23–1972), Emanuel Clark (6–10–1983). Not a single one of these 1,887 bodies will be left unknown.
He said, “These people lived their lives. They had relatives — mothers, fathers, sons. Now they’re dead, and nobody knows they’re there. Their whole lives added up to no one knowing they’re there. I don’t think that’s fair. That’s why I’m doing this. That’s why I’d still be doing this, even if nobody asked me to.”