Forgotten Graves Yield Glimpse of Past


When the city dug up its graveyards earlier this century, no one was supposed to stay behind.

But a glaring oversight surfaced this summer during renovation and expansion at the Palace of the Legion of Honor.

About 300 corpses from the Gold Rush era--two of them still clutching rosaries, others wearing dentures and Levis--were unearthed from what appears to be an old pauper’s graveyard. Some experts say another 11,000 bodies might lie underneath the museum grounds.


“I’m not aware that any of them were (exhumed),” says College of San Mateo history professor Michael Svanevik: The city simply knocked down all the monuments in 1909 and put in a golf course. The museum was added in 1924.

Archeologist Miley Holman, whose firm is handling the excavations, says the discovery is like “looking into a time capsule” of San Francisco history--a very strange time capsule.

Among the finds are a man who had a third arm buried with him, several medical-school cadavers and two coffins containing remnants of denim with rivets stamped Levi. The latter discovery, Holman says, has drawn a “flurry of interest” from San Francisco-based Levi Strauss & Co.

Someone also left his or her heart in San Francisco--in a tiny box that at first appeared to hold some sort of tree root, Holman says.

Most coffins, however, simply contain elderly men--believed to have been buried between 1870 and 1900--wrapped in shrouds.

“These are the people who probably built San Francisco,” he says. “It’s an incredibly valuable (find).”


But the director of the Palace of the Legion of Honor museum, which is paying steep surcharges for delays caused by the discovery, seems less excited: “(It’s) interesting, but not exactly King Tut’s tomb,” Harry Parker told a San Francisco newspaper.

For now, the remains are at the coroner’s office, which by law must examine the bones, rebury them and attempt to notify next of kin.

That last task might be difficult considering burial records were lost in the fire of 1906. But Holman says: “We just got two letters from people wondering if we’d found their great-grandfathers.”

Svanevik says other finds are likely: “No one thinks they ever got all of the bodies out of San Francisco.”