Alabama mass grave may contain bodies from 1870s epidemic

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Construction workers at a city lot in downtown Montgomery stumbled upon numerous bodies Tuesday morning. At least one mud-colored skull and a large bone could be seen protruding through the freshly broken dirt.

Montgomery Police spokesman Major Huey Thornton said it’s believed the bodies are from a mass grave of victims who died of a Yellow fever outbreak sometime in the early 1800’s.

A structure built on the burial mound in the 1940’s was recently torn down in order for the city to build a new complex, Thornton said. He added that officials don’t believe there’s any cause for concern. The lot where the remains were found butts up against the Oakwood Cemetery property.

State historians say the burials were quite common in the 19th century as Yellow fever spread throughout the south. “They had to bury the bodies quickly,” said state archivist Rickie Brunner. “They were scared that having dead bodies around may spread the disease even more.”

With construction now at a standstill, research begins. “Burials are always an interesting window in the past, because we forget what things were like at that time,” Brunner said.

The Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia says Yellow fever is transmitted to humans through mosquitoes. The disease is common in tropical regions like Africa and parts of South America according to the CDC, and is very rare in the United States. In fact, there hasn’t been an epidemic of the illness in the U.S. since 1905.

Research showed that the outbreaks caused mass panic and quarantines. The checking of boat passengers and train riders for symptoms was not uncommon. And though the mass grave is making news today for having been under our feet for so long without our knowledge, it too was a common practice when the fever claimed its victims.

The construction site has now been turned over to a historical society for research purposes. It’s not known when, or if construction will begin again on that site.

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