This article was first published by the New Hampshire Union Leader on October 30, 2016.
By Jay Bouchard
For more than a century, 710 numbered graves—void any name, date or humanizing distinction—lay hidden in the woods behind the Hillsborough County Farm. But Goffstown’s Rail Trail now runs directly adjacent to those nameless graves, bringing hundreds of runners, walkers, and bikers each day past one of the county’s darkest mysteries.
Many people who frequent the Rail Trail, like Goffstown-resident Steve MacDonald, are struck when they stray a few yards and discover a pasture of numbered headstones. MacDonald, who walks the path a few times a week, said he developed an “eerie interest” in the graves when he first discovered them about four years ago.
MacDonald figured the numbered graves belonged to inmates from the Women’s Prison, which is only a quarter mile north of the cemetery. But after inquiring with the cemetery’s caretakers, he discovered a shred of the truth.
The Hillsborough County Farm, which still exists on the East side of Mast Road across from Unique Ford, has a sordid history dating back to 1849, when Noyes Poor, a prosperous Goffstown farmer, sold the property to the county. The county used the farm house and barn to house paupers between 1849 and 1867, according to George Plummer Hadley’s History of the Town of Goffstown.
Colloquially referred to as the Poor Farm or poor farm,—named once for the man who sold the land, and again for the literal poor who lived there—the land was used to contain “the poor, the unfortunate, the sick, the insane, and the idiotic” of the county, Hadley writes.
The county sold the farm in 1867, transferring the inmates to a farm in Wilton, but then acquired the Goffstown property again in 1893 and brought the inmates back. In 1894 the brick buildings which remain on the property today were built and used to house the county poor until 1924, according to county records.
But just whose bones lie beneath the numbers? Hadley’s history reveals the cemetery was established in 1896 and that the “unfortunates” who died on the farm were given a marble tablet with an engraved number.
According to Jerome St. Germain, a maintenance worker at the Hillsborough County Complex and caretaker of the cemetery, each headstone was engraved with only a number so that the county could save tax dollars. He said there used to be a morgue in the county facility and that all unclaimed bodies were given a number then buried.
In addition to those described as “poor, sick, or insane,” St. Germain said a number of Civil War veterans—men who returned from war and found no family—died and were buried at the farm. Therefore, an American flag is flown in the cemetery and illuminated every night, St. Germain said.
Records for everyone who was born, lived, or died on the farm between 1894 and 1924 are kept at the Goffstown Historical Society located at 18 Parker Station Road, which offers a glimpse into the men and women buried in the cemetery.
Names include Joseph Arthur, a 39-year-old who died on July 10, 1919 after only 10 days at the farm. And Agnus Bakker, a 71 year-old woman who died August 11 of that same year after a seven month stay, according to county records.
But a corresponding record of names and grave numbers has been lost, according to St. Germain.
“The records were kept at one time,” he said. “But over time, fire, and flood, they’ve been lost.”
Sandy Whipple, an outreach coordinator at the Goffstown Public Library, said she’s heard rumors that the records in question exist unindexed somewhere in the basement of the Hillsborough County nursing home on the West side of Mast Road.
But for now the corresponding record remains lost. And as the bikes and feet of the living pass placidly by, the 710 men and women buried in the cemetery remain hauntingly anonymous.