The Mystery of the Bell Street Bones

October 4, 2010 by  
Filed under Columnists

With Halloween on the horizon, local author Laura Bien spins a tale of a skeleton–four, actually–in Ypsilanti’s past.

As seen in this 1915 plat map, Belle Street began at the conjunction of Grove and Prospect roads.

As seen in this 1915 plat map, Belle Street began at the conjunction of Grove and Prospect roads.

On a chilly January day in the depths of the Depression, a macabre find by city sewer workers excited the curiosity of an entire city.

“Discovery of a human skeleton three feet below the surface of the ground on Bell Street this morning has given rise to numerous guesses as to how it came there,” read the January 17, 1933 Ypsilanti Daily Press.

Bell (earlier spelled “Belle Street”) was a onetime route wending east from the intersection of Grove and Prospect towards Belleville. Today the street is called Tyler Road. On a modern Ypsilanti map, it appears as three discrete sections, chopped into pieces over the years by the construction of I-94 and the Willow Run bomber plant. Bell Street first appears on 1864 Ypsilanti plat maps.

The paper continued, “The bones were of an adult person of large build and were discovered by a workman digging on the sewer. Tom Smith [found] the first bones and discovered they were in no order, skull and jaw bones lying next to those of the thigh and the legs.

“A box had evidently contained the remains at one time, as rotted fragments were uncovered around the bones. That burial had taken place not so many years ago was indicated by the fact that bits of rusted metal which appeared to be screws were found imbedded in the wood . . . although cavities were located in the teeth, no dental work was evident.”

The paper went on to say that the placement of the bones was all the more strange as a sewer main ran directly under them. Hadn’t the former sewer diggers found the grisly objects?

The find was the talk of the town. The following day’s paper suggested that the bones might not have been discovered by the former sewer diggers because they had used a tunneling technique that bored beneath the bones, leaving them undisturbed, instead of digging a ditch that might have uncovered the remains.

On January 19, an expert was called in to assess the site: U-M anthropology professor W. B. Hinsdale. Hinsdale was known for his 1927 book The Indians of Washtenaw County, Michigan in which he discussed area burial mounds and identified many Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti roads as onetime Indian trails.

The bones “are those of four persons, two men and a woman, and a child,” according to Hinsdale, reported the January 19 Ypsilanti Daily Press.

“No implements, jewelry, or other trinkets were found with the bones and their position in the earth led to the belief that the bodies may have been crowded into a small box in a cramped position and buried in that way.”

The paper continued, “Dr. Hinsdale states that the bones of several individual were frequently buried together by the Indians of this region, and only a few months ago a large quantity of bones of men, women, and children were discovered together on property near here owned by the Ford Motor Co. The presence of the fragments of board, however, is a disturbing element.”

Finally a local old-timer came forth to contribute information. “An explanation of the mystery of the bones in the box that has aroused local imagination since Tuesday was offered today by Robert Simons . . . The bones were placed where they were found on Bell St. by workmen about thirty-five years ago according to Mr. Simons. He stated that they were first found when the ditch for the water main was being dug . . .”

“Mr. Simons was foreman of this crew and said he thought the main was installed around 1896. There was something of a mystery about the discovery at that time, as the bones were found directly in the center of the road. Mr. Simons says that he had lived in Ypsilanti since shortly after 1860 and the road which is now Bell Street was there at this time.

The paper reported local residents’ speculation that the bones could be those from an Indian burial, but added “No trinkets, trophies, or weapons commonly associated with Indian burials were found in the grave.”

And then the story faded from the paper.

No further mention was made as to whether the bones had been collected, taken to U-M by Hinsdale, or reburied.

Not once in this series of newspaper articles was there any mention that the Prospect and Grove intersection was the onetime site of Woodruff’s Grove, the original 1823 settlement that predated Ypsilanti. A plaque tucked within the intersection of the two streets marks the settlement’s approximate spot.

Woodruff’s Grove had its own small graveyard, on land later known as the Foerster Farm, overlooking the river. Several early Grove settlers succumbed to “chills and fever” or “fever and ague” (malaria) and other diseases and were buried there. The land lay just south of Bell Street and the intersection of Prospect and Grove, and extended to the riverbank. Many years later much of Foerster’s Farm was flooded by Henry Ford’s 1933 damming of the Huron leading to the creation of Ford Lake.

Were the Bell Street bones the remains of Woodruff’s Grove settlers? Perhaps those of Benjamin Woodruff himself? A grave marker stands for Woodruff in Ann Arbor’s Forest Hill Cemetery—but Woodruff died in 1837, long before Forest Hill was dedicated in 1859. There’s speculation that this grave marker is just a cenotaph, a memorial erected in honor of a deceased person whose remains lie elsewhere.

Do the aged Bell Street bones still lie beneath Tyler Road near the meeting-point of Prospect and Grove?

Ypsilanti may never know.

Laura Bien is the author of “Tales of the Ypsilanti Archives.” Have an idea for a column? Contact her at [email protected]


One Comment on "The Mystery of the Bell Street Bones"

  1. Lazy Friday Links | The Night Train on Fri, 8th Oct 2010 3:04 pm 

    […] you know anything about these “mystery” bones that were found in Ypsilanti in the 1930s? (via the great Ypsi […]

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