Here’s why there may be bodies buried beneath the Portland Expo

Greetings from Portland. Sweater weather is here. Every day this month I’m telling a story that bridges the gap between this world, and the next. I’m resurrecting the memory of Portlanders who’ve crossed over to the other side by posting one video each day, relating the tale of one, interesting “permanent Portlander.”

During the 19th century, it was illegal to be homeless in Portland.

In 1834, Adeline Nott lived on the streets. She begged, scrounged and scraped a living any way she could. Local shopkeepers thought she was a nuisance. They convinced the elected overseers of the poor to issue a warrant for her arrest. 

When the police tracked Nott down, she was hiding behind a warehouse. They arrested her and took her to the city almshouse. Opened in 1803, it stood right about where the Expo and Hadlock Field stand now. There, Nott was given new clothes and a bed in an attic dormitory. Then, she was put to work doing laundry. A lawyer tried to get her out but her incarceration was upheld by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

Portland's almshouse and poor farm on Park Avenue were closed down, and an attached cemetery dug up around 1904. The human remains were buried in this mass grave, which stands without a marker, in the municipal Forest City Cemetery in South Portland. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Portland’s almshouse and poor farm on Park Avenue were closed down, and an attached cemetery dug up around 1904. The human remains were buried in this mass grave, which stands without a marker, in the municipal Forest City Cemetery in South Portland. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

The almshouse, and the attached poor farm, housed lots of people back then: the old, the sick, the disabled, the insane, unwed mothers, debtors, orphans, the indigent. Some people were kept there 30 years or more.

Anybody who could work, did. The money they made went towards their keep. Anybody who couldn’t work, was warehoused. At least one disturbed man was kept in a wooden cage at the back of his room.

It was a place to send people and forget about them.

But wait, it gets worse.

In addition to the farm, there was a cemetery — the final destination for many of the almshouse’s residents.

When the city closed the facility in favor of more modern hospital and work farm system around the turn of the 20th century, they dug up hundreds of graves in the almshouse cemetery. The bones were trucked to a pit at Forest City Cemetery in South Portland.

No stone marks their commingled resting place. The poor, desperate souls were forgotten all over again.

I was able to track down some burial records for the alms house cemetery. But they only stretch from 1858 to 1875. There’s 174 names, in all.

I think it’s unlikely residents were only buried there for 20, out of the 100, years the almshouse was in operation. It seems equally unlikely that all the paupers’ graves were marked. So, it seems wicked unlikely that when they turned the earth in 1904, sifting the soil for bones, making way for the new Expo building, that they really found everyone.

Do the Sea Dogs play baseball on a graveyard? Are there bones under the basketball hoops at the Expo? Do people skate over mortal remains at the city ice arena?

I’m asking, because I don’t know. I’m telling you, because I think nobody knows.

This brick barn behind the Portland Expo building is all that's left of the city's almshouse and poor farm which operated on the site for most of the 19th century. There was also a cemetery on the property. It was dug up in 1904. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

This brick barn behind the Portland Expo building is all that’s left of the city’s almshouse and poor farm which operated on the site for most of the 19th century. There was also a cemetery on the property. It was dug up in 1904. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Today’s story is brought to you, in part, by John F. Bauman’s book, “Gateway to Vacationland: The Making of Portland, Maine,” published in 2012 and David Wagner’s book, “The Poorhouse: America’s Forgotten Institution,” published in 2005.

In case you’re wondering, I don’t know what ever happened to Adeline Nott. She’s not listed in the burial records I found. But they only go back to 1858. That’s 24 years after she was arrested.

Disclaimer: I’m not a historian. I owe everything I know to the dedicated research of those who have come before me. These character sketches are assembled from multiple (often antique) sources and sprinkled with my own conjecture. I’m happy to be set straight or to learn more.

The Portland Expo building stands today on the site of the city's former almshouse and poor farm. There was also a cemetery on the property. It was dug up in 1904. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

The Portland Expo building stands today on the site of the city’s former almshouse and poor farm. There was also a cemetery on the property. It was dug up in 1904. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Troy R. Bennett

About Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.