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Put-in-Bay Bones: A Follow Up

On September 1st, 2017, while digging garage footers on a property off Conlon Road (south shore, South Bass Island) the bucket on his excavator exhumed human bones. Suddenly, this was not an ordinary day for Travis Kowalski at the controls of Fox Stone’s excavator. Travis had run power construction equipment for years. There is an art to nursing the earth out of the ground. Occasionally rocks left from the glaciers are uprooted. The price of progress is churning up the layers of dirt to make room for the structures that make island living easier and pleasant.

Put-in-Bay Bones? This was a first.

Put in Bay Police Chief Steve Riddle was looking forward to the Labor Day end of the summer season for the Village of Put in Bay. It had been a hard summer. The Toby Keith Concert at the South Bass Airport, as well as the Vintage British Sports Car races, had just ended. Earlier, Christmas in July produced several headaches. The Village police force dealt with larger-than-expected crowds and worse-than-expected behavior. September would be a welcome respite.

Riddle was new to the job of Police Chief but not the islands. He was a former leader of the Ohio State Park system. Steve had decades-long work history in the Western Basin. When he was younger, he worked every job imaginable in the summer community. In the early 1990s, he landed at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR). His last posting for the ODNR was Administrator for Parks and Recreation, overseeing five park footprints including South Bass, Middle Bass, and Kelley’s Island. In 2017, he retired to take on the Police Chief’s role for Put-in-Bay. Steve knows the ground (and dirt) of Lake Erie’s western basin islands.

He acted immediately when he received the call about the human remains and bones.

He and his team secured the site. Were the bones a recent murder? The site had to be treated like a crime scene. Shorthanded, the location of the grave was secured. An officer was posted to protect evidence 24 hours a day for five days. It was an odd start to September. Steve invited Jeff Koehler (Editor and Chief of the Put-in-Bay Gazette), Kendra Koehler (Publisher of the Put-in-Bay Gazette), and Susie Cooper (retired director of the Put-in-Bay Historical Society), and myself to visit the construction site. It looked like an ordinary footer trench. There was a neat and orderly cottage nearby. It was hard to picture that there were human remains in the soil.

The ground where the bones were found was roughly 100 feet from the shoreline. Elevation from the lake was around twelve feet- eight feet of topsoil on four feet of bedrock. The depth of the bones was around 36” to 48”. Modern graves are 72” plus. The bones were removed and sent to the forensics lab in Toledo, Ohio, in mid-September.

According to Steve Riddle, the lab study results were that the bones were 200-250 years old, of European origin (as opposed to American Indian), and consisted of an adult male, a teenage female, and an infant. Riddle observed the infant’s teeth, thick with healthy enamel, and looked like they were brand new. The occipital lobe of the adult male had a perpetually surprised look. The eye sockets seemed to possess an ancient forehead shrug lost in the face of history.

How did the bodies get there? In known history, there was no record of this burial. After the War of 1812 ended, the western basin was dormant. According to Susie Cooper, Put-in-Bay didn’t develop its cemeteries until the late 1850s. South Bass’s population and the need for infrastructure (schools, roads, and cemeteries) grew. These bones apparently predated the Maple Leaf Cemetery by close to 100 years.

We discussed various scenarios that might bring the Bones story to life.

1) Floaters: People drown in Lake Erie.

A person could drown in Huron, Ohio, but the body might be discovered on North Bass Island months later. In the early 1800s, there was little communication between the islands and the mainland. Word of a missing person spread slowly, if at all. Island lore states that if a body washed up, it was buried close to where it was found (pre-1850s). A floater, when found, was buried as quickly as possible. A body in the water for several weeks is a gruesome sight.

The eyes are gone in a week. The wash, tumble, and abuse of the currents and surf strip clothing away. The flesh is cleansed from the hands and feet leaving only the bones and connective tissue. Body gasses gorge on the torso and head, making the corpse unrecognizable. The problem with the “floater scenario” is that the three bodies were conveniently grouped. If several people perished in the water simultaneously, their bodies would not have gathered at one site. Rare.

2) Plague: Flu pandemics and illness were rampant in the day.

The freshwater supply could be a tricky business. Foodborne illness was a constant problem for early settlers. Starvation was a constant threat. The Ohio frontier was sparsely populated. Outsider immunity was weak in the local populations. Were they squatters on South Bass who passed in a fever-racked epidemic? Or, were their winter stores compromised, and a nutrient-deficient diet made them too weak to survive a harsh winter? The Toledo forensics report shed no light on these possibilities.

3) The bodies were in a common grave. Who dug it?

The damage done to the bones by the excavation equipment made it impossible to tell if foul play was involved. Was there a murder of a family that took place before written history? In her Kelleys Island chronicles, Leslie Korenko has numerous stories about islanders on the east side of Kelleys that went years not seeing islanders on the west side of Kelleys.

Cross-island travel was difficult. Another example of “local” island isolation was illustrated in the location of schools. Despite being an island of 1,588 acres, South Bass  Put in Bay once had three schools. Middle Bass Island (at 805 acres) had two schools. The one-room schoolhouse that still exists mid-island doesn’t explain why the body of water by Middle Bass’s east point is called “School House Bay” (it makes no sense!).

The second MBI schoolhouse, from the late 1800s, was on the east point by the water on the bay… Who did you report it to if someone dies midwinter on Lake Erie island? Isolation may have impeded the message of the deaths. However, one might argue that the end of three people would be gossip-worthy.

4) No Buttons: There were no buckles, cloth, shoe leather, zippers, and, most importantly, buttons found at the grave site.

In the forensics world, these items can fill in many blanks in the story of a grave site. For instance, button experts can ascertain the date of a corpse to within ten years of its burial, going back centuries. Buttons possess specific traits that indicate age based on style, materials, and construction. Even the country of origin could be identified.

The following “button history” was told to me by an antique dealer in Marietta, Ohio (as Susie Cooper says, “This is history as I know it.”). “Mollusk shells were used as raw materials for buttons. They were pulled from the Ohio River in the late 1870s around Marietta and were scored by a button-drilling machine. The button “form” was then drilled by a multi-spindle head to produce the holes needed to sew the button to the cloth. It was then polished to a pearlescent shine (“Like a poor man’s opal…”).

These buttons were familiar in Ohio River towns throughout southern Ohio for about 20 years. “Unfortunately, the mollusk population crashed in the 1890s because of overfishing and pollution. Ohio River dressmakers then replaced them with cheaper European imports from Prague (until that supply chain withered and died because of the onset of World War I)….” The point: If you found a mollusk shell button on a murder victim in Pittsburgh in 1950, there was a good chance the body was long dead, but the victim may have hailed from Marietta.

5) Going Native!: To further complicate the story, Chief Riddle discovered several American Indian artifacts with bones.

To most, these “rocks” would have meant nothing. Steve immediately recognized they were American Indian in origin and fabricated by man (not just odd stones). A broken stone ax/celt and a stone fire starter were particularly interesting. The polished bit of the ax/celt was sharp. It was a cutting tool used to split wood, chop tinder and possibly chip out the interior of canoes.

The fire starter was a 6” X 6” flat stone with a hole drilled halfway through it. By taking a pointed stick, putting it in the hole, and rubbing it back and forth between your palms (or using a drawn bow) tremendous friction can be created. Friction equals heat. Throw in some tinder (pine needles, wood shavings), and heat leads to a fire.

The fire starter was an important survival tool. Cooking fires were essential to the preparation of food. Ohio winters can be brutal, and the fire kept winter at bay. So, why were American Indian tools found in the graves of European bodies? Colonel Matt Nahorn, founder and curator of the New Indian Ridge Museum in Amherst, Ohio, offered some insight. “Northern Ohio was transient ground for the Indian population between 1750 and 1800. There were few if any, permanent Native American settlements.

The indigenous peoples frequented the islands in the western basin of Lake Erie for much the same reason people are attracted to the islands today; fresh air, clean water, and bountiful game. In addition, the islands were an easy departure point to Canada, where the French had become traditional allies.

The Erie Indians were pretty much wiped out by the Seneca Nation over disputed trapping rights in the late 1600s (it was a first-class genocide, of modern proportions, in an argument over beaver pelt hunting grounds). Most of Ohio was trapped out, and English expansion on the Ohio frontier pushed the native tribes north/west.”

“Without a thorough examination of the bones in situ, it would be impossible to tell if they were murdered or died of natural causes. They could have Europeans who were homesteading on South Bass, and a itinerate band of Indians happened on them, and they were killed. “Or they could have been a part of a tribe. The presence of the Native American artifacts in the grave would be consistent with Indian burial practices that included putting in items needed in the afterlife. “If they were massacred, they would have been left where they dropped (and not buried).”

6) Nothing about the bones was provable as the story has been lost in time:

After the discovery of the grave in early September, what happened next? The Put-in-Bay and South Bass communities rallied on behalf of the deceased. Chief Riddle and the Put in Bay Police Department ensured that the bones were treated with the respect they were due. This was one of Riddle’s top priorities. Several people generously offered to donate burial plots for the remains, including Toby, Stephanie Landreth, and The Reverend Mary Staley of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

Per Bob Bahney, Maple Leaf Cemetery’s sexton, the Township Trustees decided to inter the bones in the potter’s field portion of the cemetery. Marc Burr, the owner of Burr Funeral Home in Chardon, provided the burial casket. Ed Kotecki, the owner of Kotecki Family Memorials in Cleveland, will donate a headstone.to memorialize the grave site. The stone will be placed in the summer of 2018. Reverend Staley will be ensuring the proper words are added to the headstone.

People often ask what makes the Lake Erie Islands so unique.

The answer lies in the commitment of its residents to keep the spirit of a “small town community” robust, caring, and thriving. Strangers stepped forward to ensure that the unknown bodies found a resting place among unknown friends




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