I participated in my first archaeological dig when I was about four years old. It was my earliest memory and has been etched in my mind forever. As I recall, the year was 1945 and the place was the old cemetery of the Nevada State Asylum at the western end of Hymer Avenue in Sparks.
This neighborhood was called “Conductor Heights” due to the number of Southern Pacific Railroad conductors who once lived in the neighborhood in rather substantial homes. My mother, Phyllis, and her sister Clare, lived there with their mother, Ida, while working as blackjack dealers at Harold’s Club, Palace Club and other local casinos. They were two of the first female blackjack dealers allowed to work in major Nevada casinos. Clare’s son, (who I will call “Cousin”) and I, lived with our mothers and Grandma in the Hymer Avenue house.
Cousin was a few years older than I and had a morbid curiosity about weird, bizarre and unusual things. Grandma could not possibly keep him from getting into trouble and he often took me along with him. While Grandma was busy cooking, cleaning and tending to the chickens, Cousin and I roamed the neighborhood getting into whatever mischief he could find. Occasionally, we visited the gypsies who parked their wagons in Grandma’s garden. Sometimes they caught big green crawfish from the ditch behind the house and cooked them until they were red and succulent as lobsters.
One day, we noticed a commotion from other neighborhood kids gathering up the street by the big windmill at the Nevada State Asylum graveyard. The windmill was inside the fence of the Asylum cemetery at the west end of Hymer Avenue. We found the source of the excitement was one of the asylum inmates had hung himself from the windmill. Cousin and some of the other kids took great delight in throwing rocks at the corpse as it swayed in the cool October wind, until the cops came and cut the poor fellow down.
Many former residents of the Comstock are buried at the asylum cemetery. Alcohol problems, brutal working conditions, and mercury poisoning from working in the mines and mills, caused many people from the Comstock to be committed to the asylum.
The day after the man was cut down from the windmill where he had hanged himself, a team of horses pulling a hay wagon came out from the asylum to the graveyard. As usual, Cousin and I were there to observe the burial. On the wagon sat two inmates dressed in blue coveralls. There was a large refrigerator-shaped box and some shovels. We all ran up to the fence and watched as the inmates dug a big hole.
When it seemed the grave was big enough, the men backed the wagon close to the hole and shoved the box and its contents off the wagon into the grave. Unfortunately the hole was not quite big enough, so the inmates jumped up and down on the cardboard coffin until it finally collapsed into the hole. They then covered the grave over with dirt, leaving only a mound to mark the spot. We were told the asylum had its own graveyard in those days because no sane person wanted to be buried in a cemetery with a bunch of “crazy people.”
Some weeks later, there was another commotion at the cemetery. As usual, Cousin and I, along with other neighborhood kids, showed up to see what was happening. Someone had come up with the bright idea to dig a huge ditch for an irrigation pipeline across the historic cemetery. Isbell Construction Company was using a massive track-mounted drag-line excavator to cut a six-foot-wide and eight-foot-deep trench through the graveyard.
By mid-day, the excavator started cutting into the graves that dotted the site. Corpses, body parts and pieces of rotted coffins began to litter the spoil pile alongside the trench. The equipment operator began to puke and had to be replaced. Shortly after, the replacement operator also had to be replaced, then another and another.
The massive shovel bucket cut some of the graves in half. Several of the bodies were pulled apart with arms and legs dangling from the sliced coffins into the muddy water at the bottom of the ditch. Some of the graves contained only bones but others contained moldy, blue-green bodies with most of the flesh rotting. Some of the kids went home sick, but my weird cousin was in his realm. I was so young I really did not realize the impact of what I was seeing.
By late afternoon, when the equipment shut down and the workers went home for the day, Cousin and I crawled through the fence to check out the horrible desecration of the graves. Cousin immediately spotted the shiny, untarnished glint of gold in some of the teeth of the rotted skulls. As I held the wet, gooey heads for him, he pried out the gold teeth with a pocket knife and stuffed them in his pocket.
This true story is contained in my book, “Uncovering Archaeology,” along with many other interesting, entertaining and educational stories. After years of neglect and desecration, the State of Nevada has finally created a memorial park at the old asylum cemetery where an obelisk monument contains the names of over 800 people buried there in unmarked graves.