A dispute over a government construction project in Northfield has residents asking where the bodies are buried — literally.
Northfield resident David Goldstein claims he was lied to when told by Atlantic County officials that a new parking lot wouldn’t affect a historic graveyard. But county officials insist that the potter’s field, used for patients from a poorhouse and mental hospital, is smaller than he thought and will not be touched.
“I go away for two days, come back and it looks like a war zone,” Goldstein said Wednesday. “They lied to me and they lied to the public.”
A large swath of the field to the rear of a sign along Dolphin Avenue that read “Bakersville Burying Ground” was cordoned off, with a bulldozer and a digger operating behind a pile of dirt. The county was starting work on a parking lot for public works vehicles, part of a 5-year project to transfer public works vehicles to the Stillwater complex.
Goldstein, who said he was told by relatives and neighbors that the burial ground might include a large part of the open field, said he was told last week by county Administrator Jerry Delrosso that the work would not take place in the field at all.
“The guy lied to me,” Goldstein said. “The people buried there had no families and no friends, and had no one to stick up for them. Now they’re dead and there’s still no peace.”
Delrosso said that he talked to Facilities Director Glen Mawby and had thought the work would be more toward the buildings than the open field side of the property, “and the truth of the matter is that was my misunderstanding. There have to be turning radiuses out there.”
But Delrosso said that he did not say there would be no work in the field at all.
He also said that Goldstein did not receive a notice about the project because he moved in after notices went out in 2009, when the project was proposed and approved. Anyone has had an opportunity to inspect the plans in the years since, Delrosso said.
Most importantly, Delrosso also disputed Goldstein’s belief that the burial ground includes the entire field.
“I can’t prove to him the potter’s field is where he thinks it is,” Delrosso said. “He keeps arguing that we’re digging where graves are. We’re not digging where graves are.”
County Executive Dennis Levinson referred to a 1979 blueprint of the county that shows an exact outline of the potter’s field in a small area near Dolphin Avenue — which he said is not going to be touched.
“Because of the noise coming from that area, we went and fished out old blueprints,” Levinson said, adding that the burial ground ceased to be in use around 1955.
“There is nothing sinister here. This is not the government doing something clandestinely,” Levinson said.
Northfield historian Joyce Pullan, however, said that records show that at least a thousand people have been buried in the potter’s field. She also said that she doubts whether the burial ground is limited to the strict parameters laid out in the blueprint, adding that bodies could very likely be buried in the field beyond.
“I feel sure that’s probably the case,” Pullan said. “But I don’t know what we can do about it.”
Levinson, who spoke with Pullan on Wednesday, said she told him her son used to play in that field and play with bones he found. But the staff at the old county hospital would often throw trash back there, he said, including chicken and other bones, “So there are all kinds of things buried back there.”
Said Pullan: “I don’t think they were playing with chicken bones.”
Historically, where bodies were buried has always been difficult to know, Levinson said, adding that the Leeds graveyard at Oxford Circle in Northfield was probably created when developers “bulldozed it into a mound, put tombstones on top and said it’s a grave.”
“She’s saying there’s one thousand buried there?” Levinson said of Pullan’s number. “Maybe, maybe not. … But we have an educated guess where the potter’s field is, and we’re not going to touch what has been reclaimed and designated as the potter’s field. … We didn’t just pick that out. Historians years ago said, ‘This was the potter’s field,’ and we took their word for it. Trees were planted at the perimeter of the potter’s field, and the work is so far away from there, quite a distance behind it.”
Theoretically, Levinson said, “There may be bodies under the bike path, there may be bodies under the (Meadowview Nursing Home) kitchen. But the trees themselves are planted (in a square), and they’ve been there for some time. It seems to be pretty clear that historians 50 years ago said that the burial field has to be right here and this is the area that has to be preserved.”
In the end, Levinson said, “If any bodies or bones turn up, I’ve given instructions that all work would stop. But they’ve dug pretty deep so far (and found nothing).”
Goldstein, meanwhile, remains unconvinced.
“They have no historic proof,” Goldstein said. “They have nothing. It’s just a bunch of bureaucrats making a statement. It’s a shame.”
Staff writer Anjalee Khemlani contributed to this report.
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