Mystery behind human bones found in Phila. basement

    Something is clearly out of the ordinary in the basement of a house in Philadelphia’s Fairmount section. Neighbors can’t stop talking about what construction workers found in a gutted row house on 20th Street.

    Caption: Human bones discovered inside a Philadelphia home
    Something is clearly out of the ordinary in the basement of a house in Philadelphia’s Fairmount section. Neighbors can’t stop talking about what construction workers found in a gutted row house on 20th Street.

    Listen:
    [audio: 091217lfbones.mp3]

    A lot of houses around 20th and Poplar Streets are under construction. Ladders, tools, and Dumpsters are a common sight.

    But one house is drawing a crowd.

    Curious onlookers stop by for a peek while a worker tosses dirt out of the basement window openings.

    The smell of damp old earth fills the air.

    (sounds of shoveling)

    Fergison Williams: That’s something you hear about on Ghost Hunters, Discovery Channel.

    Curious passersby Telly Jenkins and Fergison Williams
    Curious passersby Telly Jenkins and Fergison Williams

    Fergison Williams says he was surprised to hear that human bones, were uncovered in the row house’s basement. So he and a coworker decided to walk over and check out the scene.

    Williams: I expected a little more like full body, ribs, some arm, fingers, skull. More things like that.”

    What’s there are mostly fragments. Inside the house, atop some wooden beams, sit a portion of a jaw with three teeth and three long bones that look like they’re from an arm or a leg.

    Sounds a bit like an episode of that TV show Bones,

    Bones Theme song plays

    The house where the bones were found
    The house where the bones were found

    But this may not be a case that the fictional forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan could swoop in and crack before the top of the hour.

    It’s hard to figure out where the bones came from, or where they should go.

    Police say a construction company called Saturday to report that workmen broke through a cement plate in the basement and found what seemed to be seven shallow graves.

    The City Health Department says a forensic anthropologist determined the bones are more than 100 years old. And of no forensic significance – meaning this is not a case for the medical examiner.

    Property records indicate the row house’s owner is Big Rental Inc. of Huntingdon Valley. The company could not be reached for comment.

    For now, the neighbors are mostly talking about the emotional impact of the discovery.

    Rene Cirino grew up in the neighborhood and now lives down the street with his mom.

    Cirino: She’s creeped out. If they found bones in your basement wouldn’t you be creeped out?

    Curious neighbor Rene Cirino
    Curious neighbor Rene Cirino

    Not Monica Allen, whose grandmother has lived for decades next door to the bones.

    Allen: That’s somebody’s body. I wouldn’t take that as being creepy. They were here, they died. You go to cemeteries when people die. It’s not creepy then… chances are that if you dig a hole somewhere in the older part of the city, you’re going to stumble across somebody’s grave.

    17lfbones Bones inside the house 2
    Bones inside the house

    Philadelphia historian Tom Keels has an idea or two about where the remains came from. He says they could have been part of a cemetery for a church that closed or moved or they could be connected to nearby Eastern State Penitentiary or to a Potter’s Field where poor and unclaimed corpses were once buried at 19th Street and Fairmount Avenue.

    Keels: We all want to keep a healthy distance from death – we want to keep it in the graveyard or in the church yard. We don’t necessarily want to be living over it. But I think this one of the possibilities that occur when you live in an old city like Philadelphia.

    Some neighbors say authorities should try to figure out who the bones belonged to and return them to relatives.

    Keels says tracking down descendants would be tough, and deciding what to do with the bones could get complex.

    Keels: That’s led to many many lawsuits. About six or seven years ago they were building a condominium down near Queen Village and they came up with bones from some long forgotten church yard. And there was a very long drawn out court case where the developer and the previous owner and several other parties were all pointing fingers at people saying you take care of this.

    Keels says a good option might be to re-bury the remains in a simple ceremony at an existing historic cemetery.

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