Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » The Bones in the Pit

The Bones in the Pit

By: Ardis E. Parshall - June 16, 2011

One of my old columns for the Salt Lake Tribune:

On July 7, 1908, a laborer digging the foundation for John M. Knight’s wagon factory on Salt Lake City’s Social Hall Avenue bent to take a closer look at the rubble. Then he climbed out of the pit and went to find a policeman.

He had found a human skeleton, one showing signs of European origin, buried where no white cemetery had a right to be. An undertaker carefully gathered all the bones that could be found, together with bits of clothing, and conveyed them to the police station. Investigators determined that the burial was decades old; if foul play was involved, they would be unlikely to solve it.

Without so much as a notice in any of the newspapers, the bones were boxed and put into a storage closet at police headquarters. They lay forgotten there as the months passed.

The need for burial grounds arose almost as soon as Mormon pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley. Less than a month after his July 1847 arrival, 3-year-old Milton Howard Therlkill drowned and was buried near his grandfather’s wagons east of the pioneer fort then under construction. That fort has since become Pioneer Park, and Milton’s burial site, along with other early graves, was rediscovered in 1986 in Salt Lake’s Block 49.

In September 1847, George Wallace dug a grave for his small daughter on a hill overlooking the valley. That site became Salt Lake’s official cemetery in 1851, with George Wallace as the first sexton.

Despite the existence of a city-supported cemetery, some families preferred to follow the custom of burying family members near their homes. Some of these small family cemeteries exist today – the Mormon Pioneer Memorial (Brigham Young) Cemetery on 1st Avenue just east of State Street and the Kimball/Whitney Cemetery in the middle of the block on the west side of State Street midway between North Temple and First North are still maintained.

Others, like the small cemetery that formerly existed on Richards Street, on the site of the future City Creek Center, were closed long ago, their occupants moved to City Cemetery graves. Other burials occurred in family lots downtown. Some were moved after permanent cemeteries were established; others were forgotten, their locations lost to time and new construction.

And that is what happened, it turned out, in the case of the skeleton found in the basement of that wagon factory in 1908. The descendants of the woman buried there had in fact been searching for her for nearly half a century. Although they knew that she had been buried in her own garden, no marker had been placed. When they tried to find her casket in the 1860s, they could not locate it.

The search was renewed in the 1880s by a grandson, John. He knew that his grandmother had lived somewhere northeast of State Street and First South, but construction on that block had obliterated all pioneer landmarks. He spent a small fortune probing wherever property owners would allow him to dig test holes. It was no use, though, and he finally gave up.

Then in 1910, John’s records came into the hands of his cousin, Oscar, and Oscar renewed the search. His questions uncovered the story of the skeleton found in the basement, and Oscar went to the police station to ask for details. He described the location of his grandmother’s home, and her height and weight. It took some searching to relocate the box, but in March 1910, it was found. Everything about the bones and the location of their discovery pointed to their identity: Phebe Morton Angell, mother of architects Truman and Solomon Angell, and of Mary Ann Angell, wife of Brigham Young. Phebe had arrived in the Valley in the summer of 1848 and died in the fall of 1854, at age 68.

The family announced plans to bury Phebe – at last – next to members of her family. The lost had been found.



  1. Mystery solved. Imagine what modern forensic science could have done.

    Comment by Steve C. — June 16, 2011 @ 10:04 am

  2. Yeah — in addition to closing the Tomb of the Unknowns to soldiers of future wars (because they don’t expect any remains to go unidentified in future), I read that they’ve even destroyed all the paperwork on the remains from the last soldiers buried there, for fear that future technology would be able to identify the Unknowns just from the records of tests run to try to identify them before calling them Unknowns.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 16, 2011 @ 11:01 am

  3. Hey! I remember this article from before I knew you, Ardis! (I mean, as well as you can know someone sharing thoughts and mutual friends without ever having met). Anyway, my office in the federal building looks out over the new Harmon’s under construction to Social Hall Avenue so I thought about that grave.

    We actually had a historical shock a couple of years ago when they first took down the “Hupmobile” building for City Creek construcion. A friend at work had some photos her father took as a WPA worker during the Depression. One showed women at work in a government sewing factory at an odd-numbered two digit address just south of South Temple on State Street. (We’re at 125 S. State.) We looked out the window at the recently exposed basement foundation just south of the Social Hall and recognized the place in the photo! Sorry we didn’t get any modern pics. Harmon’s big cement block is there now.

    Comment by Grant — June 16, 2011 @ 11:54 am

  4. Ha!

    When I walk around downtown I can’t help but see the ghosts of what and who used to be there. If I weren’t already crazy, I’d get there fast by daydreaming about all the things that must have happened on any given spot throughout the history of creation. (Hmm. Come to think of it, that’s what Michener did — and he made a fortune doing it. Gonna rethink this …)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 16, 2011 @ 12:05 pm

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