On a recent bright but chilly morning, the Boise State Geophysics Club used ground-penetrating radar, magnetometers and GPS to begin locating the graves of inmates buried in the cemetery at the former Idaho State Prison, now the historic site known as the Old Idaho Penitentiary off Warm Springs Avenue.
Of the 129 people who died there, at least 55 were buried on site, including six of the 10 inmates executed during the prison’s operations. All the graves were marked at some point, and several stones do remain, including two placed by the U.S. Army for inmates who were veterans. But years of weather and vandalism have taken their toll on other markers.
In addition, prison officials didn’t always keep careful records of burial sites to begin with, said Amber Beierle, a graduate of Boise State’s history programs and administrator at the site. She and her fellow historians have used newspaper accounts, inmate death certificates, fuzzy copies of hand-drawn maps and other clues to try and figure out where bodies are buried. She’s hopeful the Geophysics Club can help clear up a few more mysteries by identifying the perimeters of individual graves, and perhaps even the depths of coffins.
The partnership between the Old Idaho Penitentiary staff and Boise State has been nearly a year in the making. It’s the first of its kind at the cemetery site, said Beierle. The project is part of the community outreach work the club does each semester, said Dylan Mikesell, a geosciences assistant professor and club advisor.
“It’s also a great way for students put skills they learned in class (applied geophysics) to work,” Mikesell explained.
Monica Vermillion, a geophysics masters student from Ohio, was part of a team using GPS to confirm the locations of known grave sites as a baseline. Vermillion said that while she knew of Boise’s historic prison, the work in the cemetery helped her form a more personal connection to the local community and to its past. The prison project included a personal tour of the site that housed inmates from 1872 until 1973.
“And it’s good to become a more well-rounded student, learning skills outside of the usual geophysics program,” she added.
From their data, club members will create maps and data visualizations. They will translate their findings into a form that historians and the public can use. The work should take about a month, said Mikesell.
Beierle and the Old Idaho Penitentiary staff also hope to use the Geophysics Club findings to inform future cemetery tours, and provide information for a planned memorial marker at the site. In some cases, inmates were buried at the Idaho State Penitentiary because their families could not pay funeral costs or could not be located. In other cases – including that of murderer Raymond Snowden, the last man executed at the site in 1957 – families did not wish to claim the body.
In wanting to install a memorial at the cemetery, the Idaho State Historical Society is neither “vilifying nor sanctifying” any of the inmates, Beierle said.
“This is just about an essential knowledge of history, family history, posterity and creating a more complete story of the Old Penitentiary. As historians, that’s our goal.”