History of San Lorenzo, California

Fairmont Hospital Pauper’s Graveyard (1868 - 1920)

Excerpt of a Report Prepared by Page & Turnbull, Inc.
for Alameda County Redevelopment Agency
April 8, 2011


Fairmont Hospital was the first hospital in Alameda County, founded in the mid-nineteenth century specifically for the care of the indigent. How to care for the impoverished portion of the population, many of whom harbored long-term or terminal illnesses, was a growing concern at the time. Where were they to be housed? What medical professionals would treat them? And how would the treatment, rooming, and board be paid for when the patients themselves were destitute and often had no sponsoring family or friends? The financing of such care programs was addressed in 1853, when an Indigent Sick Fund was established for distribution among California counties. In Alameda County, the money was often used to pay small, private sanitariums and infirmaries –- often no larger than a private home – to lodge and care for indigents. One example was a sanitarium in the city of Alameda run by Dr. Henry Haile, who housed indigents at the County's expense of $7.25 per patient per week. An agreement was also established with St. Mary's Hospital in San Francisco to take East Bay indigents for treatment. As the issue grew, Alameda County Supervisors put fund money toward renting a house in Oakland and appointing a steward and medical attendant to run it. [1]

In 1868, however, the house was damaged by an earthquake, the rent increased, and a small-pox epidemic highlighted the need for a proper hospital facility. This led to the purchase of 123.5 acres of land on the hills about two-and-a-half miles from San Leandro (the city has since grown up to and around the hospital property.) The facility, first known as the Alameda County Infirmary, was put into use in August 1869 and was a roughly 2,000 square foot building that was described in a local newspaper as “nothing more than a shell, while its accommodations and arrangements are a disgrace to any civilized community.” The article berated the infirmary's poor construction, lack of heat and proper facilities, overcrowding and general suffering of the patients. [2]

The article made particular note of the fact that when a patient died, they were left to share the room with living patients for a day or more before burial took place— despite the fact that the hospital had established a cemetery the same year it opened. A letter from the hospital superintendent to the chairman of the hospital committee, written in 1946 regarding ongoing hospital interment practices, relates that the first burial at the hospital occurred in November 1869 and was located on the “first hill above the present buildings.” This practice continued until 1879, when a burial took place in the “Catholic Cemetery.” This likely referred to Mount Calvary Cemetery, located in close proximity to the hospital at the north end of Van Avenue, which also featured a “potter's field” (pauper's graveyard) within the larger cemetery grounds. It appears that Catholic patients continued to be buried at Mount Calvary Cemetery after this time, while patients of other religious faiths continued to be buried in the hospital's Pauper's Graveyard. [3]

Dr. Charles L. Coleman was the first county physician and, thus, presided over the County Infirmary in its earliest days. By 1894, Dr. William A. Clark brought fresh new leadership to the hospital. He was responsible for reorganizing operations and making improvements to the facility, including new buildings; he made “a real hospital of it.” [4] The growth of the hospital is evident on the 1911 Sanborn Fire Insurance map, which is the first to show the hospital campus. Although smaller than its current footprint, it had a large hospital building, three dormitory buildings and a number of smaller wards, a chapel, several individual dwellings, and facilities for laundry, bathing, carpentry, and other support functions. However, no cemetery is shown or referenced on the map. In 1911, Dr. W.A. Wills was superintendent of the hospital and was the first to implement the quarantine and separate care of tuberculosis patients.5 At this time, the hospital was receiving a high number of TB cases, which probably resulted in a high mortality rate among patients. The hospital also began providing residential facilities to patients with developmental disabilities. [6]

Prior to 1920, the practice continued whereby the hospital's indigent dead were buried in the Pauper's Graveyard behind the hospital, unless they were known to be Catholic, in which case they were buried in the potter's field at the Mount Calvary Cemetery. The hospital's Pauper's Graveyard was becoming quite extensive by this time, however, and Superintendent Jensen noted in his 1946 letter that it was located too close to the hospital itself and had a depressing effect on the patients. An arrangement was made with the San Lorenzo Cemetery (at Hesperian Boulevard and College Street in San Lorenzo) to bury non-Catholic indigents at that cemetery. The Alameda County Hospital's Pauper's Graveyard was officially closed in July 1920. By that time, 2,258 indigent County Hospital patients had been buried there. Previous to this time, the graves had been marked with wooden crosses and other small monuments, but at the closure of the cemetery, concrete blocks stamped with identification numbers were placed at the head of each grave, flush with the ground. From that time on, the hospital's deceased patients were buried at either San Lorenzo Cemetery, Mount Calvary Cemetery, or in later years, cremated. The Pauper's Graveyard behind the hospital became defunct. [7]

In the early twentieth century, the Alameda County Infirmary became known as Fairmont Hospital, and by 1933 was known officially as Fairmont Hospital of Alameda County. At this time, there was a growing trend toward removing the “County” moniker from the names of local hospitals because it had negative associations with the care of indigents. Nevertheless, the hospital continued to provide treatment and care for the poor. It began providing rehabilitation services and is now cited as the first hospital west of the Mississippi to do so. [8] In 1926, Highland Hospital (another county facility) was opened in Oakland and relieved some of the strain of overcrowding and management at Fairmont Hospital. It ultimately became the county's main medical center, attracting non-indigent patients, and leaving Fairmont Hospital to continue indigent, geriatric, tuberculosis, rehabilitative and psychiatric care. [9]

Although there is some speculation that the hospital officially undertook exhumation of some graves in the Pauper's Graveyard for the purpose of reburial elsewhere, nothing in Jensen's letter, nor any other sources, supports this. According to the letter, the Graveyard was simply left in its existing state and burials were discontinued. If this is the case, it is unclear why the majority of the headstones are missing or displaced from their original locations (in comparison to the number and locations that are shown on plot maps), but would mean that the hillside identified as the location of the Pauper's Graveyard is still rife with occupied graves.


Pauper's Graveyards are often known as Potter's Fields, a biblical reference to a plot of land that was purchased by Jewish priests for the burial of strangers, foreigners and Gentiles. The practice of establishing potter's fields for deceased peoples from the fringes of society has been a long tradition, and a particularly well known Potter's Field located in central London may date back to the 1550s.

In the United States, County hospitals have long been associated with the medical care of indigents, and therefore, many county hospitals also have associated pauper's graveyards or potter's fields. Additionally, some formal cemeteries (both public/non-denominational and church-affiliated) will reserve a portion of the graveyard property to serve as a burial ground for indigents, criminals and prisoners, unidentified persons, unbaptized infants, suicide cases, and other atypical deceased persons, often depending on the cemetery's religious affiliations and the beliefs they ascribe to.

A few known pauper's graveyards in the San Francisco Bay Area include those at the Saint Helena Public Cemetery, Napa State Hospital, the Sonoma Developmental Center, Agnews Historic Cemetery in Santa Clara, Marin County Hospital Cemetery in San Rafael, and Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland (where the pauper's graveyard is known as the Stranger's Plot). A pauper's graveyard was also known to have existed on the western slope of the former Calvary Cemetery in San Francisco, before all of the cemeteries in the city were relocated to Colma. As mentioned earlier, the Mount Calvary Cemetery in San Leandro and San Lorenzo Cemetery, both in close proximity to Fairmont Hospital, also had sections devoted to the burial of indigents and took cases from Fairmont Hospital after the closure of the Pauper's Graveyard there.

Recent study of the Stranger's Plot, near the entrance of Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, suggests common potter's field practices of digging narrow graves to maximize space and dispensing with grave markers and other identification. There, detailed burial records were kept and are still available, and information supports the presence of indigents, accident victims, infants, suicides, and a large number of Chinese. Around San Francisco, this was common in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as many Chinese immigrants were single men without or apart from their families, who would have died alone and been considered foreign and heathen (non-Christian), appropriately buried alongside indigents. [10]

Mount Calvary Cemetery, at the north end of Van Avenue, just to the northwest of Fairmont Hospital, is where deceased Catholic patients from Fairmont Hospital would have been buried from 1879 onward. It is described as being “on a hilly, secluded area to the right of and adjacent to Mount Calvary Cemetery. The boundary between Mount Calvary Cemetery and Potter's Field is designated by a path with no fence or cemetery gate dividing the two properties. The graves are marked mostly by wooden crosses which have weathered, broken and some even burned.” This may have been the result of brush fires that damaged the cemetery in 1949 and 1973. More recent accounts indicate that individual markers were removed and a single, large wooden cross now stands in the Potter's Field to memorialize all who are buried there. [11]


As part of their research, Page & Turnbull contacted the Alameda County Surveyor's Office to obtain copies of the plot maps mentioned in the 1946 letter written by the Fairmont Hospital Superintendent. The plot maps were drawn in 1920, at the time that the Pauper's Graveyard was closed and no longer used for hospital burials. The maps were described as “a blue print showing the location of each grave.” The maps obtained from the Surveyor are in fact a series of nine maps, including an index map showing the cemetery's eight plots and an individual map of each of the eight plots showing the locations and numbering of individual graves (see VI. Pauper’s Graveyard Plot Maps). [12]

The Surveyor's index and plot maps represent the most concrete evidence of the Graveyard's physical layout and dimensions. No other information found during research provides any indication of location, orientation, dimensions, boundaries, locations of graves, or other characteristics. However, by correlating physical evidence found during the site visit with the boundary lines and grave numbers shown on the plot maps, Page & Turnbull surmises that the center line of the cemetery area, as shown on the Index map, represents the north-south path that runs over the crest of the hill. Plots 1 and 2 appear to straddle the south end of the path, with plots 3, 5, and 7 situated on the east side of the path, and plots 4, 5, and 8 situated on the west side of the path.

This conclusion is supported by the fact that both the path and center line of the plot map are oriented to the same cardinal directions. Although it provides little other locational data, the plot map does bear a north arrow that, when aligned north on an aerial photo, puts the center line and the path on the same axis. The Surveyor's individual plot maps also show that the graves are oriented in a fashion that places the headstones generally toward the center line, which would indicate that burials were oriented with the deceased's head pointing uphill and grave markers placed uphill from the graves.

The plot maps provide the identification number of each grave, which corresponded to the numbers stamped on the grave markers. According to the maps, the numbers range in generally numeric order from the 1300s in plot 1, to the 2200s in plots 7 and 8. Although the majority of the grave markers are now gone, this distribution of numbers strongly corresponds to the locations of numbered markers found during the site visit. For instance, a marker with an identification number in the 1400s range was found near the south end of the path, markers numbered in the 1500s through 1800s were found near the middle of the path at the top of the hill, and a couple of markers numbered in the 2000s were found at the north end of the path. Although many of the markers are partially-illegible and obviously displaced (many located in clusters at the edge of the path), the numerical trend is still followed with markers remaining in the general vicinity of their original location and thusly in a generally consecutive range. One particular marker, numbered 2257, found near the north end of the path, appears to remain in its original location. It is intact and imbedded in the soil, flush with the surface of the ground, nearest the cluster of trees at the north end of the path. On the plot maps, marker 2257 is shown at the northern border of plot 8, which corresponds to the northernmost extent of the Pauper's Graveyard as a whole. Page & Turnbull feels that this is a relatively concrete reference point from which to judge the orientation and extent of the Graveyard as a whole.

Upon comparing the dimensions shown on the Index map with estimated measurements taken from an aerial view, the length of the map's center line and the length of the path are very similar. The plot map shows approximately 533 feet along the bottom border of the cemetery area and about 590 feet along the center line. According to the scale in aerial views, the path measures approximately 600 feet.


[1] Milton Henry Shutes, A History of the Alameda County Medical Association (Oakland, CA: The Alameda County Medical Assoc, 1946) 111.
[2] Shutes, 111. “A Startling Story: The Alameda County Infirmary, How the Indigent Sick Are Cared For – Horrors of the Infirmary,” San Francisco Chronicle, 30 December 1869 (from the Alameda County Gazette, 25 December 1869).
[3] A.C. Jensen to Mr. George Jenssen (letter). 6 May 1946.
[4] Shutes, 112.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Alameda County Medical Center. “Our Mission, Strategic Vision, and History.” http://www.acmedctr.org/missionhistory.cfm (accessed 1/30/2011.)
[7] Jensen.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Shutes, 112.
[10] “Oakland Stranger's Plot Full of Mysteries,” San Francisco Chronicle, 24 January 2011.
[11] San Leandro Public Library, “Alameda County Potter's Field Timeline” (27 January 2011.) Find a Cemetery, “County Cemetery, also known as: Potter's Field,” http://www.findagrave.com (accessed 1/31/2011.)
[12] Alameda County Surveyor's Office, “Index showing relative locations of plots of Alameda County Infirmary Cemetery”(maps), July 1920.