This Article was published in the Martinez News-Gazette on 5/31/2017
When we founded the Potter’s Field Restoration Project of the Alhambra Cemetery, it was due to 99% of its inhabitants not having an informational headstone to tell their story. The only evidence of their existence and final resting place are their cement markers we refer to as “Stones”. Their Stones are either numbered or blank and with the original County records incomplete or missing, it has caused those buried under them to become anonymous. Virginia Menezes-Costa is one of the approximate 1,700 residents marked by a Stone, whose story (thanks to her granddaughter Mary Leanos) can now finally be told.
The term Potter’s Field is of Biblical origin, referring to a ground where clay was dug for pottery, later bought by the high priests of Jerusalem for the burial of strangers, criminals and the poor. An online article by Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan on New York’s largest Potter’s Field, Hart Island says it all, “...There are a few ways to end up on Hart Island. One third of its inhabitants are infants—some parents couldn’t afford a burial, others didn’t realize what a “city burial” meant when they checked it on the form. Many of the dead here were homeless, while others were simply unclaimed; if your body remains at the city morgue for more than a few weeks, you, too, will be sent for burial by a team of prisoners on Hart Island. These practices have given rise to dozens of cases where parents and families aren’t notified in time to claim the body of their loved one. It can take months (even years) to determine whether your missing mom, dad, sibling, or child ended up at Hart...”
However, after much research, Alhambra Cemetery’s has some striking differences to a typical Potter’s Field. First, the County purchased the property in 1892, inheriting an unknown number of preexisting graves with headstones. Second, the County replaced 99% of its headstones with Stones (most likely in the 30’s). This means not all of our Potter’s Field residents were homeless, poor or unclaimed. Additionally, some were from foreign countries who died in the County Hospital and buried before their families received notification, while others as non-white were prevented from being buried anywhere else.
Last September, Mary emailed the Martinez Historical Society requesting help in locating her grandmother, Virginia Augusta Menezes-Costa’s grave. Mary had been looking for many years and stated, “I was about to give up until you called.” She also stated that, “My brother had visited her grave sometime in the early 70’s before he died and described its location as being in a cemetery full of small markers, abandoned, overgrown, and in disrepair located in Martinez.” With most of the County records lost (and Virginia not included on any of the Alhambra or St. Catherine’s Cemeteries Decedent Lists), this was not going to be an easy task.
First, we found a Virginia M. Costa in the California Death Index listing her burial location as “07”, Contra Costa County. Next, Mary provided us with a copy of Virginia’s death certificate indicating she was 25½ yrs. old when she died at the County Hospital in Martinez. The undertaker listed was H. J. Curry who (according to the U.S. City Directory and California State Roster, 1899 Government and Military Records) was the County Coroner. With Mary’s brother’s description and this strong circumstantial evidence, we can safely assume that she is indeed buried in Potter’s Field.
Virginia Augusta Costa was born to Antonio Menezes and Josephine Augusta in Estreito da Calheta, Madère, Portugal on December 21, 1900. According to the Immigration Passenger List, of the White Star Line’s (Titanic Fame) SS Canopic, 16 year-old Virginia arrived in Boston Harbor on August 20, 1916 after sailing from Ilha de São Miguel, Portugal on August 14. Her destination was Lowell, MA to stay with “her brother” Manuel Ferreira Costa, (in reality her soon to be future husband). According to the Massachusetts Marriage Index of 1916 – 1920, they married in Fall River, MA in 1917.
Mary stated her grandparents “were dressed rather nicely for their wedding picture which must have meant that my grandfather was working at that time and had the means to purchase nice clothing for the two of them.” While still living in Lowell, Massachusetts, Virginia and Manuel had three children, Mary Costa born June 15, 1920, Claude Ferreira Costa born August 15, 1921, and Anthony F. Costa born on December 21, 1922.
Virginia’s family migrated to California, in February of 1925. According to her death certificate, she’s listed as “Housewife” living in Crockett, CA. when she is admitted to the County Hospital on June 17, 1926 and dies June 18 at 11:30 pm from tuberculosis. She was buried June 21. We don’t know for sure the reason for her family’s move to California. However, we suspect that they came for the drier air, with the belief that it would help relieve her symptoms.
Tuberculosis can be mistaken for allergies/asthma as it can take a year or more (when symptoms are present) to be fatal.
We had the chance to meet Mary when she came to visit her grandmother during the 2016 October Cemetery Cleanup. Although Mary does not know where her grandmother’s exact burial plot is, she is very relieved to have found the location of the cemetery where she is buried. Thank you to Mary Leanos for letting us tell your grandmother’s story.
Judie & Joseph Palmer are two of the founding members of the Martinez Cemetery Preservation Alliance (MCPA) and the Potter’s Field Project. Both have a passion for discovery, history, genealogy, anthropology and archaeology. For more info, please visit our website MartinezCemetery.org. Do you have a Potter’s Field story to tell? We welcome any pictures or information regarding the Alhambra Pioneer Cemetery or its Potter’s Field. Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call us at (925) 316-6069.
Judie & Joseph Palmer are two of the founding members of the Martinez Cemetery Preservation Alliance (MCPA) and the Potter’s Field Project. Both have a passion for discovery, history, genealogy, anthropology and archaeology.