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577-person mass grave reburial documented by RI photographer in 1975

Target 12

CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) – Chester Browning was just days into working as a Rhode Island state photographer when he was sent to document nearly 600 bodies being dug up and reburied in a mass grave in 1975.

“I was there to photograph the transfer,” Browning said. “Individuals were collected in a trash bag to get an account, and then as many as they could fit into a coffer.”

He told Target 12 a state-certified mortician supervised the bodies being moved, with the remnants of each person being placed in a white gown before being put in cement coffers with 20 to 40 other bodies.

As Target 12 reported last week, the state dug up 577 individual gravesites at State Institution Cemetery No. 3 on Pontiac Avenue in Cranston and reburied them in a mass grave nearly two miles down the road in State Institution Cemetery No. 2.

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The relocation happened in 1975 to make way for an industrial complex. And while the original memorial placed on Cemetery No. 2 was thought to be stolen, Pawtuxet River Authority landscapers rediscovered it Saturday after clearing four feet of overgrowth that was covering the mass grave.

Maria da Graca contacted Target 12 unable to find the gravesite of her great-great grandfather Antonio Coelho, the state’s first person from Cape Verde to buy a packet ship in 1891. Browning offered some answers.

In addition to giving the state archives roughly 35,000 photos when he retired in 2008, Browning said he also kept a cemetery database, which correlates gravestone numbers with individuals.

Browning looked up Coelho’s grave number and determined he was likely one of the people reburied in the mass grave.

Da Graca, who said she will continue to search all angles until she’s satisfied Cemetery No. 2 is truly where Coelho is buried, has the ultimate goal of reburying her relative next to his wife in Providence.

If Browning’s records are correct, however, the effort may prove difficult. Short of DNA testing, Browning said the individual bodies in the mass grave might be impossible to identify.

Tolly Taylor (ttaylor@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook

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