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This Tucson homeowner didn't know his house was built on a cemetery — until he found bones

Moses Thompson's house in the Dunbar Spring neighborhood of Tucson as seen on Monday, May 20, 2024.
Bridget Dowd/KJZZ
Moses Thompson's house in the Dunbar Spring neighborhood of Tucson as seen on Monday, May 20, 2024.

Almost like the famous 1982 film "Poltergeist," some homeowners in the Dunbar Spring neighborhood of Tucson had no idea their homes were built on top of a cemetery when they purchased their properties near the intersection of Stone Avenue and Speedway Boulevard.

One of those is Moses Thompson, who bought his home in 2006.

“We’d only been in the house [for] maybe a month and a sinkhole opened up in front of the house,” Thompson said.

He thought he had a sewer line break, but he started digging and found that the soil was dry.

“And then I found some brass decorations, like some diamond-patterned brass pieces and then I found a cross and then I hit some boards,” Thompson said.

Archaeologists dig outside Moses Thompson's home in Tucson.
Moses Thompson
Archaeologists dig outside Moses Thompson's home in Tucson.

He reached in and pulled out a handful of bones and sent a photo of them to his wife, who is a pediatrician.

“She’s like, 'They could be human bones, but they’re just really small,’” he said.

So Thompson contacted a local archaeologist and described everything he found.

“He was like, ‘You 100% hit a human grave. Your house was built over the Court Street Cemetery,’” said Thompson.

That archaeologist, Homer Thiel, excavated the grave and found it was a small child.

“I scraped my trowel and discovered there was another person underneath,” Thiel said. “That was an adult male. He had identical coffin hardware, which indicates the two people were buried at the same time.”

Archaeologists dig outside Moses Thompson's home in Tucson.
Moses Thompson
Archaeologists dig outside Moses Thompson's home in Tucson.

Thiel has actually supervised the excavation of about 25 graves in the area since 2005, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

“Based on the number of people I know that were buried and the square footage, each of these house lots has between 90 and 100 graves — maybe half were exhumed,” Thiel said.

The Court Street Cemetery spans eight city blocks and was Tucson’s primary burial ground from 1875 to 1909. Thiel estimates about 8,000 people were put to rest there. Around 1907, the city agreed to open two new cemeteries, close the Court Street site, and develop the land.

“Undertaking companies offered to dig up people’s family members and friends and move them, but there were many people that had come to Tucson and died or the families didn’t have any money,” Thiel said. “So about half of the people that were buried here are still here, underneath the houses, businesses, roads [and] sidewalks.”

A diagram of the adult male coffin found in Moses Thompson's yard in 2006.

Desert Archaeology Incorporated
A diagram of the adult male coffin found in Moses Thompson's yard in 2006.
A diagram of the child's coffin found in Moses Thompson's yard in 2006.
Desert Archaeology Incorporated
A diagram of the child's coffin found in Moses Thompson's yard in 2006.

In some cases, Thiel believes they quite literally did the "'Poltergeist' thing," where they moved the headstones to a new cemetery, but not the bodies.

“The other people that were dug up and moved, the tombstones are sort of scattered all over the cemetery, whereas those are all just sort of lined up in nice rows,” Thiel said.

Many of them were people who had no family in town and therefore didn’t have anyone who’d pay to have their bodies moved. So what happens when someone like Thiel uncovers a body?

Homer Thiel is a project director for Desert Archaeology Incorporated. He's supervised the excavation of about 25 graves in the Dunbar Spring area since 2005.
Bridget Dowd/KJZZ
Homer Thiel is a project director for Desert Archaeology Incorporated. He's supervised the excavation of about 25 graves in the Dunbar Spring area since 2005.

“All of the people that were buried in the Catholic half of the cemetery have been reburied in Holy Hope Cemetery which is the Catholic diocese cemetery here in town,” Thiel said.

As for the others, some of them are just sitting in a museum with no one to claim them.

“The Arizona State Museum has a closed stack or library shelves with the boxes of the people,” Thiel said. “So in the box, we’ll have the remains, clothing, and some of the coffin parts.”

And while having homes built on top of a burial ground may seem wild, it’s not as uncommon as you might think. Thiel said many American cities have paved over cemeteries.

As far as buying the homes built there, Xiaoqian Hu, an associate professor of law at the University of Arizona, said there’s no general duty for a seller to disclose facts like that.

Moses Thompson maintains a shrine in his front yard in Tucson to make sure the people of the past are not forgotten.
Bridget Dowd/KJZZ
Moses Thompson maintains a shrine in his front yard in Tucson to make sure the people of the past are not forgotten.

To her knowledge, nothing like that has been litigated in the state, but it would depend on the facts of the case.

“For example, if the seller knows the act that the house was built on an old cemetery and there might be bodies still buried underneath the house, and if the jury decides that this fact will materially affect the value of the house, and a buyer cannot easily discover this fact, then the seller of the home has a duty to disclose the fact,” Hu said.

It’s similar to a major plumbing issue that could not be discovered through an ordinary inspection. In Arizona, realtors are not obligated to disclose if a murder, suicide or natural death occurs on a property either.

But for people like Thompson and Thiel, the history is part of what makes the neighborhood so special. Thiel gives tours of it to keep the history alive.

Some homeowners in the Dunbar Spring neighborhood of Tucson had no idea their homes were built on top of a cemetery when they purchased their properties. This is the only marker in the area.
Bridget Dowd/KJZZ
Some homeowners in the Dunbar Spring neighborhood of Tucson had no idea their homes were built on top of a cemetery when they purchased their properties. This is the only marker in the area.

"I like to find out the stories of the forgotten people — not the famous people but the people that nobody remembers,” Thiel said.

Thompson maintains a shrine in his front yard to make sure the people of the past are not forgotten.

“It must’ve been wild when they were building this neighborhood because those graves were not that old at that point, and there’s so many of them,” Thompson said. “You can’t put a sewer line down without just like plowing through a ton of graves.”

Hear more of Moses Thompson's story on Spooked, the podcast from Snap Judgment. Hear Snap Judgment on Sunday nightson 91.5 FM.

Senior field correspondent Bridget Dowd has a bachelor’s degree from Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.