Saturday, August 8, 2020

New Devils Require New Gods

During the Corona spring and summer of 2020, I felt compelled to mask cemetery statues. A flaw in my personality, I suppose. I didn’t leave the masks on and I did no damage in the act. Initially, I don’t know why I did it. I published a few images and received a handful of comments from upset people. 

Comments like “I was saddened by our beautiful Angels with paper masks covering their exquisite faces - the angels should not be weighted down by human error.”

Exquisite faces, indeed. After months of people wearing masks, I miss all your exquisite faces. I meant no disrespect by masking angels. We created them in our own image, after all. Or more accurately, we created them in our idealized, Western world Christian image. Angels – both male and female, are the supermodels, the Barbie and Ken perfect versions of our white selves. Since we must now mask ourselves and hide our beautiful faces, I wanted to see what these icons looked like, masked. If we must mask, why shouldn’t they? But you know, if we all end up wearing masks for the next year, maybe we NEED unmasked, beautiful statues to remind us of the way things were? Of the goal, the way things should be? Are they a sign of hope? Optimism? Maybe I’m taking this away from people by masking them. 

“Go and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here.”― Neil Gaiman, Make Good Art

I suppose I need to be careful, though - blasphemy and heresy are no laughing matter. In past centuries, such an act could get you killed, defacing statues or paintings of the gods, or public figures. But as Louise Erdrich says in her novel, Tracks, (1989, Harper & Row), “new devils require new gods.” I’m not going to define this statement for you right now. Take from it what you will. Perhaps its about our response to the coronavirus pandemic. When I create art, I want the viewer to take what they can from it. Most likely it speaks to them differently than it speaks to me. I have always defined my art as minimally as possible – I want the viewer to find their own meaning in it. I don’t even like to title my photographic images. Even that narrows things down too much.

Erdrich’s novel, Tracks, is about Indian (yes, she uses that proper name) tribes “struggling to keep what remained of their lands” in last century America. Native American land and all other freedoms were slowly taken from them very much like our present freedoms are slowly being taken from us by coronavirus. We are struggling to keep what remains of our world. Big difference, however, is that while the white settlers of this “new” land benefitted greatly from the indigenous peoples’ loss, no one benefits from the loss due to COVID-19. Unless, of course, it is some evil plot hatched by the spotted lanternfly.

Would George Washington Wear a Face Mask in 2020? No!

People thought I would have more respect for angels and other works of art - I might just as well have “purchased a can of spray paint & had [my] way with these historic & immortal figures!” (“Immortal,” let’s come back to that thought later.) One could say the same of the person who doctored up this painting of George Washington, I suppose. But its all about having the freedom to express oneself, to make a point. Here’s an image below that should really rile up the masses. Old folks need to protect them selves from their kids, who may be asymptomatic COVID-carriers. 

One of the problems with freedom is that people are free to believe anything they like. For months, there was no consistent, insistent decree from our nation’s leaders that we should wear face masks to stop the spread of coronavirus. Should we or shouldn’t we? We were free to believe whatever suited us. Now, of course, it is becoming quite clear that face masks should have been worn all this time. (Wait – shouldn’t our guardian angels have appeared in masks to carry us to salvation? Sorry, getting a bit sarky there.) 

Tensions Mount 

The raw emotion that has surfaced over my masked statuary is a good thing. Isn’t that what art is supposed to do? Make you think? Make you emote? Maybe you love it, hate it, or are indifferent. Maybe that’s how you also view the whole face mask thing in general. 

The issues people have with wearing masks are multitudinous. George Hofmann in his Psych Central article, The Fight Over Facemasks, mentions a few of these. “The science behind wearing a mask seems pretty simple, and among scientists and doctors there’s near universal agreement that wearing masks will prevent transmission and greatly reduce the number of people who contract the virus.” If you don’t believe this, go watch movies about hospitals and research labs.

Hofmann adds, “That’s why I think there’s a lot more to the anger over masks than respect for the health of others or individual liberties.” People’s anger and rage is evident by the almost daily reports like this, an incident that occurred on July 31, 2020. A customer of a cigar store in Bethlehem, PA, shot at the clerk with a handgun when the customer got upset over the store’s masking policy (link to story).

In this chaotic time - new devils require new gods. New problems require new solutions (one interpretation of this statement). The masking quarrel reminds me of the story of Dr. Charles Meigs, a nationally recognized Philadelphia obstetrician, who in the 1850s singlehandedly transmitted infectious and sometimes deadly diseases to hundreds of his patients. Why? He didn’t believe in washing his hands! He didn’t believe he needed to clean his surgical instruments. He didn’t believe there were such things as infectious diseases. He felt that God was on his side, and he could do no wrong! God, can you believe that? Meigs inadvertently killed many of his obstetrical patients as a result of his stubbornness and grandstanding. He simply refused to believe what we all now know, that a basic way to prevent the transmission of infectious disease is good hand hygiene.  (Read the whole Meigs story in my blog post, “Infectious Diseases and Charles Meigs, M.D.”)

Dr. Charles Meigs's grave, Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia

As I write this in August 2020, we are really still in the discovery phase of this disease, coronavirus. We don’t know how to control it yet, so why argue about face masks? Why not just err on the side of caution? How many of our politicians remind you of Dr. Meigs? How much of our general population reminds you of Dr. Meigs?

George Hofmann offers that the real source of anger is usually hidden behind what we’re fighting over. He opines that “people have felt disaffected and forgotten by the society they see portrayed in the media for a long time.” Sound familiar? As average citizens, we just don’t measure up to the media ideal of ourselves. We are not, nor ever will be, Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie. Hofmann feels that people generally feel ignored, mere background noise. Proles. He says that putting a mask over their faces, “making them anonymous and unheard [literally], can be a source of great anger.”

We created angels in our ideal image – maybe that’s one reason its so hard to see them masked. The goals of purity, perfection, and escape (perhaps only attainable in the afterlife?) all of a sudden may not seem possible. “Immortality,” as mentioned earlier, may now seem impossible. By masking angels, am I symbolically closing the Heavenly Gates on the viewer? Am I suggesting, as John Cale does in his song, Fear, that “we’re already dead, just not yet in the ground…?” 

But I want to end this missive on a high note, something optimistic. How about this: new devils require new gods. Think about that. 

Further Reading:

George Hofmann’s book Resilience: Handling Anxiety in a Time of Crisis (2020, Changemakers Books), is available here.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

The Irishman’s Grave – “I Heard You Paint Houses”

My wife and I watched the 2019 movie, “The Irishman,” a few months ago. We watched it during our local coronavirus lockdown in April 2020, when most Philadelphians were binge-watching television. Quite intriguing, this film. About Jimmy Hoffa’s mob bodyguard, Philadelphian Frank Sheeran (aka The Irishman) and his life of crime (he was mainly a hitman for the Bufalino organized crime Family in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s). Its historical fiction in that it suggests how Hoffa disappeared – a mystery that has never been solved. The movie is adapted from the book, “I Heard You Paint Houses,” by Charles Brandt. In Brandt’s book, Sheeran, interviewed in an old age home, supposedly confessed to killing Hoffa. Robert DeNiro does an astounding job in the lead role of the Irishman.

Friendly Lounge today in South Philly
I felt a closeness to this movie, for odd reasons. My Dad was a union man in the 1960s and 70s, when Hoffa was president of the Teamsters. My friend Ted tends bar at the Friendly Lounge, the South Philly bar where some of the movie was filmed, which is the actual bar where a lot of the real action took place when Sheeran was just getting his start in the 1960s. Ted told me about the movie before it was released. I live about six blocks from the bar. 

Another reason I felt some attraction for the film is because of crime family mob boss Russell Bufalino. As a kid growing up in the sixties, in northeast Pennsylvania, his name was always in the papers. He controlled northeast PA for the Mafia. I never paid much attention, but I remember my parents talking about him frequently. Bufalino, played by Joe Pesci in “The Irishman,” seems to have been the mob boss who got the Irishman, whose name was actually Frank Sheeran, into Bufalino's crime “Family.” Up to that point,  Sheeran was just a small town crook. 

Robert DeNiro as "The Irishman" choosing a final resting place in the movie (ref.)

At the end of the movie, Sheeran goes coffin and crypt hunting. He’s living in an old age home and wants to choose his final resting place. As Brett McCracken says in The Gospel Coalition article, “How ‘The Irishman’ Prepares for Death,” (Nov. 20, 2019) “He wants to be buried above ground in a mausoleum because it feels “less final” than burial in the ground or cremation—like maybe his body could be resurrected more easily that way.” This article shows a photo of him, a still from the movie, in a simple community mausoleum choosing a spot.

At some point after seeing the film, it occurred to me that Frank Sheeran might in fact be buried for real somewhere near my home in Philadelphia. Fairly easy to find with the Internet at my disposal. Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon, PA, is a suburb of Philadelphia on the southwest side. The website tells me he’s buried in a mausoleum there and someone even uploaded a photo of the crypt cover you see at the beginning of my essay, with Frank and wife Mary’s names engraved on it. Not tremendously helpful, this information, as I had no idea whether he was buried in a community mausoleum like in the movie or in one of the many private mausoleums at Holy Cross. 

“Are you family?”

So one spring afternoon in April I drove out to Holy Cross in search of The Irishman. The cemetery is only about ten miles from where I live so in the early weeks of the pandemic, I donned my mask and took a Saturday drive.
Holy Cross is a cemetery I’ve written about a number of times. One of my blog posts, “Graves of the Mob Bosses,” details several underworld characters who are buried here. They’ve all got elegant headstones or mausoleums, surrounded by Christian statuary – Jesus, angels, saints. Some Catholic cemeteries have a problem burying criminals within their gates. Holy Cross apparently does not. Gangsters like Philip Testa and Angelo Bruno, serial killers like H.H. Holmes, are but a few who reside on or in these consecrated grounds.

Masked myself, I asked the masked office worker if he could tell me where Frank Sheeran is buried. He seemed a little nervous and a bit hurried. He told me specifically which community mausoleum Sheeran was in (he pointed out the window to the large modern structure up on the hill), and he described to me on which side Sheeran’s crypt was. I thanked him and as I turned to leave, he asked, “Are you family?” I took this to mean a blood relative, so I simply responded, “No.” It wasn’t until much later that I thought, maybe he meant “Family…..” That was a bit sobering.

I had little trouble finding The Irishman’s crypt in the mausoleum. It was all rather peaceful and quiet. So unlike his life, as it is depicted in the movie. According to Charles Brandt’s book, Sheeran supposedly admitted that he painted between twenty-five and thirty houses. That is, he killed that many people, many of whom were Hoffa’s enemies and rivals. Many secrets are buried with Frank Sheeran. His mausoleum is not the one shown in the movie; they filmed that scene with DeNiro elsewhere. 

Community mausoleum where Sheeran is buried (rear at right)

References and Further Reading:
Link to Ed Snyder's blog post  “Graves of the Mob Bosses” 

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Cemetery Restoration at the Jersey Shore

Summer 2020. COVID-19 summer. Vacation with the fam. Brigantine, New Jersey, just north of Atlantic City. Cemetery visitation plans: Atlantic City Cemetery and maybe another. Maybe Winslow Junction – train graveyard, or Fleming’s Junkyard, last resting place of all other modes of transportation. Except the rental condo was infested with bugs that bored into my skin and drew blood. The pool was also closed for the season, which was not mentioned on their website. Sweet. 

I’m a high-functioning individual with good insight and a positive outlook. Therefore, we packed up the plantation and moved further north. On to the Coral Seas Motel in Beach Haven, New Jersey, on LBI, i.e., Long Beach Island - my go-to Jersey Shore vacation spot for about 35 years. Coral Seas tells us their pool is open and they have no bugs. Ambrosia. No wait, that’s food, isn’t it? No matter, the custard is better on LBI anyway. Beach Haven is only about fourteen miles north as the crow flies from Brigantine. As the car drives, however, it is a sixty-mile inland journey up the coast. 

Manahawkin Baptist Church, NJ
Manahawkin Baptist Church, NJ
Once we were settled, pooled, and availed ourselves of a bug-free night, I planned a new cemetery jaunt. About ten miles north toward Barnegat Bay, there are a few cemeteries on Route 9 shown on the Internet.  So, I woke up at 6:30 am and headed north. (“Up, Sluggard, and waste not life; in the grave will be sleeping enough.” Poor Richard’s Almanac, 1741.) Passed my favorite church graveyard, Manahawkin Baptist Church in Manahawkin, NJ (where I swear I saw Johnette Napolitano from Concrete Blonde a few years ago, walking around with a guy who was carrying a guitar case). Even though the sunrise light was AWESOME, I figured I’d catch it on the way back (always NEVER do this! You can never set foot in the same river twice). 

I hit the Barnegat Masonic Cemetery after passing an amazing looking outdoor nautical antique dealer which I didn’t stop at. Drove around the cemetery for a few minutes and realized I’d been there before. Locale wasn’t familiar, but the headstones and monuments were. I’m kind of freewheeling this blog while I’m drinking “Spirits of the Apocalypse” bourbon, trying to drain the bottle so I don’t have to use valuable storage space in the Saab on tomorrow’s trip home (my ten-year-old daughter won all kinds of arcade toys that will take up precious cargo space). 

So I sped off up Route 9 to the next graveyard on the eMap, something called Old Waretown Cemetery. Had a heck of a time finding this. The eMap on my iPhone showed the cemetery plain as eDay, but all I actually saw was a patch of woods with a vacant lot next door. I drove around the lot thinking the cemetery was forgotten in the woods, when it occurred to me that it might be accessible from the other side of the patch of woods, the road less traveled. That’s when I saw the green sign you see at the beginning of this essay.

"Olde" Waretown Cemetery on Barnegat Bay, New Jersey

The cemetery, penned in on three sides by pine forest, was at the end of a short street. Houses lined one side of the street and an industrial garage on the other. A garage worker was starting his day and paid me no mind. I docked the Pequod at the end of the street and got out. The pine-sheltered graveyard was only about a quarter of a city block in size, and had many old headstones, Revolutionary War Veteran medallions, and U.S. flags on some graves. The only thing that really stood out was the restoration setup in the middle of the graveyard – and the moss. The property was so shaded by the tall trees that moss grew thick on the sandy ground. It was like walking on a thick soft carpet.

Repair and restoration of headstones

Revolutionary War veteran's grave marker

Soldiers, sailors, and early settlers of the area are buried here. Some stones date to the early 1800s. Many were just moss-covered nubs of stone, they were so weatherbeaten. The snow, rain, wind, and sandblasting caused by the latter, all work to erode these marble, slate, and brownstone gravemarkers. 

Many were broken, but someone, or perhaps a group of people are trying to save them from being buried like the people whose graves they mark. The restoration of two of the stones here is being conducted in a highly professional manner. Clamps, epoxy, supporting structure, binding straps, etc. A laborious enterprise, to be sure, and without a doubt, a labor of love.

Headstone with matching footstone
Another repaired stone, this one recently reattached to its base, was accompanied by a matching footstone! This may be old news to many of my readers, but I just learned of this custom in June, 2020 at the Life and Death Event created by Tania Kirkman. This was a mostly online three-day event with dozens of lectures (with this one given by me) related to death and all its trappings. 

At Life and Death, a friend of mine, Brenda Sullivan of The Gravestone Girlsgave a presentation entiltled, “Welcome to the Graveyard: A Tour of Cemetery Art and History.” She covered American burial practices and cemeteries from the 1600s to the present day. Brenda explained that for a certain period of time, it was popular practice to mark both the head as well as the foot of one’s grave, with both stones facing east. The thought being that on Judgement Day, when Christians emerge from their graves they emerge headfirst in the proper direction to face their maker! Also, the two stones effectively mark the boundary of the grave, to prevent accidental excavation. 

The head and footstone in above photo are about six feet apart. On a nearby child’s grave, the stones were about three feet apart. Footstones typically have the initials of the deceased engraved on them. As you can see in the photo above of William N. Smith’s headstone, his footstone bears the initials, “WNS.” I had seen these small stones many times over the years and naively thought they were simply inexpensive grave markers. The obvious has a way of eluding me at times!

Broken headstone epoxied back onto its base

It was getting to be about 8:30 a.m. and I needed to be back in Beach Haven to pick up pancakes for my daughter from Uncle Will’s Restaurant, so I headed back to my car. As I drove out to the main street to leave, I stopped to photograph “The Olde Cemetery” sign. Two men were standing in the adjoining yard. I said hi and asked them if they knew who has been repairing the grave markers. With facemasks on (this being the Summer of COVID-19), I could barely make out what they said. Sounded like “Bill Watt, and he had volunteers helping from the local VFW.” So Bill, if you’re reading this, I’d love to hear your story. Great work.

Sheetrock grave markers at Manahawkin Baptist Church graveyard 

On the way back, I did stop at the Manahawkin Baptist Church to do some photography, but as they say about the past, it had passed. The early sun was no longer early enough. I walked around a bit, spooking rabbits at silflay that tore across the open spaces. Something new to my eyes was this family plot with five of what appeared to be gravemarkers made of sheetrock! Obviously, someone went to a lot of trouble to make them – and to attach wooden letters spelling out the names of the deceased. However, I cannot imagine they will weather very well.

Many of the graves in these Jersey shore cemeteries could be anywhere - Missouri, Montana, Minnesota. However, there are some occasional concrete, or maybe granite, reminders that they are close to the ocean. As I left, I walked by the maritime version of Potter’s Field, a square area roughly 150 feet on a side, with a large granite central monument to the "Unknown From The Sea.”

Read more about the history of Old Waretown Cemetery here.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Corpse Recovery and Cadaver Bags after the Flood

Now there’s a catchy title, don’t you think? Read on and you will learn all. This week is the anniversary of an incident that poisoned the well for me - the week in 1972 when I explored the cemetery in Forty-Fort, PA, after Hurricane Agnes destroyed it. If you'd like to read this chilling account of what (I believe) led to my lifelong interest in dead things, the full account serves (I think appropriately) as the introduction to my book, “The Cemetery Traveler.” It is available on Amazon. Not for the faint of heart, I might add. Graveyards are not always fun. Sometimes they're a true horror story.

When I was fourteen (1972), Hurricane Agnes caused major flooding in Northeast Pennsylvania. After sandbagging the Susquehanna River dike all day in front of my grandmother’s house, the rising river water blew out of the street storm drains like geysers. This caused some minor flooding, but it wasn't enough to equalize the water pressure--the dike at the cemetery in the town of Forty-Fort blew out. Not only was the Wyoming Valley under sixteen feet of water for days, but the cemetery was gutted.

Forty-Fort Cemetery after the 1972 flood (ref.)

When the flood waters receded, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers made some major repairs, facilitated a massive cleanup, and boarded up the cemetery. Rumors had it there were coffins everywhere! As a teenage boy, this is exactly the cool stuff you want to hear. Later, there were photos published in newspapers showing coffins lodged on the front porches of homes in my neighborhood. 

Street cleaning, post-flood 1972 (ref.)

Most of this memento mori was removed before people were allowed back to their homes (after about ten days, I think). Until recently, I never knew exactly where they reinterred the human remains and coffins that were collected. You can read a grim account of the collection of caskets and bodies here.

So after a couple weeks, when residents were allowed back to their homes to facilitate their own massive cleanup, my cousin Albert and I wandered down to the cemetery, only to find 8-foot sheets of plywood attached to the existing wrought iron fencing. Hardly a deterrent, we went exploring. In not much time, we found a washed out space under one of the plywood sheets that was big enough for a boy to crawl under. Needless to say, that's what we did. 

Nothing … could have prepared me for the … stench! Was it the bodies? The dead fish? The river mud baking in the hot summer sun? Probably a combination of both.

As we walked around the grounds that day in the late June heat, who would have thought the experience would affect me for a lifetime? You had to mouth-breathe just to keep from passing out from the assault on the nasal passages. The fetid aroma was no doubt accentuated by the heat, but oddly, you couldn't smell it from outside the plywood fencing.

I’d visited Forty-Fort Cemetery 
in 2016 - the first time since 1972. I’ve been there a few times since then. The tree in this photo is the very same tree I mention in the story – the one the object was propped up against. (You have to read the intro chapter of my book for further details.)

As a memorial to the 2700 bodies that were unearthed, a large monument was erected in the Forty-Fort Cemetery (shown above). The bodies that were found (one has to assume that many were washed away down river) were reburied elsewhere. The news and published accounts have always been scarce on details. Enter my friend Dorothy Loney! 

Photo by Dorothy Loney

Photo by Dorothy Loney

Back in May 2020, Dorothy sent me some photos she took in Carverton, PA, a town in Wyoming County, Pennsylvania. It was a cemetery called Memorial Shrine Cemetery, about ten miles north of Forty-Fort. Apparently, this monument marks the mass grave where the collected remains for the Forty-Fort Cemetery were reburied. Back around 2010, I spoke with the caretaker of the Forty-Fort Cemetery, who I believe is the son of the gentleman who was the caretaker in 1972. He told me that he can remember his dad running from the office meeting house to his car, carrying armloads of burial records, as the river approached flood stage. As the water rose in the streets, but before the dike gave way, he said he remembered his Dad in knee-deep water carrying as many of the records as he could out of the office in an attempt to save them. I’m guessing some records were lost.

Memorial Shrine Cemetery monument (photo by Dorothy Loney)

So the end of June will always bring to mind visions of my parents’ home with water up to the second floor, living with dried flood mud for the next year, the dust, the smell of dead fish, living in trailers, and the widespread devastation from which many of the flooded towns never recovered. The Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania area where I live is one of those. As the National Weather Service states: “The widespread flooding from this storm caused Agnes to be called the most destructive hurricane in United States history, claiming 117 lives and causing damage estimated at $3.1 billion in 12 States. Damage was particularly high in New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia." (Ref.

And as I look back on my years of cemetery traveling, photography, and writing, I suppose Hurricane Agnes was a muse, of sorts. If I hadn’t had that traumatic experience in the Forty-Forty Cemetery, you would not be reading this blog.

I leave you with a marvelous photograph, one Dorothy Loney made of the chapel at the Memorial Shrine Cemetery. Deliciously creepy, is it not?

Memorial Shrine Cemetery chapel (photo by Dorothy Loney)

Further reading:

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Life and Death - the Event

Tania Kirkman organized a three-day conference called “Life and Death” in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, that was held June 19-21, 2020. I was to attend, physically, as a presenter, and make the presentation you see above, 
Secrets Revealed from Philadelphia's (Underwater) Monument Cemetery. Then coronavirus hit town, and life as we knew it was either cancelled or virtualized. Tania chose the latter, and worked with all the presenters over the past month to create Zoom versions of their presentations. This in turn benefitted not only the expected attendees (who faced cancellation of the event), but also the wider masses who would not have been able to physically attend the event. Over a thousand people were following her social media posts (

There were many virtual presentations given over the three days – I caught two. Extremely well done by extremely knowledgeable people, and thoroughly enjoyable! Hayden Peters ( discussed Mourning Art jewelry in his talk, “In Memory of” and Brenda Sullivan of The Gravestone Girls ( gave a wonderful presentation entitled “Welcome to the Graveyard – Cemetery Art, History, and Symbolism.” She covered American cemetery evolution from the 1600s to the present day. 

In addition to the virtualized sessions, there were some physical gatherings in Shepherdstown – a cemetery tour, a night movie, and some physical vending by artists and craftspeople. Hopefully, next year we can all get mortal again. Virtualization can allow more people to participate, for sure, but there is a tangible aspect of our interactions that is irreplaceable. 

So I did my presentation on June 20, at 10 a.m. on a sunny summer day, actually the first day of summer. Not exactly the witching hour. Still, there was information I presented that would make your skin crawl, no matter what time, day, or weather. It was about the gravestones on the shore of the Delaware River in Philadelphia, under the Betsy Ross Bridge. If you’ve read my Cemetery Traveler blog or read the posts reproduced in my book of the same name (link to purchase), you know that this is about how the City of Philadelphia destroyed Monument Cemetery in 1956 – obliterated it in order that Temple University could acquire that land to build a parking lot. Progress. 

Thank you to my 34 attendees and I do apologize to the several who I could not admit after the presentation began. I had figured I would admit people manually – wrong! Always never do this! Set your controls to admit latecomers automatically! Each of the three times I admitted latecomers, my slides froze and would not advance! To make matters worse, my in-house IT consultant (a.k.a. my ten-year-old daughter Olivia) was not yet awake!

But, I powered through. As did all the other presenters. For most, this was their first rodeo. It was only my second. Here, for your enjoyment, ad infinitum, is my presentation, stored somewhere in the cloud. It’s free to access, so you can watch it anew or relive the moment if you were there with me in my living room last Saturday morning. 

(Recorded presentation) “Secrets Revealed from Philadelphia's (Underwater) Monument Cemetery”

Donations appreciated!




Sunday, June 14, 2020

Infectious Diseases and Charles Meigs, M.D.

My guest author this week is David Gurmai, a friend who is Weekend Coordinator and unofficial historian at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia. Enjoy!
“Wash your hands!” is a common refrain of mothers everywhere, and one that’s become even more important with a global pandemic on our hands (pun intended). It has long been forgotten that hand washing is a relatively recent habit with contentious beginnings. Before it became widely accepted among the general population, it had to first be accepted by the medical community.

Dr. Charles D. Meigs (1792-1869) was an obstetrician caught in the middle of a paradigm shift in medicine. He went to medical school at a time when miasma theory—the idea that diseases are a product of one’s environment—was the accepted belief. Germ theory was in its infancy, though making demonstrably provable claims, particularly with Louis Pasteur advancing vaccination science and inventing pasteurization in the mid-1800s. Dr. Meigs thought germ theory was hogwash. He insisted on having treatment rooms cleaned thoroughly, removing any traces of miasma and effluvia, but hand washing was absurd to him. As a gentleman, a God-fearing and educated man of high standing, contagion couldn’t possibly be spread by his touch.

That’s the stance that Dr. Meigs obstinately took, despite otherwise excelling in his field. There was no regimen of thorough hand washing as he moved between patients. He didn’t merely ignore the idea, but was actively outspoken and hostile toward it. He would invoke reductio ad absurdum-style arguments against it: suggesting that believers of germ theory shouldn’t touch anyone lest they infect everyone, while pointing out that physicians can’t practice in such a manner. He wasn’t the only doctor opposed to hand washing, but he was among the most prominent. 

By the time of Dr. Meigs’ death, germ theory was prevailing over miasma theory. One has to wonder how many infections he passed among the mothers and newborns who were his patients. As the 19th century closed, germ theory was fully accepted by the medical establishment. Another few decades and society at large had caught on; by 1940 everyone was washing their hands before meals and performing surgery.

So, listen to your mother…and the CDC: Wash your hands.

Epilogue by Ed Snyder

Meigs’ professional embarrassment and widely publicized rebuke by the AMA (1850s) is well-documented in the book, Dr. Mutter’s Marvels (2014, Aptowicz). Dr. Thomas Mutter (of the famed Mutter Museum in Philadelphia), a surgeon and professor at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, was one of medicine’s earliest proponents of aseptic technique. Although he could not prove that infections were transmitted by pathogens and non-sterile technique, he did realize early on in his surgical career that if he washed his hands and instruments before conducting a surgical procedure, there were fewer infectious complications. He and Meigs taught at Jefferson at the same time and were at odds in their opinions and teachings.

David’s statement above, “One has to wonder how many infections he passed among the mothers and newborns who were his patients,” is frighteningly addressed in Apotowicz’ book. She states that “Meigs was unable or unwilling to understand the concept that diseases could even be contagious,” and that as an obstetrician he transmitted infectious and sometimes deadly diseases to hundreds of patients. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., MD, a renowned Harvard anatomy professor in 1855, published a scathing article on infectious disease, calling out Meigs by name as “the pestilence-carrier of the lying-in chamber,” who “must look to God for pardon, for man will never forgive him.”

Meigs inadvertently killed many of his obstetrical patients as a result of his stubbornness and grandstanding. He simply refused to believe what we all now know, that the best way to prevent the transmission of infectious disease is good hand hygiene. As David says above, wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands!

I thank David Gurmai for directions to Meigs’ grave in Laurel Hill Cemetery. I had just finished reading “Dr. Mutter’s Marvels” and was fascinated that the science being discovered during the time of Mutter and Meigs (1840s – 1860s) has such a direct relation to the pandemic we are now experiencing. I went to Meigs’ grave and taunted him with germicidal wipes, gloves, and a mask – items he would have scoffed at, yet items we realize are instrumental in saving lives.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Artistry Above Ground

As opposed to artistry below ground? Hmm. Maybe that would refer to gemstones, gold and silver, etc. The artistry above ground we are talking about are gems of a sort - the creative arts produced by the people who were expected to participate in the tent-and-table, physical outdoor art exhibition, “Artistry Above Ground,” sponsored by West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd, PA (a Philadelphia suburb). This was to be the inaugural spring arts and artisans event held by the cemetery, similar in concept to the wildly popular “Market of the Macabre,” which has been a regular fall event for the past several years at West Laurel’s sister cemetery, Historic Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia.

I’ve participated in the Market of the Macabre and it has been a wonderful outing. Death-centric folks selling everything from serial killer T-shirts to dead things in jars. Of course, my graveyard photographs, cards, and books fit right in. My friend Sarah Amendola and I have consistently set up next to each other, she of Mockingbird Lane Artistries with her jewelry, glass coffins (not full size), and crazy crystal vending machine! Alas, a physical outing is not to be, as the COVID Hounds of Hell are nipping at all of our heels.

This being the case, West Laurel Hill decided to go ahead with the event, only as a “virtual market.” For many of us artists and organizers, this is, in fact, our first rodeo. Wish us luck! The idea is that West Laurel Hill will host on its website (“Artistry Above Ground”) links to as many vendors as have an on-line store, so that the public can visit and potentially buy such things as steampunk clothing, coffin-nail necklaces, and dead things in jars. (Not joking about the coffin-nail necklaces, Mockingbird Lane Artistries has them!)

Link to "Artistry Above Ground:"

When the page is updated on May 28, 2020, links will be available for all the vendors, including me. You'll see a link to my “Stone Angels” ETSY shop. Or, if you'd like, you can click here to be teleported directly to my shop.

I’ve put up some new items just for the “Artistry Above Ground Virtual Market” (like the masked and dangerous statuary image above, made in Laurel Hill Cemetery last week). You’ll see some surprises there. Typically, my two books, “Stone Angels” (Blurb) and “The Cemetery Traveler” (Amazon) are only available (unsigned) from the publisher or (signed) at shows. For this 3-day-event, I am offering signed copies of the books if you purchase them from the ETSY shop. 

Also, my photographic prints are typically unsigned, but I will sign those as well, and include an extra special surprise photo with your purchase. There are some gruesome things lurking in there, so be prepared – death is not always pretty.

“Secrets from a Cemetery Underwater”

In addition, “Artistry Above Ground” will feature a ticketed event for Saturday, May 30, 2020, at 5 p.m. – an on-line presentation by me, entitled “Secrets from a Cemetery Underwater.” Hmmm. Now what could THAT be about? If you’ve read my blog or purchased a copy of my book by the same name, “The Cemetery Traveler,” you might guess it will be about the 1956 destruction of the Victorian-era Monument Cemetery in Philadelphia. And you would be correct.

In the 1950s, Temple University wanted the land across Broad Street to build a parking lot for its commuter students. Unfortunately, the land was occupied by Monument Cemetery, the second Victorian Garden Cemetery established in Philadelphia (in 1837, right after Laurel Hill). As the owners wouldn’t sell, Temple managed to have the city of Philadelphia condemn the property, remove the graves, and sell the land to Temple. In 1956, many of the 28,000 graves were removed and the headstones and monuments dumped into the Delaware River – where they remain to this day. Hence the title, “Secrets from a Cemetery Underwater.”

I do hope you will join me for the this Zoom presentation (my in-house IT consultant, a.k.a. my ten-year-old daughter Olivia, taught me how to use Zoom). There will be a Q&A session afterword (chat your questions and I’ll answer them live for all to hear). 

Links to Sarah Amendola’s Mockingbird Lane Artistries:

Ed Snyder’s Stone Angels ETSY Shop: