Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Odd End to Philadelphia's Odd Fellows Cemetery

William Dick Elementary School, Philadelphia (former site of Odd Fellows Cemetery)
Coffin piece from Odd Fellows Cemetery?
A few weeks ago I received an email from a woman who was wondering about the resolution of this situation. In December of 2013, wooden coffins were surprisingly unearthed under a schoolyard in north Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Water Company was digging under the playground at the William Dick Elementary School (shown above) when caskets and other remains were found. When the story hit the news on Dec. 4 (see links at end), there was much media coverage. I went to the site to check it out. As far as I can tell, none of the graves that were excavated at that time were moved - seems like the Philadelphia Water Company just did their piping work and filled the ground back in. There were pieces of old pine board laying around in the mud of the site, one of which I picked up. Possibly part of an old pine box.

I lost track of the story and began wondering myself whatever became of this find. I see no further mention of it on the Internet. At the time of the incident, I missed an email from a reporter asking me to comment on the situation. Had I made the interview, I would have suggested he contact The Odd Fellows Cemetery Company in northeast Philadelphia for comment. The site in question (24th and Diamond Streets), was originally the site of Odd Fellows Cemetery, which had been established in 1848.

Latest occupant of the land once occupied by the Odd Fellows Cemetery

About a hundred years later, in 1951, the City of Philadelphia displaced Odd Fellows Cemetery and used the space to build a housing project and this public school. About 80,000 bodies were supposedly moved to Lawnview Cemetery in Rockledge (a Philadelphia suburb in Montgomery County), and Mount Peace Cemetery, at 3111 West Lehigh Avenue, Philadelphia. Both locations were, and are still, owned by the Odd Fellows Cemetery Company. The woman who wrote to me had a vested interest in the situation. It seems that many of her ancestors had originally been buried at Odd Fellows Cemetery.



Ironically, a few months prior to the unearthing of the coffins at Odd Fellows' original site, she had requested copies of her ancestors' burial records from the Odd Fellows Cemetery Company in Rockledge. Her ancestors had been buried there in the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s. She received the records, which were stamped "Moved to Lawnview in 1951," complete with lot numbers of the graves. She had accepted all this as fact until the coffins were discovered. Now she's not so sure.

Plaque on monument in Odd Fellows Cemetery

When a cemetery or graveyard is moved, those in charge most likely try to move all the bodies. However, its fairly common that stragglers are left behind, and found years later by accident. But if stragglers are later found, should they not be relocated as well? The Philadelphia Water Company temporarily halted its work in December 2013 so archaeologists could examine the findings. As I was doing research for this article, I did see that an attempt was made by Philly.com to contact Odd Fellows Cemetery Company at the time of the schoolyard excavation. Calls were not returned.


Lawnview Cemetery field where tens of thousands of bodies were reburied

Why the name "Odd Fellows?"
"The Independent Order of Odd Fellows began in 18th Century England, it was deemed odd to find people organized for the purpose of giving aid to those in need without recognition and pursuing projects for the benefits of all mankind." - http://www.ioof.org/

Plaque at Odd Fellows Cemetery
Odd Fellows began as a fraternal organization in America in 1819, and continues to this day. Currently, the organization sees itself as a "...family of Odd Fellowship, composed of Men, Women, and Youth, believing in a supreme being, the creator and preserver of the universe, who have come together in our local communities having the same beliefs and values as others, that; Friendship, Love and Truth are the basic guidelines that we need to follow in our daily lives"(ref.). Friendship, Love and Truth are usually symbolized by the three chain links seen in the photo at left; sometimes the letters F-L-T are written within the links.


Sidewalk at 24th and Diamond Streets
The photo at right was taken in April 2016. It shows the new sidewalks at 24th and Diamond Streets which were poured after the opened graves had been filled back in, subsequent to the Philadelphia Water Company finishing its work. The fence encloses the playground of the William Dick Public School. There is no memorial plaque or anything to indicate that portions of the Odd Fellows Cemetery still exist under the playground.

Lawnview Cemetery, Rockledge, PA
Lawnview Cemetery has been the recipient of tens of thousands of relocated graves over the years, from other cemeteries besides Odd Fellows. The most notorious being the twenty thousand graves from Philadelphia's Monument Cemetery, which was razed in 1956. The rumor was that all these bodies were dumped into a mass grave. If you talk to the people at Lawnview, they tell you that they have a record showing the actual plot where each body was buried. No reason not to trust that, except that, as people found out in north Philly in 2013, not all the graves (from Odd Fellows) were actually moved.

If you drive through Lawnview Cemetery, there is a vast field with no grave markers. This is where the burials from Monument Cemetery and Odd Fellows Cemetery are. There are no monuments, headstones, or markers of any kind because most of them were dumped into the Delaware River (you can read about that here). Some markers from Odd Fellows Cemetery remained, albeit buried, at their original location. News reports say that marble headstones were found during the Philadelphia Water Company's excavation in 2013. If you drive through Lawnview, I will tell you that the sight is a bit unsettling. The field in question looks flat at first glance. But if you drive, the lateral view you get is a decidedly unflat grassy field. The peaks of the many trenches they must have dug to accommodate the tens of thousands of bodies are quite obvious.

Fields of Graves - Lawnview Cemetery, Rockledge, PA

I realize that I've posed more questions than answers in this blog post. If anyone can shed light on the topic, please post a comment here or email me at mourningarts@yahoo.com.


References and Further Reading:

4 comments:

  1. This needs to be brought to Michael Coard's attention. He seems to think that only black cemeteries have this done to them.

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  2. I had many ancestors buried at Odd Fellows. The burial records for the cemetery are available on Ancestry. Not everyone was moved because some of those noted in OF's books have no re-burial stamp. One of my great grandfathers has a weird stamp as having been moved to Rockledge in 1904, Diamond Section. It can't be. Diamond Section was for those moved in the 1950's. Also, there was no reason to move him at that time. He died in 1851. His four year old granddaughter was buried on top of him (in 1864) and supposedly moved in the 1950's. Did they re-bury her at that time (1904)? Doubtful. Naturally, if we would like info from Rockledge to locate them, we have to pay for it.

    I doubt my ancestors were moved at all.

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    1. That is one crazy story. Sorry so many people had to put up with this.

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  3. There are some burial plaques at Lawnview that lie flat on the ground so that they can be mown over. I had a plaque placed over what is supposed to be my great grandparents grave, which also contains Greatgranddad's parents and a sister. I've always had doubts and am still simmering that the relative notified in 1951, who could have saved the stones on those graves, decided not to do so. Too many of my ancestors' bodies have been yanked up over the years, going back to Colonial days, so that another tenement could be built for newcomers. No respect at all for those who built the city of Philadelphia.

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