Monday, December 5, 2011

Bloody Cemetery Apparition

People ask me if I see ghosts in cemeteries. I see and hear weird stuff from time to time, but it doesn’t always manifest itself in any clear way. In other words, its not like seeing Casper floating above a headstone.

Back in 2003 I had an interesting experience at Geno’s Cheese Steak restaurant in South Philly - the last place you'd expect to see a ghost. However, the realization of what I had seen only became evident to me last week (November, 2011), a full eight years after the occurrence!

As I was writing last week’s blog, Thanksgiving and Abandoned Cemeteries, I mentioned Capitolo playground in South Philly, and how it used to be a cemetery. I didn’t know this until a year or so ago when I heard the current owner of Pat’s Steaks (I think he’s the grandson of the founder), talk on the radio about how his grandfather used to play baseball with his friends in the old, run-down graveyard. They’d jump over the broken headstones (I can picture them using broken pieces for bases). The cemetery was condemned and plowed over in the mid-1940s so the city could build an actual park and athletic field.

Basketball by night in Capitolo Playground
Capitolo playground is next to Pat’s and Geno’s, the famous cheese steak emporiums in south Philly. The fast-food mavens face each other with folded arms at Ninth Street and Passyunk Avenue. In the summer of 2003, I had taken my thirteen-year-old son Christopher to Ozzfest and on the way home we stopped at Geno’s Steaks for some fries and a cheesesteak. Directtly across the street from Geno’s outdoor picnic table seating area is the Capitolo Playground. Although it was midnight, the basketball courts were lit up and games were in progress. It’s not unusual to have to stand in a line of twenty people to get waited on here this time of night.

Geno’s is a neon nirvana, a colorful Las Vegas Strip sort of thing. Chris and I found one unoccupied sidewalk picnic table, made ourselves comfortable and began to chow down. We sat across from each other, chatting about the concert. Me trying to subtly elicit an agreement from him that he doesn’t necessarily have to tell all his friends about the topless girls in the audience, him still wide-eye and wired from the experience. I wondered how long it would take this information to get back to his mother and resigned myself to the fact that I would never receive any sort of “Father of the Year” award.

Then the old guy sat down next to me. Not sure where he came from, just off the street on the playground side, out of the dark. I glanced at him and as I said “Hey,” noticing with some horror that he had dried blood all over his suit coat, as well as on his face. His hair was slicked into an old style and his dark suit was way outdated. I looked back at my son and attempted to resume our conversation. Chris would glance at the man, then at me with a slight grin on his face, like “What the F…?”

We continued eating our cheese fries and steaks as the neon glared around us. The man never said a word, just stared ahead. People walked by the condiment station, never once acknowledging the strange guy sitting next to me. Basketball games continued across the street, no one in the line of people at the ordering window not so much as glancing our way. He got up after maybe ten minutes. Chris and I both looked after this tall, thin guy as he slowly walked off into the street, disappearing into the crowd. The clean, old-fashioned yet well-pressed suit, splattered with blood, stands out in my mind more than his face. Can’t much recall what he looked like. Chris and I discussed the weirdness of his presence and wondered what it was all about. Then I forgot about the incident for eight years.

It was a year ago that I discovered the playground across from Pat’s and Geno’s was once a cemetery. Now, sixty-five years later, the site is a full city block comprised of baseball and soccer fields, basketball courts, a little kids’ playground (my two-year-old daughter Olivia loves it), an arts center, and a community garden (ewww…). It wasn’t until I was writing last week’s blog that it dawned on me that the bloody guy may have been one of the restless souls from what used to be called Lafayette Cemetery.

Lafayette Cemetery before demolition, c. 1946

In 1946 the city condemned Lafayette Cemetery as part of a multimillion-dollar playground-building project, which ultimately amounted to a huge real estate swindle. The guy with whom the city contracted to remove the bodies and rebury them in the suburbs, didn't actually do what he was supposed to do. The object was for the city to pay him about about $100,000 to do this, then allow him to sell the land back to the city at a $50,000 profit! In 1946, you can imagine that this was an enormous amount of money.  Until 1988, no one really knew (or apparently cared) what he did with the bodies.

Lafayette Cemetery AFTER demolition, c. 1947

I'm going to make you tune in next week to find out what happened to the bodies, but in the meantime, savor this account from the article, "Lafayette Cemetery," published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, October 9, 1988: 
“Joe Giunta, who grew up on the 1300 block of Passyunk Avenue, remembers when, around the time those interred were removed, "a processional with hundreds of men crying" came through the streets. He believes the ceremony was held to honor those who would find final resting places at Evergreen [Cemetery] -- or so many thought.  …The investigation revealed that Lafayette bodies were dumped in unmarked trenches on the Evergreen site, which Bensalem [Pennsylvania] officials said bore little resemblance to a cemetery as most people know it, the article said. The final resting place of many of the original Lafayette inhabitants remains unknown to this day.” (ref)

My guess is that there are a lot of disturbed spirits hanging out around Capitolo Playground - maybe 47,000 of them. One of them, the bloody guy, may have made himself visible to my son and I that night in 2003. Why, I wonder? Catch my blog next week as I continue to unravel the mystery of Lafayette Cemetery.

Temple University Urban Archives
Philadelphia Graveyards and Cemeteries, by Thomas H. Keels