Friday, December 9, 2011

The Condemned Lafayette Cemetery

As you’ll recall from last week’s blog, Bloody Cemetery Apparition, one of the 47,000 displaced souls from on old condemned South Philly cemetery decided to hang out with my son and I for a spell. The fact that Chris saw it too made me feel a bit more sane.

As I commenced to dig into the history of Lafayette Cemetery (which was across the street from the famous Pat’s and Geno’s cheesesteak restaurants until 1947), the situation that presented itself appeared quite gruesome. But let me first take you back a couple years for a key part of the puzzle.

My friend Ken lives in Bensalem, PA, on the outskirts of northeast Philadelphia. As he is well aware of my obsession with cemeteries, he often tells me about interesting graveyards he’s seen in his travels. Near Bensalem is the Neshaminy Mall. Across Neshaminy Boulevard from the mall is a field of grass with a small monument in it. Ken stopped to look at it a couple years ago and told me he thought it was there because graves had been found in the field during some excavation.

Fast-forward to 2011 as I’m researching the history of Lafayette Cemetery. Turns out that the site across from the Macy’s side of the mall is where many of the bodies from Lafayette were buried. Happens all the time (or at least it used to) − a cemetery gets relocated, unidentified or unclaimed remains get reburied in a mass grave. Ah, but it turns out that such was not exactly the case here – by finding the site, we only set aside the first vial of the mystery.

Field monument across from Neshaminy Mall
While a good portion of the 47,000 bodies from Lafayette were buried here, they weren’t buried in the most dignified fashion. Consider this excerpt from the October 9, 1988 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer:

"Thomas A. Morris, president of Evergreen Memorial Park in Bensalem Township, was contracted to dig up 47,000 sets of remains from the run-down Lafayette Cemetery in South Philadelphia.
Under the terms of a 1946 Common Pleas Court decree, the bodies were to be buried again on 40 of the 156 acres owned by Evergreen, complete with caskets, drainage, new bronze markers, roadways and perpetual maintenance of the grounds. In return, Morris received clear title to the old cemetery property, bounded by Passyunk Avenue and Ninth, 10th, Federal and Wharton Streets."

Not only did Morris not bury the remains in the agreed upon fashion, but he soon sold the South Philly land to investors for $105,000 - who then sold it back to the city for $153,500! This may not seem like a lot of money now, but in 1947, $100,000 had the buying power of just over a million dollars (by 2011 standards).

Unscrupulous financial wheeling and dealing aside, the travesty here is that most of the 47,000 graves were not reburied as they were supposed to be. No tombstones were erected with the graves. What did he do with the old tombstones? We now know that Morris dumped most of the bodies in unmarked trenches on the outskirts of his Evergreen Cemetery property (in Bensalem , PA), as well as some in Bensalem’s Poquessing Creek (according to eyewitnesses!!).

The only reason the public is aware of any of this is because of an accidental unearthing of some wooden coffins on the old Evergreen site in 1988. A strip mall was being built, and the graves were discovered during its construction. Investigations turned up the following:

"After spending a week and a half digging test shafts at the site, officials last week said they had uncovered what probably are 32 trenches, each 300 feet long. Inside the trenches are stacks of wooden boxes, presumably containing most of the remains." (ref)

Are they really resting in peace?
The marker was only placed at the site in 1988 after the mass grave was accidentally discovered. Two bronze plaques flank it, dedicated to Civil War veterans known to have been buried at Lafayette. After Morris’ onerous actions became apparent, investigations continued into his other deal with the city for moving Franklin Cemetery in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood. In 1948, Morris was paid another $100,000 to move 8,000 bodies. Of that number, about 5,000 are unaccounted for!

Now realize that in the 1940s and 1950s, the vast majority of people thought stodgy old graveyards were an eyesore and should be eradicated. Victorian architecture, ironwork, and stone carvings were thought to be gauche. Given a cemetery that was a hundred years old where the few descendants that cared (and had the money) had already moved their loved ones out, the public really wasn’t concerned about where the bodies went. I can’t help but wonder now how the owners of those expensive suburban homes near the Neshaminy Mall felt after learning that there were thousands of mouldering corpses in their backyards.

But that’s probably no weirder than human remains under the Capitolo Playground. I mean think about it – there must be some there. When you look at the size of the Bensalem land in question, its hard to believe 47,000 bodies could be buried there − even if the hole was REALLY deep. My guess is that many of the original graves still reside under the Capitolo Playground in South Philly. The City of Philadelphia pays this guy $105,000 to dig up the bodies and rebury them elsewhere, but doesn't check to make sure he actually DID that properly. Then the city buys it back (for $54,000!) to build a playground. He knows they’re just going to pave some areas and plant grass in others – so he has no incentive to fully excavate the grounds and remove every grave!

"In 1951, the Securities and Exchange Commission began to look into Morris' dealings - particularly his apparent habit of selling large blocks of Evergreen Cemetery lots to speculators with the promise that the investors would be able to sell them for huge profits. The sales, according to the SEC, were in the same category as sales of securities, and Morris was not registered to sell securities.

Morris began to pile up debts, with the federal government filing tax liens against Evergreen Memorial Park. In 1958, the Pennsylvania Securities Commission asked that the courts appoint a receiver for Evergreen. In 1959, Evergreen filed for bankruptcy." (ref)

Capitolo Playground
The new owners renamed Evergreen Cemetery Rosedale Memorial Park, which exists on the site to this day. It is a well-maintained active cemetery. I guess after finding all this out I’m surprised that we don’t have MORE ghostly sightings in the area of the Capitolo Playground given the vast amount of graveyard residents who were so vilely disturbed from their final resting places. I think about the guy in the bloody suit who sat down with me and my son Chris, about WHERE his body may have ended up. Maybe he's still searching for it. And where ARE all those thousands of other bodies …?

(The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 9, 1988)

Bloody Cemetery Apparition  (Last week's Cemetery Traveler blog posting)

Bensalem, Roots Web