Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Haunted Grave

There’s a little cemetery in the Old Swedes’ Churchyard complex near my house in South Philly. It’s an odd little graveyard, one of the oldest in Philadelphia. Some of the slate stones dating from the 1700s are oldest standing headstones of any cemetery in the city. In fact one of the pair below, dated 1708, was placed just seven years after the city was founded in 1701. (The stones, by the way, are toward the rear of the church, and mark the graves of Church minister Andreas Sandel’s two infant sons.)

This place is a sea captains’ burial ground, first and foremost. The part of the city in which it is located (near Penn’s Landing) was one of the region’s original waterfront settlements way before William Penn arrived on these shores − 1637 to be exact. Among the early European settlers, many sea captains are buried here – from Captain George Ord the Revolutionary War gunrunner to Captain Peter Cruse, who in 1918 first brought rubber from South America (galoshes were the first product made from it, by the way!). In fact, the area surrounding Old Swedes' (including my little neighborhood, Pennsport), was known as a sea captains’ village. Many seafaring gentlemen lived here and were members of the Old Swede’s congregation, which is also known as Gloria Dei.

Daughter Olivia at gunrunner Captain George Ord's grave
Although the cemetery is quite small, generations of local people are buried here. Over three hundred years worth of people! From sea captains to scientists, revolutionary and civil war soldiers, artists, ministers and common folk. There are even current burials taking place here in 2012! There's a staggering amount of American history condensed in this little graveyard. A bronze plaque set in a nearby stone that tells us that 27 cannon were erected here in 1748 by "Benjamin Franklin's Pennsylvania Associators" during "King George's War." This refers to the voluntary militia started by Franklin in 1747 to defend Philadelphia against river attack by French privateers and pirates, the "Associators" being the origin of our "National Guard."

Though separated by generations, I’ve always had the strange feeling that many of the people buried in this churchyard actually knew each other when they were alive. I never get that feeling in a modern cemetery. The inhabitants remind me of the dead townspeople in Edgar Lee Master’s Spoon River Anthology (1915).

Flea market outside the Old Swedes' gate
True to its neighborhood and community feeling, Old Swedes’ has one of the best flea markets in Philly (all parishioners, no retail vendors!), which I attended with my three-year-old daughter this past Saturday. Tables are set up outside the old brick wall surrounding the complex, most of the way around the block. You can see some vendors through the gate in the photo above. Strolling around the cemetery afterwards prompted me to write this blog, having recalled an incident that occurred here last spring.

Couple strolling amidst the old stones as well as the new
They have the flea market twice a year, spring and fall. Back in May, 2012, I went to the flea by myself, then walked around the cemetery afterwards, shooting pictures of the old stones and monuments. There were a few visitors here and there, touring the old church, checking out the graves, buying food in the church hall. A young boy, maybe seven years old, came up to me as I was photographing some headstones alongside the church. I had never seen him before. He just walked right up to me and said, “Do you want to see the haunted grave?”

My young ghost guide
Do I want to see a haunted grave? I always want to see a haunted grave! So I followed him toward the back of the building. I really didn’t know there were headstones back there by the church's basement entrance. He stood there proudly pointing to the grave of  Catherine and Anthony Duche. I asked him, “Why do you think it’s haunted?” He replied, “It just is.” Can’t argue with that logic, now can you? He trotted away.

Fast forward to last weekend when I was back at Old Swedes’ with my  three-year-old daughter. Olivia actually went to summer camp here this past summer, so she’s used to running around the cemetery. We went to the back of the church so I could photograph the Duche grave in better light than was available last time I was here. Olivia climbed up the old brick battlement that separates the complex from the Delaware River as I kicked through the leaves and made some photographs. Turns out that Anthony Duche arrived in the region with William Penn, so he really is one of the city’s founding fathers.

So, as I’m writing this a few nights later, I have my daughter on my lap, with my laptop alongside me on the sofa. We’re watching “educational” cartoons on television. She often asks what I’m doing as I type away, and I tell her “I’m writing.” So just now, totally out of the blue, she says, “Are you writing about Captain Wiccan?” Where did THAT come from? To my knowledge, she’s never heard the word “wiccan.” I swear, kids can sense things.

Further Reading and Reference:
Gloria Dei Old Swedes Church website

The church's history: Gloria Dei (Old Swedes' Church) National Historic Site

Read more about the WPA poster shown at the top of this blog:
“This poster depicting the Old Swedes Church in Philadelphia was made for the Work Projects Administration (WPA) Federal Art Program in Pennsylvania. One of the New Deal programs launched by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to combat Depression-era unemployment, in 1936–43 the WPA supported the creation of more than 2,000 posters by well-known artists. These posters were used to promote local tourism and to publicize a variety of programs from art to safety.”