Saturday, December 7, 2013

Betsy Ross and Christmas

This is not your average Christmas story. Its about theft and deceit; however, I’ve thrown the Baby Jesus in to add some holiday spirit. You see, he was stolen from the manger in Philadelphia’s Italian Market last year, so now he’s nailed down (ironically premonitory, if you ask me). This year, in a similar act of vandalism (for what could a plastic BJ be worth?), the four-by-six foot thirteen-star American flag, flying from the pole over Betsy Ross’ grave was stolen from Philadelphia’s Mount Moriah Cemetery.(That's my daughter, Olivia, holding a small version of the flag Betsy Ross helped create.)

Baby Jesus missing, then replaced (Italian Market, Philadelphia)
Bare flagpole with ropes flying
 Again, vandalism, for what could a commercially-made flag reproduction be worth? Plenty, as it turns out. Like the plastic Jesus in the manger, it’s all symbolic, you know, and therefore hurts worse. The flag went missing on November 25, 2013. The ropes seemed to have been burned through (photo at right courtesty of Donna Morelli).

Flag flying over Betsy Ross' grave, 9/13
As she was doing her rounds of the cemetery (Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. Board member) Donna Morelli found the ropes waving in the wind. She’s on the Board of Directors of the FOMMCI with me, and is in charge of groundskeeping and other environmental issues. She lives nearby and so nothing much escapes her eagle eye. I call her the guardian angel of Mount Moriah. She actually maintains the flag – washes it every so often, cares for it and the area of sacred ground around the pole. She is a taskmistress if there ever was one, wholly engaged in the work of remembrance, preserving the emotional heritage of Mount Moriah Cemetery and those interred.

When the incident was announced on the FOMMCI Facebook group page, it generated quite a stir. Someone commented that the “karma train” is going to run that thief over. Generally, people were very upset. One comment mentioned that Betsy’s remains were dug up for the nation’s bicentennial in 1976 and reburied at the Besty Ross House in Old City Philadelphia (see link). So therefore, the theft wasn’t like the flag was taken from her actual grave. Well, yes it was.

Betsy Ross (January 1, 1752 – January 30, 1836), widely credited as having made the first American flag, was first buried at the Free Quaker burial ground on North 5th Street. Twenty years later, her remains were exhumed and reburied at Mount Moriah Cemetery. In preparation for the United States Bicentennial, the city ordered the remains moved to the courtyard of the Betsy Ross House in 1975; however, workers found no remains under her tombstone. Bones found elsewhere in the Claypoole family plot (she was married to John Claypoole when she died) were deemed to be hers and were re-interred in the current grave visited by tourists at the Betsy Ross House. (For the record, the declaration that this was her actual house is fabricated American history as well.)

For the purists and fact hunters, I direct you to the letter shown below, dated 1968 from Mount Moriah Cemetery to, I assume, the U.S. government agent ("Norman") charged with relocating Betsy's body. Here is an excerpt of the text:
"With regard to the question of the removal of the remains of Betsy Ross I am submitting the following objections on which you can elaborate or delete. ....At this state of decomposure there are no remains of Betsy Ross. To pretend to remove these remains, in my opinion, would be a mockery and a fraud on the public." The writer goes on to end the letter with: " short, I could not produce the body."

Letter regarding Betsy Ross' remains

Apparently, Norman (the responsible U.S. government party) chose the option to "delete" this bit of information when presenting the "facts" about Betsy's relocation to the public. However, as my friend Donna Morelli (aka “Haunt Mount Moriah” to her many Facebook friends) says, “This isn't about whether or not Betsy Ross is still buried in Mount Moriah or if she was moved. This is about the fact that we work hard in this cemetery to make it a better place. The flag pole was painted and a flag was raised, raised in representation of our patriotic spirit for Betsy Ross, Mount Moriah and the thousands of veterans who are buried here.”

Betsy Ross' 'headstone" at Betsy Ross House
By governmental decree, the American flag is only allowed to fly twenty-four hours in certain locations. Of these select few sites in America, two of them are women’s graves. One is Betsy’s. So you see, there is much significance to the flag that was stolen from Mount Moriah Cemetery. (The other grave site, by the way, is that of Jennie Wade, the only civilian resident of Gettysburg killed during that epic battle of the American Civil War. During the battle, she was in her sister’s kitchen baking bread for the Union troops. She was struck in the back by a stray bullet.)

But there is even more significance to the stolen flag. It seems that the flag was donated by another FOMMCI Board Member, Danielle Murray, in memory of her USMC parents. Danielle states:

"The flag is not cloth. It represents who we are as a people.... Our history. She designed the 13 stars to be a new constellation that our little nation was at the time. I donated that flag because I played here as a child and almost lost my life here a little over a month ago as an adult. My mom and dad - proud longtime Marines first brought me here when I was young. Betsy's plot was the very first memory I have here. That flag was for Betsy...... And her gift of creating a physical symbol to represent us - a new nation. It was my way of saying thanks to her. So you see .... It's gone. [The flag] … was a gift for everyone..... And for our first female patriot. Whoever did it stole from every person who cares about [Mount Moriah Cemetery].”

Whoever took the flag knew it was there – the thief didn’t just happen upon it. Betsy’s grave is nestled in a heavily wooded area behind the Masonic Circle of Saint John (see map link, Section 51), which is not at all visible from any nearby road. It’s location is not even designated on our official map or website. If by some quirk of nature, the thief or thieves find themselves reading this, please consider giving us a Christmas present – give back the flag. If anyone has any information as to its whereabouts, please contact Donna Morelli at, or through her “Haunt Mount Moriah” Facebook page. All communication will be strictly confidential.

"When we view the flag, we think of liberty, freedom, pride, and Betsy Ross. The American flag flies on the moon, sits atop Mount Everest, is hurtling out in space. The flag is how America signs her name." -

References and Further Reading:
Make a tax-deductible contribution to the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. to help us in our work of maintaining this historic cemetery! Please click here, and thank you!

Betsy Ross’ Remains Sought
Betsy Ross bio
Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery Facebook page
Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. website
Read about Jennie Wade and other Civil War civilian casualties
Betsy Ross House Official website