Monday, July 28, 2014

Actor’s Order of Friendship

I wasn’t planning to write a blog about this, but there are so many facets to this story, that I thought there might be a little something in it for everyone. A genealogist I know was looking for the familial graves of a nineteenth century theatrical performer, and drove all the way from Michigan to Philadelphia to do some research. She didn’t have much luck. After she returned home, she sent me a copy of a handwritten death certificate that seemed to indicate that a child of the family was buried in a Philadelphia cemetery with the initials “MW.” Since neither of us could think of a Philadelphia area cemetery with those initials, it occurred to us that the handwriting might actually indicate “MM,” or Mount Moriah Cemetery.

I asked our burial records researcher, Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. (FOMMCI) secretary Sue Facciolli, if she would look him up. Sure enough, he was not only buried at Mount Moriah (died at age nine, June 28, 1873), but was buried in the “Actor’s Order of Friendship” plot. I offered to look for the grave marker.

Edwin Adams (1834 - 1877)
I had been down this road (figuratively) with Sue about six months before when I was searching for the Victorian actor Edwin Adams’ grave. Literally, her directions led me down an overgrown cemetery road right to Adams grave stone in Section 203. Unfortunately, the stone had fallen and was face down. I wanted to see the inscription which I had read about. The photo below shows the front entrance to the plot where Adams is buried, at the time I located it (2013).

“Actor’s Order of Friendship” plot, prior to clearing, January 2014
I have written previously about Edwin Adams on The Cemetery Traveler in relation to his friend, John McCullough (link at end), a more famous Shakespearean theatrical performer from the same era. McCullough is buried beneath a massive granite monument on the Yeadon (PA) side of Mount Moriah Cemetery while Adams is buried beneath a much mode modest monument on the Philadelphia side. Adams died first (1877) and McCullough was asked to provide an inscription for his good friend. McCullough selected this line from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Act 5, Scene 5:

Edwin Adams' headstone, July 2014

His life was gentle, and the elements so mixed in him that Nature might stand up and say to all the world, “This was a man.” 

John McCullough's monument
John McCullough's own memorial, incidentally, bears the same quotation (which appears in the photo above). My principal reason for trying to locate Adams’ memorial was to see this Shakespearean inscription reputed to be on his stone. Unfortunately and after much searching, I discovered that the small granite Adams monument had fallen, and was being eaten by the earth. Only about an inch of the stone’s back was visible, meaning that the inscription, if it was indeed there, lied buried face down. How long it had been buried is anyone's guess.

FOMMCI volunteers Bill McDowell and Donna Morelli beginning
excavation of Edwin Adams' headstone

That was in the late fall of 2013. After mentioning Adams’ grave to a few members of the FOMMCI and other volunteers, they took it upon themselves to dig out Edwin Adams’ grave marker and reset it! Mr. Adams was welcomed back to the world by Donna Morelli, Ken Smith, and Bill McDowell in the winter of 2014. They cut down the tree that was impinging on the plot entrance posts and cleared the entrance steps. I think we were all surprised to see this writing on the white marble step:

“Actor’s Order of Friendship”

A portion of the plot was cleared at the time Adams' headstone was unearthed and reset, bringing to light two more headstones in the plot, but the surrounding area was densely wooded and was left alone. Adams’ grave is another in a steadily progressing series of notables being brought to light in Mount Moriah, as Pennsylvania’s largest Victorian-era cemetery continues its renaissance under the direction of the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. The Actors' plot, by the way, is in Section 203, which is an area above the Civil War Soldiers’ Plot (see map, bottom center). The FOMMCI have not had a chance to clear 203 yet. If you do visit, bear in mind that the area is quite overgrown. While searching the Actors' plot in July, 2014, I photographed my friend Bob (see photo below) in the general area.

Perhaps some Philadelphia-area thespian group would like to take this on as an historic project? The Actor’s Order of Friendship fraternal organization, after all, was the origin of the Actors' Fund of America, “the nationwide human services organization that helps all professionals in performing arts and entertainment.

"A fraternal order for performers chartered in Philadelphia in 1849, its first lodge was called the Shakespeare Lodge. In 1888 a New York City branch, the Edwin Forrest Lodge, was established by Louis Aldrich, John Drew, and Otis Skinner, among others. While the Philadelphia branch was active in providing comradeship and charity for nearly half a century, the order eventually gave way to the more efficient and richer Actors' Fund of America."

Plot entrance with Edwin Adams' stone in back
So in July, 2014, and I was searching for a grave in the Actor’s Order of Friendship plot for a woman from Michigan. I dragged my friend Bob Reinhardt out here to help me. Well, the search did not go as planned – the weeds were so high I could barely see the top of Adams' grave stone. We wondered where to go from here. Wait until fall and come back to search?  I grabbed a handful of luscious red raspberries that were growing in huge clusters on nearby wild bushes and downed them. Repeated this aberrant behavior a few times. They were much sweeter than your typical raspberry – perhaps they are flavored with traces of arsenic from old embalming chemicals.

I looked down and saw a clear glass goblet filled with (I assume) rain water. Weird. Perfectly clear. In the woods. That’s when a possible solution hit me. Bob and I stopped on the drive through Mount Moriah to chat with FOMMCI treasurer Ken Smith, who was busy weed-whacking and power-mowering through the weeds on the main road near the Civil War Soldiers’ Plot. Maybe at some point the Friends could organize a side trip to the Actor’s Order of Friendship plot on one of the clean-up days?

Mystery goblet
We drove back to where Ken was working and presented the idea. Ken volunteers most days at Mount Moriah cutting weeds and trees, resetting fallen headstones, and helping families find graves of their ancestors (Check the FOMMCI Facebook group page – Ken documents most of his work with photographs on the page). I was rather surprised when Ken responded, “Let’s go do it now!” He will do whatever it takes to help families locate graves.

FOMMCI treasurer Ken Smith, after having cleared Actors' plot (July 2014)

It’s great having such enthusiastic friends, especially when they own chain saws! Ken packed his gear into the back of his pickup truck and sped off up the hill, along the old roads overhung with trees and bushes, up to Section 203. I docked my own car about two sections away so the picker bushes wouldn’t scratch the paint. Bob and I walked toward the sound of Ken’s chain saw and weed whacker. (Click here for a video of Ken in action, as we approached the Actor's plot!)

Praying mantis
By the time we got to the Actor’s Order of Friendship plot, Ken had the entire thing cleared! A cloud of grass clippings and tree bark hung in the air. A lone praying mantis clung to one of the only two headstones (besides Edwin Adams’) in the plot, and neither was the one being sought by the genealogist from Michigan. We measured off the borders of the plot and Ken grabbed an iron prybar. He walked around jabbing it into the ground, in an attempt to locate a buried headstone (which happen a lot, oddly enough, in many old cemeteries). He found nothing.

I may return in the fall after all the foliage has died and look for the elusive grave outside the borders of the Actor’s Order of Friendship plot. Perhaps this nine-year-old boy who died by drowning in the Schuylkill River never had a grave marker, or perhaps someone stole it. Or he was moved. Perhaps his famous father wanted to keep it all private, to avoid publicity. The burial certificate does not even indicate the boy’s real surname, but his middle name! So the stone, if it’s there, may have the boy’s middle and last name reversed. To be continued, I hope, at some point in future ….!

Click to go to the Friends' website
Mount Moriah is one cemetery where, if you hear a chainsaw, you can be assured it is not being wielded by a psychopath. The cemetery is still very much overgrown and forested, so it may look abandoned. This is not the case. While it has no legal owner, the FOMMCI have assumed the responsibility to keep as much of the grass cut and the trash removed as possible. Still, only about 25% of the grounds’ reputed 300 acres can be handled with current resources. The plan is for that to expand.