Saturday, February 7, 2015

For Whom the Bell Tolls: Metal Theft in Cemeteries

I can just tell February is going to be a scrappy month. I don’t feel like going out into the bitter cold to photograph any cemeteries, so I’ll just write about their scrappiness.

Their what? Theft of metal to be sold for scrap. Metal is disappearing from cemeteries nationwide at an alarming rate. I see it personally almost every day. You might think this is two-bit stuff, but if I told you that you could just pry the memorial bronze plate off the monument above and a scrap dealer would give you twenty dollars for it, you’d quickly realize why thieves see cemeteries as such easy targets.

According to USA Today:
“Grave robbers, a curse of burial grounds for centuries, are back for new valuables: metal ornaments that can be melted down for quick cash as copper and other metal prices climb.” 

Stealing from the dead is downright sickening. As someone recently wrote on Facebook about such thieves: “I think there is a special level of hell for those who steal metal for scrap purposes from a cemetery.” The crime is so rampant that many states (among them, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Washington, and Ohio) have enacted “Scrap Metal” laws in an attempt to reign in the nefarious activities of thieves and dealers.

Cemeteries' new problem: metal theft (USA Today)“… with copper currently selling for about $3.75 per 1 pound— close to historic highs of over $4 a pound in 2006 — thieves are carrying off brass and bronze items that can be melted down for the copper they contain. 'I don't know what could be more sacred than protecting our cemeteries,' said West Virginia state legislator Kevin Craig, who co-sponsored a law against scrap metal theft after a bronze door was stolen from a tomb at a cemetery in his district in 2006.”

Granted, that was in 2008. Now, in 2015, even with metal prices down, copper scrap purchased by junk dealers – I’m sorry – “recycling centers” – still brings $2.50 per pound. The second most valuable scrap metal is bronze, an alloy of copper (88% copper and 12% tin), commands $1.50 per pound on the scrap - sorry - "recycling" market (click link for current market prices of such metals).

Vandalized grave markers, Philadelphia's Mt. Sinai Cemetery
In early January (2015) I was driving through Philadelphia’s Mount Sinai Cemetery and I was startled to see that the bronze nameplates and some bronze letters were missing from grave markers near the entrance. I’d been there a few times, and was always struck by how neat and orderly everything looked. The missing bronze was very obvious, and must have disappeared since the summer of 2014, the last time I visited.

The problem is not uniquely American, by the way. Similar theft has been reported in England and Scotland (see links at end).

For Whom the Bell Tolls

In the fall of 2014, the bronze bell mounted behind the office of Philadelphia’s Mount Moriah Cemetery disappeared. Someone probably brought a ladder and tools into the cemetery near the main entrance, and removed the bell from its mount on a steel girder about fifteen feet off the ground. Police and local scrap dealers were notified by the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc., but the bell never surfaced.

Before and after the bell disappeared from Mount Moriah Cemetery, Philadelphia.

Who would steal a giant bell? A bell collector? Someone who thought that a bell forged in 1862 would be a cool historic artifact? More likely, someone who wanted the cash for booze or drugs. How much would a junk dealer, I’m sorry, a “metal reclamation consultant,” pay for such a thing? I’m guessing the bell weighed two hundred pounds. With dealers currently paying $1.50 for bronze scrap, that bell probably brought ($1.50 x 200) $300. Not bad for an hour’s work (I’m guessing).

You can buy three grams of heroin with three hundred dollars (in the U.S., at current prices). For relative value purposes, the current price of heroin is THREE TIMES that of gold, $120 versus $40 per gram!

Mount Moriah Cemetery's bronze bell
As I mentioned above, many states have enacted laws making it more difficult for scrap metal dealers to accept stolen merchandise. Connecticut law states specifically in its “Requirements for scrap metal processors” that:

“A scrap metal processor, junk dealer or junk yard owner or operator shall immediately notify a municipal law enforcement authority in the municipality in which such scrap metal processor, junk dealer or junk yard is located of the name, if known, and motor vehicle license plate number, if available, of any person offering to sell a bronze statue, plaque, historical marker, cannon, cannon ball, bell, lamp, lighting fixture, lamp post, architectural artifact or similar item to such scrap metal processor, junk dealer or junk yard owner or operator.”

The statement above is fairly typical of the various state laws; however, I thought it interesting that Connecticut’s law actually singles out bells!

Mount Moriah bell inscription: "Meneelys' West Troy, NY 1862"

The inscription on the Mount Moriah Cemetery bell reads "Meneelys' West Troy, NY 1862." Meneely's was a Bell Foundry that was in business from 1826 to 1952. After I posted photos of the bell on Facebook, an astute reader of the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. Facebook Group Page searched auction sites online and found that in 2013, a similar bell (“Large metal bell, Meneelys, West Troy, New York; 20"h x 22”) sold at an online auction for $550.00 (ref).
Granted there are all these news stories about how junk dealers are all of a sudden very careful about buying seemingly stolen merchandise. After all, there is a Pennsylvania State Law called the “Scrap Material Theft Prevention Act“ (read it here) which specifies that dealers are supposed to report anyone trying to sell such things as “historical markers, statue plaques, grave markers, funeral vases…” However, I will tell you that there are two makeshift, roadside scrap dealers that set up shop in South Philly a year or so ago who probably take anything, no questions asked. Or would they? I was curious. Would a fly-by-night metal "recycling" place care if you brought in stolen cemetery statuary? I decided to stop and ask. I said to the guy, "I have a few of these bronze statues about a foot high, maybe twenty pounds each. Would you take them?" The guy said "Sure - a dollar-fifty a pound.

Scrap dealer, South Philadelphia

Bell behind office building at Philadelphia's Mount Moriah Cemetery
Since the Mount Moriah bell was stolen, new fencing has been installed along the front (Kingsessing Avenue) of the property. Hopefully, this will keep thieves out. If anyone has information on the bell's whereabouts, please contact Philadelphia Police at (215) 686-3120.