Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Odd End to Philadelphia's Odd Fellows Cemetery

William Dick Elementary School, Philadelphia (former site of Odd Fellows Cemetery)
Coffin piece from Odd Fellows Cemetery?
A few weeks ago I received an email from a woman who was wondering about the resolution of this situation. In December of 2013, wooden coffins were surprisingly unearthed under a schoolyard in north Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Water Company was digging under the playground at the William Dick Elementary School (shown above) when caskets and other remains were found. When the story hit the news on Dec. 4 (see links at end), there was much media coverage. I went to the site to check it out. As far as I can tell, none of the graves that were excavated at that time were moved - seems like the Philadelphia Water Company just did their piping work and filled the ground back in. There were pieces of old pine board laying around in the mud of the site, one of which I picked up. Possibly part of an old pine box.

I lost track of the story and began wondering myself whatever became of this find. I see no further mention of it on the Internet. At the time of the incident, I missed an email from a reporter asking me to comment on the situation. Had I made the interview, I would have suggested he contact The Odd Fellows Cemetery Company in northeast Philadelphia for comment. The site in question (24th and Diamond Streets), was originally the site of Odd Fellows Cemetery, which had been established in 1848.

Latest occupant of the land once occupied by the Odd Fellows Cemetery

About a hundred years later, in 1951, the City of Philadelphia displaced Odd Fellows Cemetery and used the space to build a housing project and this public school. About 80,000 bodies were supposedly moved to Lawnview Cemetery in Rockledge (a Philadelphia suburb in Montgomery County), and Mount Peace Cemetery, at 3111 West Lehigh Avenue, Philadelphia. Both locations were, and are still, owned by the Odd Fellows Cemetery Company. The woman who wrote to me had a vested interest in the situation. It seems that many of her ancestors had originally been buried at Odd Fellows Cemetery.



Ironically, a few months prior to the unearthing of the coffins at Odd Fellows' original site, she had requested copies of her ancestors' burial records from the Odd Fellows Cemetery Company in Rockledge. Her ancestors had been buried there in the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s. She received the records, which were stamped "Moved to Lawnview in 1951," complete with lot numbers of the graves. She had accepted all this as fact until the coffins were discovered. Now she's not so sure.

Plaque on monument in Odd Fellows Cemetery

When a cemetery or graveyard is moved, those in charge most likely try to move all the bodies. However, its fairly common that stragglers are left behind, and found years later by accident. But if stragglers are later found, should they not be relocated as well? The Philadelphia Water Company temporarily halted its work in December 2013 so archaeologists could examine the findings. As I was doing research for this article, I did see that an attempt was made by Philly.com to contact Odd Fellows Cemetery Company at the time of the schoolyard excavation. Calls were not returned.


Lawnview Cemetery field where tens of thousands of bodies were reburied

Why the name "Odd Fellows?"
"The Independent Order of Odd Fellows began in 18th Century England, it was deemed odd to find people organized for the purpose of giving aid to those in need without recognition and pursuing projects for the benefits of all mankind." - http://www.ioof.org/

Plaque at Odd Fellows Cemetery
Odd Fellows began as a fraternal organization in America in 1819, and continues to this day. Currently, the organization sees itself as a "...family of Odd Fellowship, composed of Men, Women, and Youth, believing in a supreme being, the creator and preserver of the universe, who have come together in our local communities having the same beliefs and values as others, that; Friendship, Love and Truth are the basic guidelines that we need to follow in our daily lives"(ref.). Friendship, Love and Truth are usually symbolized by the three chain links seen in the photo at left; sometimes the letters F-L-T are written within the links.


Sidewalk at 24th and Diamond Streets
The photo at right was taken in April 2016. It shows the new sidewalks at 24th and Diamond Streets which were poured after the opened graves had been filled back in, subsequent to the Philadelphia Water Company finishing its work. The fence encloses the playground of the William Dick Public School. There is no memorial plaque or anything to indicate that portions of the Odd Fellows Cemetery still exist under the playground.

Lawnview Cemetery, Rockledge, PA
Lawnview Cemetery has been the recipient of tens of thousands of relocated graves over the years, from other cemeteries besides Odd Fellows. The most notorious being the twenty thousand graves from Philadelphia's Monument Cemetery, which was razed in 1956. The rumor was that all these bodies were dumped into a mass grave. If you talk to the people at Lawnview, they tell you that they have a record showing the actual plot where each body was buried. No reason not to trust that, except that, as people found out in north Philly in 2013, not all the graves (from Odd Fellows) were actually moved.

If you drive through Lawnview Cemetery, there is a vast field with no grave markers. This is where the burials from Monument Cemetery and Odd Fellows Cemetery are. There are no monuments, headstones, or markers of any kind because most of them were dumped into the Delaware River (you can read about that here). Some markers from Odd Fellows Cemetery remained, albeit buried, at their original location. News reports say that marble headstones were found during the Philadelphia Water Company's excavation in 2013. If you drive through Lawnview, I will tell you that the sight is a bit unsettling. The field in question looks flat at first glance. But if you drive, the lateral view you get is a decidedly unflat grassy field. The peaks of the many trenches they must have dug to accommodate the tens of thousands of bodies are quite obvious.

Fields of Graves - Lawnview Cemetery, Rockledge, PA

I realize that I've posed more questions than answers in this blog post. If anyone can shed light on the topic, please post a comment here or email me at mourningarts@yahoo.com.


References and Further Reading:

22 comments:

  1. This needs to be brought to Michael Coard's attention. He seems to think that only black cemeteries have this done to them.

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  2. I had many ancestors buried at Odd Fellows. The burial records for the cemetery are available on Ancestry. Not everyone was moved because some of those noted in OF's books have no re-burial stamp. One of my great grandfathers has a weird stamp as having been moved to Rockledge in 1904, Diamond Section. It can't be. Diamond Section was for those moved in the 1950's. Also, there was no reason to move him at that time. He died in 1851. His four year old granddaughter was buried on top of him (in 1864) and supposedly moved in the 1950's. Did they re-bury her at that time (1904)? Doubtful. Naturally, if we would like info from Rockledge to locate them, we have to pay for it.

    I doubt my ancestors were moved at all.

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    1. That is one crazy story. Sorry so many people had to put up with this.

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  3. There are some burial plaques at Lawnview that lie flat on the ground so that they can be mown over. I had a plaque placed over what is supposed to be my great grandparents grave, which also contains Greatgranddad's parents and a sister. I've always had doubts and am still simmering that the relative notified in 1951, who could have saved the stones on those graves, decided not to do so. Too many of my ancestors' bodies have been yanked up over the years, going back to Colonial days, so that another tenement could be built for newcomers. No respect at all for those who built the city of Philadelphia.

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  4. How could the City of Philadelphia let this happen !! so much for the founding fathers & mothers. To lose all this history, it seems that the real concern at the time as usual "money" & politics. Documentation should have been made
    , and the time taken to move "all" the head stones to the new location and "not" dump them in the river.

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    1. Say it! The city should be made to hire archaeologist and find what's left - where they dumped the headstones exactly might be a good start and then get down to why if they were going to do what they did, why were detailed written notes not kept. People just disappeared completely during the move. Horrific.

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  5. I just finished a trip to find my ancestors that were moved to Lawnview. I had all the records from Odd Fellows and Lawnview showed me where to look at Glenwood lawn row 58. We found one brass marker with Rumrill but we had to dig for it. I actually used my metal detector to locate it. Over time a lot of markers have sunk in.

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    1. Did you get any issues with bringing a metal detector to the cemetery? I was just there this past weekend and couldn't locate a marker. Was thinking of doing the same thing.

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  6. Heinrich Ginal,a Lutheran minister,was buried at Odd Fellows July 9,1887. records from the other 2 cemeteries do not mention him,so he is probably one of the individuals left behind.

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  7. Doing genealogy, I discovered that my husband's g-g-grandfather was a Civil War veteran. He moved to Philadelphia from London around 1850. He died very young--two years after the war. I was thrilled to find his Civil War records and that he was buried in Odd Fellows Cemetery in Philadelphia. But now we can't even find him, or his two teenaged sons who died around the same time. I followed the directions for receiving information about where they were reburied and even sent a check last summer. We never heard a thing. As others have said, I don't know how Philadelphia could have let this happen.

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    1. Welcome to club! Heroes for freedom don't mean a thing compared with fat, rich tycoons!

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  8. I did the same thing and did get a call today from someone at the Office in Lawnview Cemetery. It seems that my great grandfather was moved there and buried with a group of other Franklin Lodge members. The graves are unmarked. Kind of sad for me.

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  9. My Davis family were interred at Monument according to their death records. Yet they are not listed at Lawnview. I'm sure they just dumped these Union Soldiers heroes in a mass grave and chunked their headstones in the Delaware. Doing this makes it impossible for descendants find their loved ones, who typically would have been buried together. I'm very, very angry about the descreation of our American heroes. NO ONE should have their graves desecrated ever!

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  10. Thank you so much for the research you have posted. You have helped me tell a family history with deeper detail and subsequently better understanding of a nearly forgotten ancestor.

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  11. SadieKate
    Thank you for this story of Odd Fellows Cemetery, this is so tragic for all the families whose ancestors came to the United States for a better life. This has helped me find my Uncle, at least I thought I found him. Birth January 1910 Death August 1910 buried in Odd Fellows Cemetery. How tragic for all.
    Thank you for this post.

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  12. My 4X great grandfather was buried at Odd Fellows in 1861. I found a health certificate that allowed my 3X great grandmother, his daughter to transfer her father to another cemetery - Mount Vernon. This occurred in 1881. For those who are trying to find relatives that were moved, it is possible they were moved to a totally different cemetery.

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  13. Thank you for this blog, it has solved the mystery of gaping hole in my Phila family history.
    I have found numerous burial records on Ancestry and wonder if we could organise with Find A Grave to create a virtual cemetery where we can all register the death and burial records of our Odd Fellows Phila ancestors for those who follow in our footsteps in search of a non-existent headstone?

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  14. In 1875, my great grandmother purchased a family plot in Philadelphia Odd Fellows Cemetery. The original cemetery record shows 16 burials, with their name, cause and date of death, in this plot. I can identify my relationship to 15 of the persons listed. Included are great grandparents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. On the family plot record are 2 stamps with hand written notations indicating removal of the burials to Lawnview Cemetery on a specific day in 1951. Of course, I am unsure if or how many were actually moved. About half were children from a few hours to a few years old. I cannot imagine there was much to rebury. My family had believed all had been safely tucked away permanently for their eternal rest. I am barely able to describe the horror anger and sadness I experienced upon learning of their fate and that of thousands of other in all the Philadelphia cemeteries and specifically in Odd Fellows. Obviously the deed one receives with a plot purchase is only symbolic and gives the owner no real control over the little piece of dirt they “own”. When there was no longer money to be made from new burials, the cemetery under the auspices of the Odd Fellows organization decided those in their care no longer mattered and they had no duty or responsibility to maintain or repair. Due to their neglect and depraved in difference they created the circumstances that required the removal. I wish to ask all those considering putting their trust in the Odd Fellows Cemetery Company of Philadelphia and placing family in one of their 3 cemeteries (including Lawnview) to remember this history. They may want to consider reviewing the compensation the Board of Trustees has received from this “nonprofit” in recent years, which is available on line. They should notice the number of board officers and trustees that share the same last name and close relationships. They most certainly should pay attention to a current policy that demonstrates no remorse over this previous behavior and no awareness they owe family of these removals the minimal courtesy of telling us where our family is now buried without paying a fee, a fee that no other cemetery I have ever dealt with has required. I am told getting this info requires they look in old books and if they did it for free, there would be too many requests and they would be “unable to get their work done”, yada, yada, yada. Shouldn’t their work and attitude include “Oh we are so sorry for what we did to your family. What can we do to make amends and help you? We would never charge for helping you find family. If to visit we will be happy to take you to their location and show you the exact site. By the way, upon request we provide at no cost a modest marker.” I am not delusional and I don’t actually ever expect that kind of over the top politeness. I would like some decent, bare minimum and frankly long overdue recognition of the harm caused and policies that do not add insult to that injury. It has been suggested to me by those in the funeral industry that this policy is a poor business policy and outside the norm. I would also point out the policy offers ripe opportunities for poor public relations. If the staff is really overwhelmed and unable to assist without this extra fee, perhaps the board should consider taking a bit less compensation and hire more staff. A more cynical person than myself might believe that $20 fee is not necessary but provides a nice little way to pad the compensation of the board. Then there is the small possibility staff has instituted this fee without the knowledge of the board but if that is so it raises questions of board competency. They know or they do not. Either way is unacceptable. All I am saying is before you do business with these people, be aware, understand your rights and their legal
    responsibility. I don’t know about others but I want a guarantee I will say put where I am planted

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    1. What happened at Odd Fellows is not unusual. Once a cemetery is full and there's no money to be made, the company looks to sell it or abandon it. People are rightly upset about this. That said, many cemeteries in Philly have been sold, bodies removed (or not), paved over etc. This will be the fate of others such as Fernwood someday, which is getting filled up. There is no such thing as permanent resting place.

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  15. Green funerals are the future. It seems Lawndale cemetery is ahead of its time. One communal headstone should suffice

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    1. Scotland2Wales - sadly there is no such thing as a guarantee you'll be able to stay put where planted. The only way you can stay permanently planted is to be one of the bodies NOT re-interred anywhere else. To be paved over or a building built over your place. So many cemeteries in Philly (and elsewhere) have disappeared, with bodies removed (or not) to other places.

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  16. Oddly (pun intended) enough, I was just doing some research on a burial @ W.Laurel Hill today. Ancestry.com found a record of that person, Eliza Phy, having been reinterred from Odd Fellows. Wonder how that happened

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