Thursday, June 25, 2020

Corpse Recovery and Cadaver Bags after the Flood

Now there’s a catchy title, don’t you think? Read on and you will learn all. This week is the anniversary of an incident that poisoned the well for me - the week in 1972 when I explored the cemetery in Forty-Fort, PA, after Hurricane Agnes destroyed it. If you'd like to read this chilling account of what (I believe) led to my lifelong interest in dead things, the full account serves (I think appropriately) as the introduction to my book, “The Cemetery Traveler.” It is available on Amazon. Not for the faint of heart, I might add. Graveyards are not always fun. Sometimes they're a true horror story.

When I was fourteen (1972), Hurricane Agnes caused major flooding in Northeast Pennsylvania. After sandbagging the Susquehanna River dike all day in front of my grandmother’s house, the rising river water blew out of the street storm drains like geysers. This caused some minor flooding, but it wasn't enough to equalize the water pressure--the dike at the cemetery in the town of Forty-Fort blew out. Not only was the Wyoming Valley under sixteen feet of water for days, but the cemetery was gutted.

Forty-Fort Cemetery after the 1972 flood (ref.)

When the flood waters receded, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers made some major repairs, facilitated a massive cleanup, and boarded up the cemetery. Rumors had it there were coffins everywhere! As a teenage boy, this is exactly the cool stuff you want to hear. Later, there were photos published in newspapers showing coffins lodged on the front porches of homes in my neighborhood. 

Street cleaning, post-flood 1972 (ref.)

Most of this memento mori was removed before people were allowed back to their homes (after about ten days, I think). Until recently, I never knew exactly where they reinterred the human remains and coffins that were collected. You can read a grim account of the collection of caskets and bodies here.

So after a couple weeks, when residents were allowed back to their homes to facilitate their own massive cleanup, my cousin Albert and I wandered down to the cemetery, only to find 8-foot sheets of plywood attached to the existing wrought iron fencing. Hardly a deterrent, we went exploring. In not much time, we found a washed out space under one of the plywood sheets that was big enough for a boy to crawl under. Needless to say, that's what we did. 

Nothing … could have prepared me for the … stench! Was it the bodies? The dead fish? The river mud baking in the hot summer sun? Probably a combination of both.

As we walked around the grounds that day in the late June heat, who would have thought the experience would affect me for a lifetime? You had to mouth-breathe just to keep from passing out from the assault on the nasal passages. The fetid aroma was no doubt accentuated by the heat, but oddly, you couldn't smell it from outside the plywood fencing.

I’d visited Forty-Fort Cemetery 
in 2016 - the first time since 1972. I’ve been there a few times since then. The tree in this photo is the very same tree I mention in the story – the one the object was propped up against. (You have to read the intro chapter of my book for further details.)

As a memorial to the 2700 bodies that were unearthed, a large monument was erected in the Forty-Fort Cemetery (shown above). The bodies that were found (one has to assume that many were washed away down river) were reburied elsewhere. The news and published accounts have always been scarce on details. Enter my friend Dorothy Loney! 

Photo by Dorothy Loney

Photo by Dorothy Loney

Back in May 2020, Dorothy sent me some photos she took in Carverton, PA, a town in Wyoming County, Pennsylvania. It was a cemetery called Memorial Shrine Cemetery, about ten miles north of Forty-Fort. Apparently, this monument marks the mass grave where the collected remains for the Forty-Fort Cemetery were reburied. Back around 2010, I spoke with the caretaker of the Forty-Fort Cemetery, who I believe is the son of the gentleman who was the caretaker in 1972. He told me that he can remember his dad running from the office meeting house to his car, carrying armloads of burial records, as the river approached flood stage. As the water rose in the streets, but before the dike gave way, he said he remembered his Dad in knee-deep water carrying as many of the records as he could out of the office in an attempt to save them. I’m guessing some records were lost.

Memorial Shrine Cemetery monument (photo by Dorothy Loney)

So the end of June will always bring to mind visions of my parents’ home with water up to the second floor, living with dried flood mud for the next year, the dust, the smell of dead fish, living in trailers, and the widespread devastation from which many of the flooded towns never recovered. The Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania area where I live is one of those. As the National Weather Service states: “The widespread flooding from this storm caused Agnes to be called the most destructive hurricane in United States history, claiming 117 lives and causing damage estimated at $3.1 billion in 12 States. Damage was particularly high in New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia." (Ref.

And as I look back on my years of cemetery traveling, photography, and writing, I suppose Hurricane Agnes was a muse, of sorts. If I hadn’t had that traumatic experience in the Forty-Forty Cemetery, you would not be reading this blog.

I leave you with a marvelous photograph, one Dorothy Loney made of the chapel at the Memorial Shrine Cemetery. Deliciously creepy, is it not?

Memorial Shrine Cemetery chapel (photo by Dorothy Loney)

Further reading:

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Life and Death - the Event

Tania Kirkman organized a three-day conference called “Life and Death” in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, that was held June 19-21, 2020. I was to attend, physically, as a presenter, and make the presentation you see above, 
Secrets Revealed from Philadelphia's (Underwater) Monument Cemetery. Then coronavirus hit town, and life as we knew it was either cancelled or virtualized. Tania chose the latter, and worked with all the presenters over the past month to create Zoom versions of their presentations. This in turn benefitted not only the expected attendees (who faced cancellation of the event), but also the wider masses who would not have been able to physically attend the event. Over a thousand people were following her social media posts (

There were many virtual presentations given over the three days – I caught two. Extremely well done by extremely knowledgeable people, and thoroughly enjoyable! Hayden Peters ( discussed Mourning Art jewelry in his talk, “In Memory of” and Brenda Sullivan of The Gravestone Girls ( gave a wonderful presentation entitled “Welcome to the Graveyard – Cemetery Art, History, and Symbolism.” She covered American cemetery evolution from the 1600s to the present day. 

In addition to the virtualized sessions, there were some physical gatherings in Shepherdstown – a cemetery tour, a night movie, and some physical vending by artists and craftspeople. Hopefully, next year we can all get mortal again. Virtualization can allow more people to participate, for sure, but there is a tangible aspect of our interactions that is irreplaceable. 

So I did my presentation on June 20, at 10 a.m. on a sunny summer day, actually the first day of summer. Not exactly the witching hour. Still, there was information I presented that would make your skin crawl, no matter what time, day, or weather. It was about the gravestones on the shore of the Delaware River in Philadelphia, under the Betsy Ross Bridge. If you’ve read my Cemetery Traveler blog or read the posts reproduced in my book of the same name (link to purchase), you know that this is about how the City of Philadelphia destroyed Monument Cemetery in 1956 – obliterated it in order that Temple University could acquire that land to build a parking lot. Progress. 

Thank you to my 34 attendees and I do apologize to the several who I could not admit after the presentation began. I had figured I would admit people manually – wrong! Always never do this! Set your controls to admit latecomers automatically! Each of the three times I admitted latecomers, my slides froze and would not advance! To make matters worse, my in-house IT consultant (a.k.a. my ten-year-old daughter Olivia) was not yet awake!

But, I powered through. As did all the other presenters. For most, this was their first rodeo. It was only my second. Here, for your enjoyment, ad infinitum, is my presentation, stored somewhere in the cloud. It’s free to access, so you can watch it anew or relive the moment if you were there with me in my living room last Saturday morning. 

(Recorded presentation) “Secrets Revealed from Philadelphia's (Underwater) Monument Cemetery”

Donations appreciated!




Sunday, June 14, 2020

Infectious Diseases and Charles Meigs, M.D.

My guest author this week is David Gurmai, a friend who is Weekend Coordinator and unofficial historian at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia. Enjoy!
“Wash your hands!” is a common refrain of mothers everywhere, and one that’s become even more important with a global pandemic on our hands (pun intended). It has long been forgotten that hand washing is a relatively recent habit with contentious beginnings. Before it became widely accepted among the general population, it had to first be accepted by the medical community.

Dr. Charles D. Meigs (1792-1869) was an obstetrician caught in the middle of a paradigm shift in medicine. He went to medical school at a time when miasma theory—the idea that diseases are a product of one’s environment—was the accepted belief. Germ theory was in its infancy, though making demonstrably provable claims, particularly with Louis Pasteur advancing vaccination science and inventing pasteurization in the mid-1800s. Dr. Meigs thought germ theory was hogwash. He insisted on having treatment rooms cleaned thoroughly, removing any traces of miasma and effluvia, but hand washing was absurd to him. As a gentleman, a God-fearing and educated man of high standing, contagion couldn’t possibly be spread by his touch.

That’s the stance that Dr. Meigs obstinately took, despite otherwise excelling in his field. There was no regimen of thorough hand washing as he moved between patients. He didn’t merely ignore the idea, but was actively outspoken and hostile toward it. He would invoke reductio ad absurdum-style arguments against it: suggesting that believers of germ theory shouldn’t touch anyone lest they infect everyone, while pointing out that physicians can’t practice in such a manner. He wasn’t the only doctor opposed to hand washing, but he was among the most prominent. 

By the time of Dr. Meigs’ death, germ theory was prevailing over miasma theory. One has to wonder how many infections he passed among the mothers and newborns who were his patients. As the 19th century closed, germ theory was fully accepted by the medical establishment. Another few decades and society at large had caught on; by 1940 everyone was washing their hands before meals and performing surgery.

So, listen to your mother…and the CDC: Wash your hands.

Epilogue by Ed Snyder

Meigs’ professional embarrassment and widely publicized rebuke by the AMA (1850s) is well-documented in the book, Dr. Mutter’s Marvels (2014, Aptowicz). Dr. Thomas Mutter (of the famed Mutter Museum in Philadelphia), a surgeon and professor at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, was one of medicine’s earliest proponents of aseptic technique. Although he could not prove that infections were transmitted by pathogens and non-sterile technique, he did realize early on in his surgical career that if he washed his hands and instruments before conducting a surgical procedure, there were fewer infectious complications. He and Meigs taught at Jefferson at the same time and were at odds in their opinions and teachings.

David’s statement above, “One has to wonder how many infections he passed among the mothers and newborns who were his patients,” is frighteningly addressed in Apotowicz’ book. She states that “Meigs was unable or unwilling to understand the concept that diseases could even be contagious,” and that as an obstetrician he transmitted infectious and sometimes deadly diseases to hundreds of patients. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., MD, a renowned Harvard anatomy professor in 1855, published a scathing article on infectious disease, calling out Meigs by name as “the pestilence-carrier of the lying-in chamber,” who “must look to God for pardon, for man will never forgive him.”

Meigs inadvertently killed many of his obstetrical patients as a result of his stubbornness and grandstanding. He simply refused to believe what we all now know, that the best way to prevent the transmission of infectious disease is good hand hygiene. As David says above, wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands!

I thank David Gurmai for directions to Meigs’ grave in Laurel Hill Cemetery. I had just finished reading “Dr. Mutter’s Marvels” and was fascinated that the science being discovered during the time of Mutter and Meigs (1840s – 1860s) has such a direct relation to the pandemic we are now experiencing. I went to Meigs’ grave and taunted him with germicidal wipes, gloves, and a mask – items he would have scoffed at, yet items we realize are instrumental in saving lives.