Friday, May 6, 2011

How Monument Cemetery was Destroyed

Concrete crypt being removed from Monument Cemetery, 1956
By the summer of 1956, the job of clearing Monument Cemetery was well under way. Bodies had already been removed from one section of the old grave yard. At that time, the University referring to it as PROGRESS, stated that "the old cemetery...will provide much needed parking space by fall." - Things that Aren't There Anymore

Betsy Ross Bridge in background
After my photo excursion to find the last remains of Philadelphia’s Monument Cemetery, I was overwhelmed with questions – my own as well as those posed by my readers. Questions like, how could some entity (Temple University, in this case) just buy a cemetery and build a parking lot over it? Was the cemetery actually abandoned?  Supposedly, all the bodies were removed, but how did they do that? And the families were okay with it? When this happened in 1956, the cemetery was over a century old – did they contact the relatives of the 28,000 people buried there? Why were all the monuments and headstones dumped into the Delaware River? I get a weird feeling now whenever I drive over the Betsy Ross Bridge, like its somehow sacrilegious that granite tombstones are part of its foundation.

They say the universe is finite, contained, and searchable, so, in an attempt to find answers, I paid a visit to the Pennsylvania Historical Society in Philadelphia. I knew from past visits here and to the Library Company of Philadelphia next door, that they had certain records related to area cemeteries. Once I got into the Historical Society to begin my research, I was amazed to find hundreds of bound volumes (handwritten as well as copied) of burial records and tombstone inscriptions from more cemeteries than I thought existed, along with all their original deeds, charters, and annual reports. There were also vintage brochures and guidebooks (c. 1850) printed by the large Victorian garden cemeteries for advertising purposes. You can actually peruse these wonderful parchment-like and very fragile volumes from the Laurel Hill, Woodlands, and Mt. Vernon cemeteries in Philadelphia. Wonderful lithographs of monuments, chapels, and gatehouses adorn the pages, many of which are either no longer in existence or are so weather-worn as to be barely recognizable. It’s obvious that such documentation is necessary for accurate restoration of cemetery sculpture and monuments. After about half an hour of searching, I came upon a three-volume set of documentation related to Monument Cemetery.

In the set of burial records were tombstone inscriptions, an alphabetical listing of those interred, and legal documentation for the property. At the end of Vol. I, there were dozens of copied newspaper clippings related to the battle to close the cemetery (mid-1950s). As I read through these clippings, certain things became clear
I better understood how a cemetery could be made to disappear.

In a nutshell, the cemetery had not been abandoned, it was destroyed. Bodies were reinterred elsewhere and most of the tombstones and monuments were dumped into the Delaware River, to be used as foundation rock for when the city built the Betsy Ross Bridge. In my previous blog,
The Watery Remains of Monument Cemetery,” I wrote about my excursion to find the stones, which are visible at low tide. Visible with a bit of work, that is. You can’t just look down into the water and see them as you drive across the bridge.

How did Temple University acquire Monument Cemetery

As the universe expands, so do universities. In the 1950s, Temple was developing itself into a commuter school, and needed more parking – and those 15 acres across the street were just being wasted on a cemetery. They’d actually been trying to acquire the cemetery since 1928, but continually met with resistance from the cemetery’s owners. 


Nearly bankrupt cemetery railroaded into oblivion?

According to records, the owners of Monument Cemetery only had about $11,000 in assets by 1953. This was barely enough income for the owners to provide necessary maintenance to the buildings and upkeep to the graves. With no new burials since 1929, there had been no income for 24 years (there was no available burial space left). The cemetery had been in business for 114 years, and its 15 acres were filled to capacity with 28,000 graves. As a result, the cemetery physically deteriorated to the point where it invited vandalism. The owners were actively trying to sell it, but were “insensed” at potential buyers’ (including Temple) plans for the land. Eventually Temple lobbied the city government to condemn it, and ended up acquiring it after that occurred. According to the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin of May 28, 1953, public hearings were held in which “a number of persons” testified that “the cemetery was now a haven for rats, criminals, tramps, and sex offenders.” (Kind of sounds like the North Philly that we know today.)

It appears that legal title passed from the owners of Monument Cemetery to the City of Philadelphia, but I could find no record of the amount the owners were compensated. Once a government determines that private property is needed for the completion of a public project (Temple is a public, i.e. state school), that property is likely going to be lost (ref). The property owner is entitled to fair compensation for the loss, but it appears that Monument’s owners received far less (if anything). Kind of like when my grandmother's house was taken through "eminent domain" by a local municipality so that
a playground could be built. 

Estimated value of the land in the part of Philadelphia in which Monument Cemetery was situated was about $40,000 per acre, making the cemetery’s 15 acres worth about $600,000. Temple had previously stated that it could not afford to buy the land at that price. As Lawnview Cemetery (in Rockledge, a Philadelphia suburb) was later awarded a $700,000 contract by the city for “the transfer and perpetual care of the bodies,” I find it hard to believe the city paid Monument’s owners anything for the land.


Did they actually remove the bodies?

Well, if you can believe the newspapers, yes. But who knows? The crane in the top photo shows a concrete crypt being hoisted out of the ground, but what of the thousands of older burials that only had wooden coffins? I began to wonder what sort of notifications were sent to families whose loved one were buried there… eviction notices? Did they board up the periphery of the cemetery so people couldn’t see the coffins coming out of the ground? Did people care? I had to find out, and as I could find nothing on the topic online, I hoped the Historical Society would provide. 

The dozens of newspaper clippings mentioned above cover the final two years of the cemetery’s existence – from 1954 (when its fate was mired in political intrigue) to 1956 (when the cemetery was condemned, given to Temple, and dug up). During the time that the cemetery’s owners were trying to sell it in above-board fashion, Temple had made low offers, and was turned down. In its relentless quest for the land, Temple resorted to political tactics to have the ground condemned, while maintaining an air of empathy by declaring that if it acquired the cemetery, it would also have to dig up Temple's founder, Dr. Russell Conwell, and his wife, who were buried there. In the end, they moved those graves across the street near Conwell Hall (where I used to go to pay my daughter’s tuition).

How were lot holders notified?

Apparently, the majority were not. But first, let’s do some math. In 1954 when the cemetery owners sent out mailings to lot holders announcing the likelihood that graves would have to be moved when the cemetery was sold, they only had reliable contact information for 748 families - out of 28,000 burials. Of these 748, only 400 lot holders responded to mailings – 300 of whom met to vote on which cemetery they would want their ancestors moved to. Two cemeteries bid on the contract − Lawnview Cemetery and Philadelphia Memorial Park in Frazer, PA. Lawnview was chosen after a nine-month debate, mainly because it was closer to Monument Cemetery (more convenient for the lot holders) and it would charge less for removal of the bodies.  

So only 300 family plots were moved to Lawnview along with their monuments and headstones. I would assume that some of the remaining 100 of the contacted lot holders had their loved ones moved privately to different cemeteries at their own expense. But the vast majority of the 28,000 bodies, it seems, went unclaimed

In order to clear the land of human remains and stonework, 28,000 bodies had to be re-located, about 20,000 of which were unclaimed. These 20,000 – a staggering number − were the ones that were quietly dumped into a large mass grave at Lawnview Cemetery. Their monuments and any of the elaborately carved stonework that hadn't been claimed by relatives were sold to developers, and hauled to the river to be used as part of the foundation to build the Betsy Ross Bridge (construction was completed in 1976). Monuments, including major works of art by 19th century sculptors, were dumped into the river to be used as “riprap” (granite or concrete rubble from building and paving demolition commonly used to protect shorelines from water or ice erosion).

Did the public care what was going on?

Historian Tom Keels says, “…in the 1950s it was, 'This is an old moldy Victorian cemetery. Who cares.'"

“The way cemeteries and their occupants were treated after World War II was shocking. The city was in flux. It was losing jobs, it was losing people and there was a decision early on that the city was going to redevelop at least its central area. It was going to reinvent itself as a neo-colonial city. Society Hill and Independence Mall were constructed, while hundreds of Victorian buildings were razed ‘because 18th century was good, Victorian was bad.’ Unfortunately, this extended to many Victorian cemeteries.Tom Keels

Forgotten graves?  Not totally.

But what of the people whose loved ones were buried at Monument, who were not aware of its closing? Many of my current readers are appalled by what happened to this cemetery, shocked by the callousness of a modern society. Looking back, it seems that it all occurred precisely because of the modernism of our society and how we value “progress.” It all sounds like Temple and the City of Philadelphia tied up Monument Cemetery in a neat little package and everyone was happy. Today, it’s a different story, as I come upon these chilling posts on the reader forum of

"they say there is a mass grave .. where is it and where are the babies that were buried there as there was so many of my family buried there too..why didn't anyone fight it and how could they get away with this? i can't believe the things i read about it as i look for my family .."

"hello thank you i went to find a grave and lawnview and typed in my family name but nothing..came up. do they have a list from monument and where all the people from monument were reburied. at least they could have done that. so many of my family was buried there. a lot of babies from years ago. a few made it to arlington but not many. thank you and i don't know how they could do things like this ..isn't anything sacred..? i sure appeciate your help. thank you again  -alice"

"Monument Cemetery. This is where my ancestors-Wareham- had a large family plot. It was removed and built over by Temple University. What a shame ! If you are connected to this family, please reply. Jeanie "

More about the
1956 dumping of tombstones into the river.

As I mentioned in my previous blog posting, “The Watery Remains of Monument Cemetery,” my friend Leo and I trekked out to the river last month and found the site of the discarded tombstones from Monument Cemetery. We only actually found about 50 exposed whole grave markers, so the rest must must be either buried, drowned, or reduced to rubble. When you think about it, roughly twenty thousand bodies were unclaimed, so there had to be several thousand gravemarkers discarded.

Sartain Monument (Univ of Penn)
Supposedly, John Sartain's Egyptian-style monument was dumped into the Delaware and is now part of the bridge. Sartain was one of the original designers of Monument Cemetery; he and his family were buried there. Sartain’s is not a name with which I was familiar, but to whom the literary world owes a debt of gratitude. He was Edgar Allen Poe’s friend, colleague, and publisher while Poe lived in Philadelphia.

John Sartain was a true renaissance man – publisher, engraver, artist, and architect. He was responsible for the design of Monument Cemetery’s gatehouse and the cemetery’s immense (over 70 feet high) central monument to George Washington and General Lafayette (seen at left being dismantled). According to Sartain’s autobiography, The Reminiscences of a Very Old Man, “Monument Cemetery” derived its name from this monument. Sartain’s own memorial (seen above in front of the base of the Washington monument in a 1954 photograph) lives with the fishes - supposedly dumped as unceremoniously as the rest of the stones.

Sartain's Union Magazine featured the first publication of Poe’s haunting poem, Annabel Lee, which is about a rivalry that resulted in a watery death. Makes you wonder what horrors Poe could have conjured with the idea of unearthing 28,000 graves and dumping their tombstones into the river. But then he probably would never have conceived of anything so bizarre – or did he?

And this was the reason that, long ago,
In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her high-born kinsmen came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre

In this kingdom by the sea. 

- from Annabel Lee, by Edgar Allan Poe

References for Further Reading: