Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Resting in Pieces Along the Delaware River

"When my earthly trials are over, cast my body in the deep blue sea;
Save all the undertaker bills, let the mermaids flirt with me."
- Mississippi John Hurt, 1966

With all this mid-winter rain we’re having, I think from time to time about Captain Babel Irons and his wife, Mary. Mary’s tombstone lies cast down at the waterline of the Delaware River in Philadelphia, under the Betsy Ross Bridge. How it got there is a long story, to which the reader is invited to relive through my past blogs on the subject (i.e. the destruction of Monument Cemetery, listed at the end of this article). No one knows the whereabouts of Captain Irons’ stone, or why Mary had a separate one.

Curiously, Captain Babel H. Irons does not swim with the fishes, even though his namesake schooner broke apart during a storm and sunk in the Delaware Bay. He died in 1872, Mary in 1917, and both were buried at Monument Cemetery. Mary ironically died of pneumonia – a disease that can produce fluid in the lungs – causing a person to effectively drown from the inside.

I entered the photograph you see above in an art competition and when the curator looked at it he said, “Perpetual Care?” Monument Cemetery, the initial resting place of Captain and Mrs. Irons, was condemned and bulldozed by the city of Philadelphia in 1956, to make room for a parking lot. Monument was the city’s second Victorian garden cemetery (after Laurel Hill in 1836), established in 1839. Its 28,000 bodies, including those of the Ironses, were supposedly relocated to Lawnview Cemetery in the Rockledge section of northeast Philadelphia. The monuments, headstones, and other grave markers were dumped into the river. So much for resting in peace.

The tide comes in and goes out twice a day on the shores of the Delaware, like twin slaps in society’s face for having so disrespectfully demolished a consecrated burial ground. This dumping ground is hardly as exotic as the “Neptune Memorial Reef,” the underwater cemetery off the coast of Miami, Florida. Philadelphia’s ragtag industrial Bridesburg section (where the tombstones reside), is a far cry from Miami Beach.

Tombstones at river's edge, lying against embankment
I used to joke with people that “Monument Cemetery is the only cemetery that demands you to consult the tide tables before you can visit.”  After publishing the blogs listed below, I received scores of emails and comments from descendants of those originally interred at Monument. What we’ve done to their memories is hardly a laughing matter. Many people need a burial spot, a headstone, some sort of tangible link to their past. Without that, they are rudderless, having nothing but ghost memories with no anchor to reality.

At high tide, the grimy water of the Delaware River is six feet above its low tide level. In the photo directly above, the water rises up to the tree roots. The dozens of headstones lying on the shore are covered at this time. Mary H. Irons’ stone is very close to the river’s edge at low tide, and is therefore one of the first to be covered when the tide comes in. It is as if the sea wants to touch her first.

On my last visit, I stood above the stone watching as the waves lapped around it, foaming the edges. The water rises surprisingly fast, if you have a marker like this by which to gauge its rise (one vertical foot per hour over a six-hour period). Reminding one of Captain Irons’ ship that sunk during a fierce storm in 1874, Mary’s stone stares at you like the final flare from a shipwreck.

Babel Irons may have been one of those sea captains who spent months at sea, but one thing is certain – he came home at least nine times while his wife was in her child-bearing years. They indeed had nine children! This, and the fact that Babel’s full name was Zorobabel (what a great name!), I learned from reading psychic Valerie Morrison’s website. Morrison and her staff have done considerable research into the lives of those people whose exposed headstones form the beach under the Betsy Ross Bridge. Her point is to show that all these people led actual lives, and should therefore be shown more respect. While Captain Irons fathered his youngest child, Sallie, at age 66, the more amazing thing is that Mary Irons gave birth to Sallie at age 45 – way past 40, considered even today (2013) as being advanced maternal age (meaning that women have difficulty becoming pregnant, and if they do, the pregnancy is more prone to complications).

Betsy Ross Bridge over Delaware River
Valerie Morrison, a Philadelphia area psychic, has taken on the task of raising public awareness to the plight of the headstones, and the memories, dumped under the Betsy Ross Bridge. She currently campaigns to have the exposed stones (of which there are about fifty) moved to a more respectful place. But the subject of her involvement (which was prompted by my photographs and research), will be covered in a future blog.

References and further Reading:

Ed Snyder's Monument Cemetery blog postings:

The Watery Remains of Monument Cemetery 

How Monument Cemetery was Destroyed

 Beachcombing in Hell – The Gravestones of Monument Cemetery

Valerie Morrison, Psychic Counselor and Medium website
CBS News: Final resting place - Cemeteries lack oversight
Philly.com: It's R.I.P. Tide Along the Delaware River