PAPHILAD-L ArchivesArchiver > PAPHILAD > 2002-09 > 1032402365
Subject: [PAPHILA] Lafayette Cemetery, Philadelphia (1839-1946)
Date: Wed, 18 Sep 2002 22:26:05 EDT
Philadelphia Inquirer, The (PA)
October 9, 1988
A TALE OF 47,000 BODIES, FINAL RESTING PLACE UNKNOWN
Author: Donna Shaw, Inquirer Staff Writer
Four decades ago, the deal seemed pretty clear.
Thomas A. Morris, president of Evergreen Memorial Park in Bensalem Township,
was contracted to dig up 47,000 sets of remains from the run-down Lafayette
Cemetery in South Philadelphia.
Under the terms of a 1946 Common Pleas Court decree, the bodies were to be
buried again on 40 of the 156 acres owned by Evergreen, complete with
caskets, drainage, new bronze markers, roadways and perpetual maintenance of
the grounds. The 40 acres were renamed Lafayette Cemetery. Morris estimated
his costs at $105,000.
In return, Morris received clear title to the old cemetery property, bounded
by Passyunk Avenue and Ninth, 10th, Federal and Wharton Streets. It was
assessed at $166,000.
Now, 42 years later, that seemingly straightforward transaction has become
the focal point of a story so complicated it may never be completely told:
The story of those bodies, and 21,500 more Morris was paid to dig up from two
other city cemeteries and rebury elsewhere.
The bodies from Lafayette - described in a 1946 newspaper story as "Forty-
seven thousand persons who probably thought they were through with arguments
when they were buried" - were dumped in unmarked trenches that Bensalem
officials say bear little resemblance to a cemetery blueprint that shows
individual, numbered lots.
"No one really watched Morris to see that he . . . did what he was supposed
to do," said the Rev. Canon J. Perry Cox, president of Lafayette Cemetery.
"My recollection was that he was the type of guy who could sell the Brooklyn
Bridge," said state Superior Court Judge Frank J. Montemuro Jr., who in 1958
was the lawyer appointed as receiver for the Evergreen Memorial Park
Association when Morris, now deceased, got into legal and financial trouble.
''. . . He was glib as hell."
The tale began to unravel late last month, when two anonymous callers told
township officials that a pair of unmarked graves had been uncovered
inadvertently at the Bensalem cemetery during a construction project. The
cemetery is on Neshaminy Boulevard, across from Neshaminy Mall.
Although those two bodies, as it turned out, had been buried more recently,
township officials said it soon became apparent that none of the remains
transferred from the old Lafayette Cemetery had been reburied in marked
After spending a week and a half digging test shafts at the site, officials
last week said they had uncovered what probably are 32 trenches, each 300
feet long. Inside the trenches are stacks of wooden boxes, presumably
containing most of the remains. Officials do not intend to dig up all the
boxes to find out. But some of the remains and clothing scraps found in the
trenches will be
sent to an archaeologist to determine their age, according to Bensalem police
Detective Kenneth Hopkins, who is heading the investigation.
Based on accounts from longtime township residents who said they had watched
as trucks delivered the remains, officials believe that some also were dumped
into the nearby Poquessing Creek.
In 1947, one year after the Lafayette transfer, records show the court also
approved a plan under which the city paid $95,000 for Morris to remove 8,000
bodies from 2,400 graves in Franklin Cemetery, located at Elkhart and Helen
Streets in Kensington. According to newspaper accounts, the remains were to
be reburied in a three-acre Franklin section of Evergreen Memorial Park.
That plan, too, called for perpetual care and markers.
Hopkins said last week that the township would wait until the Lafayette
investigation was completed before deciding whether to search for the
I. Alan Cohen, whose family owns Rosedale Memorial Park - part of the
Evergreen property before Morris went bankrupt in 1959 - has told police that
he believes only 3,000 of the Franklin remains were transferred to Evergreen.
According to Hopkins, Cohen, whose family bought the Rosedale property in
1960, said the 3,000 were reinterred on what is now the adjoining property -
King David Memorial Park.
Cohen said he believed the 5,000 other bodies were buried in Sunset Memorial
Park in Feasterville, according to Hopkins.
In an interview Friday, the Sunset office manager, who asked not to be named,
said no Franklin remains were buried there.
And Jack Livezey, manager of King David, said he knew "for a fact" that they
weren't at his cemetery, either.
Cohen could not be reached for comment.
Hopkins said the Cohens had told him that they had almost no records from
Lafayette. Raymond Reinl, a lawyer who represented Lafayette Cemetery in the
1960s, said in an interview that he recalled a meeting in that decade at
which the Cohens were given records.
Until the unmarked graves were found, the Cohens were moving an office and
mausoleum building from one site to another on the cemetery property and had
a Bucks County Court order from Judge Leonard B. Sokolove permitting them to
reinter elsewhere any remains they found. But the township, which has issued
a cease-and-desist order, is going back to Sokolove on Oct. 26 to ask that he
rescind his order, Hopkins said. The township now wants the Lafayette
property, and whatever bodies are there, to be left undisturbed.
Construction work at an adjacent site, where a developer is building a strip
shopping center, is being permitted to resume because the township determined
last week that no remains are buried there, officials said.
Although news stories from the 1940s say that Morris sold the old Lafayette
Cemetery property in South Philadelphia to a group that planned to build
duplexes and stores on the site, both Lafayette and Franklin eventually were
condemned by the city as part of a multimillion-dollar playground-building
project. Of the 43 properties that were purchased, those were the only former
Playgrounds were built at both sites. The Lafayette playground is across
from two of the city's famous food landmarks, Pat's and Geno's cheesesteak
Richardson Dilworth, who in 1947 was an unsuccessful Democratic mayoral
candidate, charged that one of the investors who bought Lafayette from
Morris, Republican Sheriff Austin Meehan, had purchased the cemetery because
he knew he could sell it to the city for a huge profit. News accounts say
that Meehan, whose group paid $105,000 for the site and sold it to the city
for $153,500, denied the accusation.
In 1950, the city decided to transform yet another 19th-century South
Philadelphia cemetery into a playground. That was Ronaldson's Cemetery,
founded in 1827 and believed to be the oldest private cemetery in the
country. Among those buried there were John Stowers, said to have crossed the
Delaware with George Washington just before the Battle of Trenton, and
Commodore Charles Stewart, commander of Old Ironsides during the War of 1812.
Records at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania show that the city paid
$95,000 to buy the cemetery. Of that amount, the records say, $72,410 went to
Morris for the removal and reburial of the 13,500 bodies in Ronaldson's,
bounded by Ninth, 10th, Fitzwater and Bainbridge Streets.
But this time, Morris was told to bury the remains at Forest Hills Cemetery,
located at Byberry Road and Philmont Avenue, rather than at Evergreen, and to
provide "aluminum markers so that the records will show where particular
bodies are buried," according to the records.
Andrew Deltito, sales manager at Forest Hills, said in an interview that the
Ronaldson's remains were buried there, in their own section, complete with a
large marble spire. He said there were no individual markers.
"We have the records and we know where (the remains) are," he said.
In 1951, the Securities and Exchange Commission began to look into Morris'
dealings - particularly his apparent habit of selling large blocks of
Evergreen cemetery lots to speculators with the promise that the investors
would be able to sell them for huge profits. The sales, according to the SEC,
were in the same category as sales of securities, and Morris was not
registered to sell securities.
Morris began to pile up debts, with the federal government filing tax liens
against Evergreen Memorial Park.
In 1958, the Pennsylvania Securities Commission asked that the courts appoint
a receiver for Evergreen. In 1959, Evergreen filed for bankruptcy.
In 1961, Morris - once hailed as a tireless fund-raiser for a variety of
charities - pleaded no contest in U.S. District Court to charges that he had
misrepresented Evergreen's financial condition while selling two bond issues
to finance his cemetery business. He was fined $3,000 and received a
suspended sentence plus five years' probation.
To Bensalem officials, who now are obliged to deal with what Morris left
behind, the history is fascinating, but frustrating.
Detective Hopkins said he had been inundated with calls and letters from
There is even a song, written by township resident Margaret Alice Butler, who
sent him a copy. Part of it goes like this:
I'm telling you, in this day and age,
The dead people aren't even safe.
. . . Everyone's out for that almighty dollar.
Now only if the dead could holler.