Digging the Past, For Real, at St. Paul's Cemetery
Ardmore's creepy past has been a well-kept secret for centuries.
Mike Dougherty has been the superintendent for St. Paul's Cemetery for about three years. His duties include keeping up the grounds and restoration work. But the bigger project he has been undertaking has been piecing together almost 250 years of history that is buried beneath the peaceful earth at St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church Cemetery in Ardmore.
Dougherty is constantly finding new stories and links to the past through extensive research and, sometimes, happenstance. Just the day before he gave me a tour of the historic graveyard, he had made a new discovery. For years, the oldest gravestone (not burial plot, mind you) was Johanna Muller, who died on July 25, 1766. But while preparing for a recent burial, Dougherty was finally able to see the worn-out date on one of the older headstones.
"The sun hit it just the right time and then I took a rubbing," explained Dougherty. "That's the first stone. It was November 27, 1756; which predates that one [Muller] by 10 months. I always find something in here every day that's new, another piece of the puzzle."
Cemetery records between 1765 and 1820 are few and far between, Dougherty said. In the past year, they have uncovered the graves of five Revolutionary War soldiers.
He believes there are an additional 15 still to be found.
There is one clue to their whereabouts. More than a hundred years ago, Argyle Road may have been widened. The theory would jibe with a cemetery map that notes, "Bodies moved from Argyle Road."
Dougherty is pretty sure there could be up to another 100 bodies to rediscover.
Sound creepy? Good, because here's your chance to hear more.
On Friday and Saturday (Oct. 28 and 29), St. Paul's Cemetery will be hosting an evening of stories and tours of the burial grounds. At 6:30 p.m., youngsters will gather at the one-room schoolhouse for a few scary (but age appropriate) stories.
Then at 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. adults will hear the "Case of the Singing Skull." This story centers on the tragic and haunting story of a man falsely accused of murdering his wife. In order to clear his name, a private investigator hired a surgeon to exhume and examine the body. It was done right there in the schoolhouse—that small stone building you've seen out of the corner of your eye while driving along Wynnewood Road all these years, right at Athens Road.
The evening will continue with a tour of some of the more interesting tales, and graves, throughout the cemetery.
Bring Out Your Dead
The first congregation built a school (now known as the Old Dutch Schoolhouse) next to the original log cabin church. As the congregation grew, they put a passageway between the cabin and the school (you can still see the indentation in the wall) so the overflow of members could sit in the schoolhouse and still hear the pastor. As the church grew, newer and bigger churches were continually built, the most recent of which is across E. Wynnewood Road.
So, are you ready for the really creepy part?
Around 1834, after it ceased being a schoolhouse, an underground storage unit was built under it. It was used to store dead bodies in the winter, when the ground grew too cold to dig. (A similar scenario played out long ago at the Merion Friends Meeting House on Montgomery Avenue, in Merion Station.)
The original gurney that carried the caskets into the cellar is still intact. St. Paul's Cemetery could store up to 12 bodies—perhaps more—if stacked properly on the floor. Families could store their dearly departed for 25 cents a month.
Another Kind of Underground
Dougherty is currently researching to verify whether or not St. Paul's was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Between the location and the time period, this site would fit. It was known that the Quakers helped get many people to safe passage, and this particular spot is just between the Merion and Haverford Quaker meeting houses.
St. Paul's Cemetery was the second burial ground in Lower Merion Township. In 1765, there were only two options on where to spend eternity: one could keep company with either the Lutherans or the Quakers. St. Paul's was started by the German Lutherans, but the cemetery is nonsectarian—all religions have been welcome to bury their dead there.
The cemetery has noted graves from soldiers killed in action from almost every war, except the Mexican War. Dougherty feels there may even be a few of those, however, based on some of the birth and death dates on graves.
When Dougherty started at St. Paul's, they knew of 50 Civil War vets, but three years later they have identified 15 more. St. Paul's also may be the final resting place for a Confederate soldier—which may sound out of place, but Laurel Hill has eight or nine greycoats.
There are some unique and tragic stories (legends?) hidden among the headstones. Here are a few:
- In November of 1876, Max Hugo came over from Germany to visit the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. As he was walking up Lancaster Pike, he met up with two men and they decided to share a bottle of whiskey near the train tracks of what is now the Narberth train station. As they were finishing the bottle, the two men decided to rob and murder 21-year old Hugo; then in a panic dug a shallow grave and left him. In the frigid February of 1877, children who were chased off a train by the conductor discovered Hugo's feet. After some detective work, the murderers confessed to the killing of Max Hugo.
- In 1929, aviator Edgar Enoch was performing a stunt at a Memorial Day ceremony. The plan was to get on the wing of a biplane and parachute to the ground. Unfortunately, the parachute never opened, and Enoch fell to his death in front of a large crowd. His family owned the Enoch Marble Yard, which was on Lancaster Avenue where the township building currently sits. You can guess who manufactured his grave marker.
- Oscar Brown worked at St. Paul's and was digging a grave one morning. As he was doing the dirty work, he was struck by lightening and died. They found him later that day, face-first, in the very grave he was digging. Despite dying on site, he does not appear in any of St. Paul's records.
Dougherty has been able to piece a lot of the history together from the Lower Merion and Montgomery County Historical Societies, along with plenty of research. One source that has been invaluable comes from a collection that dates back to 1909. A man by the name of Charles Baker took it upon himself to go through all the graveyards in the area and document every single headstone. Of course by this time, a lot had already faded, but his records have saved Dougherty a hundred years of mystery.
(St. Paul's burial records, via the Lower merion Historical Society, can be seen here.)
It's In the Attic
Another recent discovery took place during a visit to the Lower Merion Historical Society. Dougherty discovered the society had been storing a headstone in its attic.
Several years back, when Bob Swartz was the president of the society, someone stopped in his store and dropped off a headstone. But when Dougherty saw it, he immediately recognized the name and knew where it belonged.
"My belief, especially in the old section where there is a lot of room available ... there are people buried there [who are unaccounted for]. Back then a lot of people didn't have money, so they couldn't put up a stone. Some of them were just fieldstones, just to mark a grave. Over the years stones could have been stolen or vandalized."
These stories are just a taste of the history Dougherty can tell about the "residents" of St. Paul's Cemetery.
Forget the fake zombies at closed penitentiaries or monsters in corn mazes; this is the real thing. The St. Paul's Halloween events are perfect for history buffs and those who just love the feeling of goose bumps. The tour is full of local history, with a twist, and it's all right around the corner.
St. Paul's Halloween Events:
Friday (Oct. 28) and Saturday (Oct. 29)
6:30 p.m.: Children's Halloween Stories (really: children only)
7 p.m. and 8 p.m.: "The Case of the Singing Skull" (a ll ages, but seating is limited; tours to follow).
Prices: Children 12 & under: $5. Teens and adults: $10.
Proceeds from the event will go towards cemetery restoration and maintainance.
Can't make the Halloween events, but still want to hear more? Contact St. Paul's at (610) 642-3211 to schedule a group tour with Mike Dougherty.
One final note.
Plots are still available. Reservations strongly recommended.
Operators are standing by.