A Tale Of 47,000 Bodies, Final Resting Place Unknown

Posted: October 09, 1988

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 graves.

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 Franklin remains.

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 cemeteries.

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 emporiums.

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 outraged citizens.

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.

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