Who Didn't Dig Henrietta Garrett?

In a 1937 newspaper photo, a watchman guards the grave of tobacco heiress Henrietta Garrett in Laurel Hill Cemetery after legal action was begun to open her grave in search of a will.
In a 1937 newspaper photo, a watchman guards the grave of tobacco heiress Henrietta Garrett in Laurel Hill Cemetery after legal action was begun to open her grave in search of a will.
Posted: July 11, 2012

POOR HENRIETTA GARRETT. Intensely private, she was practically a hermit when she died in 1930. So I imagine she'd be mortified that, this Friday, total strangers will be treated to a fleeting glimpse of her corpse.

Again.

Few people are alive to remember it, but Garrett was a widowed, childless multimillionaire tobacco heiress who created a sensation when she passed without a will.

More than 25,000 vultures — distant relatives, former employees, neighbors, strangers, government officials — swooped in for a bite of her $17 million fortune (in 2012 dollars, that's about $232 million).

I know: Twenty-five thousand people? But this was during the Great Depression. People were desperate, and desperate people make stuff up.

The fighting over Garrett's estate lasted years. At one point, it was rumored that she had, indeed, left a will but that someone hid it in Garrett's casket before it was lowered into a grave at Laurel Hill Cemetery.

So her body was exhumed in 1937, by which time her estate was worth $20 million. Alas, no will was found tucked inside the coffin, and the legal hijinks resumed for another two decades.

I'd never heard of Garrett, or the crazy money grab her death instigated, until I learned that Jay Schwartz has a short film of her actual exhumation and plans to screen it this Friday night, right at Laurel Hill.

Schwartz is founder of the Secret Cinema, the film society that screens weird films in offbeat venues. A rabid collector of vintage celluloid, Schwartz especially loves other people's home movies. He bought the Garrett film at a Lambertville flea market in 1994, but for years had no idea what it depicted.

"I thought it was a funeral," he recalls of the 13-minute clip, which is bookended by footage of what appears to be a family's vacation. "But there were police officers and men in suits taking notes. People were smiling. I thought, ‘This is a bizarre-looking funeral.' "

As he does with many of the quirky films he has amassed over the years, Schwartz played the Garrett clip for a public audience against a backdrop of live music. It wasn't until a second viewing that an audience member observed, "That's not a funeral; it's an exhumation."

Eventually, Schwartz got around to screening the film for a handful of Laurel Hill officials, who excitedly confirmed that, absolutely, it depicted the Garrett disinterment.

"It was fascinating," says local author and historian Thomas Keels, a volunteer tour guide at Laurel Hill who knows the Garrett-money saga the way many of us know old nursery rhymes.

"We knew Henrietta's history," says Keels. "We knew there was an exhumation. We've seen the news clips and photos. But then to see the actual film, it was as if all the pieces came together."

Still, it wasn't until a few weeks ago that Schwartz, after some Internet clicking, figured out who probably filmed the exhumation, and why.

The canister holding the film is marked "Minnick." Turns out that the Pennsylvania deputy attorney general at the time of the exhumation was a guy named Thomas J. Minnick Jr., who was representing Garrett's estate.

If no Garrett heirs were identified, Garrett's $17 million fortune would become the state's windfall. So Minnick had 17 million excellent reasons to make sure the disinterment was on the up-and-up.

"Newspaper clips from back then talked about the exhumation being filmed. I'm not sure that my film is the exact one the stories mentioned," says Schwartz, "but it definitely seems possible."

Schwartz let me watch the film in his studio — a crowded space in an anonymous building tucked in a neighborhood he prefers I not identify — and it was a revelation.

Not just for the creepy glimpse of Garrett's body — a frame that passes so quickly, you barely comprehend what you just saw.

But for the reminder that the biggest stories of the day — and Garrett's was as big as it gets — crumble to powder, once no one is around to remember them.

Most of Garrett's fortune was spent on legal fees, but three legitimate heirs eventually were identified — cousins she'd never met — and a few of Garrett's associates also received some money.

Schwartz plans to tell the fuller tale at the Laurel Hill screening this Friday (the 13th) — the first time he will have shown any film in a cemetery.

Laurel Hill staff will haul in generators and power lines, and he'll erect a movie screen and show the 13-minute reel. It will be followed by a screening of the 1959 sci-fi horror flick "Plan Nine From Outer Space," which features hokey cemetery scenes and, claims Schwartz, is gleefully known by many to be "the worst movie ever made."

Filmgoers are welcome to pack a picnic basket and lawn chairs, or they can sprawl between the cemetery's many marble tombstones.

As long as they don't scratch anything with the hairs that'll stand up on the backs of their necks. n

See the film at 9 p.m. this Friday at Laurel Hill Cemetery, 3822 Ridge Ave. Tickets are $10. Information: 215-228-8200 and thesecretcinema.com.

Contact polaner@email@phillynews.com. Call 215-854-2217. Blog: phillynews.com/ronnieblog. Twitter: @RonniePhilly.

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