A flea market find, film of a bizarre 1937 exhumation, to be shown July 13 at Laurel Hill Cemetery

Jay Schwartz, creator and operator of Secret Cinema, holds the 1937 movie reel. RON TARVER / Staff Photographer
Jay Schwartz, creator and operator of Secret Cinema, holds the 1937 movie reel. RON TARVER / Staff Photographer
Posted: July 13, 2012

When Jay Schwartz picked up a reel of film in a Lambertville flea market 20 years ago, he had no idea he was holding the only known visual record of an exhumation spurred by a 20-year court dispute.

And fittingly enough, Schwartz will have a public showing of the bizarre movie on Friday, July 13, at Laurel Hill Cemetery, where it was made.

Schwartz screened the footage alongside other found home movies a few times over the years, but he never realized what it was depicting. The Laurel Hill Cemetery sign in the film led him to assume he was witnessing a funeral.

"All I knew was that there were reporters on the scene … and policemen, a few people were smiling and joking, and it seemed kind of eerie that there were no mourners," Schwartz said in a phone interview. A few years later, "a friend said that the body, the casket was coming out of the ground, not the other way."

Schwartz had stumbled across a film of the exhumation of Henrietta Garrett, a recluse who died with a $17 million estate (worth more than $200M today), no known heirs, and — crucially — no known will.

Garrett's multimillionaire husband, the snuff manufacturer Walter Garrett, had died 35 years earlier, leaving her most of his share of the Garrett family fortune. Widowed, childless, and outliving her siblings, Henrietta Edwardina Schaefer Garrett died on November 16, 1930, without heeding her husband's written advice to make a will.

Thus began a 20-year legal saga that started in Philadelphia Orphans' Court.

People came from all over the world to claim the inheritance. Over time, four different judges presided over the case, dealing with 600 Philadelphia lawyers. A staggering 26,400 claimants stepped forward, and their written testimony filled more than 100,000 pages, bound in 323 volumes.

At one point, family friend and namesake Henrietta Garrett Ferguson claimed that she and Garrett's maid, Carthage Churchville, had seen a will but that it later had gone missing. Churchville must have hidden the will, Ferguson claimed, and she knew where: in the casket in which Garrett was buried.

The sensational claim gained such notoriety that an armed guard had to be put at the grave site day and night to prevent would-be robbers; there'd been anonymous threats to bomb the tomb open.

On Sept. 24, 1937, the Orphans' Court granted an order to exhume. "There is a reasonable possibility, if not a probability, that a testamentary paper may be discovered," read the order. "If a lost will should be found in her casket, a service would be done the deceased, as her final wishes would be carried out."

The head- and footstone were removed, along with a top layer of grass, according to the 1965 book The Garrett Snuff Fortune by C. A. Weslager. When work halted for the day, eight witnesses made footprints in the soil and had the imprints sprinkled with powder. Not until the same witnesses proved the imprints were undisturbed could work continue the next day.

At 11 a.m. on Oct. 26, under the eyes of 22 lawyers, officials, and witnesses, Garrett's coffin was searched for 32 minutes. No will was found.

According to Weslager's book, a canvas tent had been erected over the plot, with "electric lights strung for the motion pictures cameras which recorded every move."

And now, 75 years later, a recording from one of those cameras will be publicly screened for the first time since its identification.

Schwartz, a founder of the Secret Cinema film society, is showing the film on Friday night at Laurel Hill Cemetery itself, just around the corner from where Garrett is buried.

To celebrate Friday the 13th, viewers can watch the clip on an outdoor screen set up by Laurel Hill staff. Since there's little open space, however, people will have to sit on and around graves.

At Laurel Hill on Wednesday, Schwartz said he was prepared for a good show.

"We had over 150 people sign up before the publicity, and usually most people buy tickets at the door," Schwartz said.

Schwartz will tell the Garrett story before the screening, which will be followed by the 1959 film Plan 9 From Outer Space, often called one of the worst films ever made.

Tickets to the event are $10 each, and guests are invited to bring blankets, chairs, food, and drink.

As for the fortune, the case wasn't settled until 1951, when three legitimate heirs — all first cousins who had never met Garrett — split the money three ways. Most of the fortune, ultimately valued at $21,298,940.86, ended up going to pay for the various costs of the trial. After taxes, each heir received between $2 million and $3 million.

All three heirs died before they could receive their money; Howard Sigismund Kretschmar left his third to his daughter Constance Kretschmar Mock, while his brother Herman Adolph Kretschmar left his share to nephew Wilson Primm Kretschmar, Jr.

The final heir, Johann Peter Christian Schäfer, was unlucky enough to live in Germany when the courts were determining the inheritance.

Invoking Congress's "Trading with the Enemy Act," the Attorney General on November 13, 1942, issued Vesting Order No. 358, seizing "all right, title, interest, and claim of Johann P. Christian Schäfer I in and to the Estate of Henrietta E. Garrett deceased."

With one third of the money in the possession of the U.S. government, every citizen essentially became a recipient of the Garrett snuff fortune. It may not have been the way they wanted, but everyone eventually got their share.

Contact staff writer Jonathan Lai at 215-854-5289 or jlai@philly.com.


Screening   Friday the 13th double feature The Secret Cinema presents Garrett exhumation film, followed by Plan 9 from Outer Space. Starts 9 p.m., Friday, July 13, Laurel Hill Cemetery, 3822 Ridge Avenue. Tickets: $10. Information: 215-228-8200, http://thelaurelhillcemetery.org.

Screening Friday the 13th double feature The Secret Cinema presents Garrett exhumation film, followed by Plan 9 from Outer Space. Starts at 9 p.m., Friday, July 13, Laurel Hill Cemetery, 3822 Ridge Avenue. Tickets: $10. Information: http://thelaurelhillcemetery.org, 215-228-8200.

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