The Curious Case Of Body Snatching At Lebanon Cemetery

 

Chapel of the Lebanon Cemetery

“Chapel of the Lebanon Cemetery” by G. Dubois, 1850 | Source: The Library Company of Philadelphia

Lebanon Cemetery, once the final resting place for some of Philadelphia’s most prominent African American citizens, has long disappeared from both city maps and a population’s consciousness. Founded in 1849 by Jacob C. White, one of Philadelphia’s wealthiest and most prominent African-American citizens, it was once at city’s southern edge, easily accessible to mourners who could not afford more rural cemeteries and one of two public African American cemeteries in the city–Olive Cemetery, also incorporated in 1849, was located at the intersection of Girard and Belmont Avenues in West Philadelphia. Several hundred African American soldiers were buried at Lebanon in a lot reserved specifically for veterans of the Civil War. However, in December 1882 the Philadelphia Press made a grim discovery connecting this culturally historic resting place and one of the city’s most prominent medical schools with the following sensational headline: Graveyard Ghouls Arrested with a Cargo of Corpses. … The Ghastly Work Done for Jefferson Medical College. … Thousands of Bodies Taken for Dissection. LEBANON CEMETERY ALMOST EMPTY.

Using a 1895 Philadelphia Bromley atlas and Google Maps to approximate, this bus stop stands directly in the center of Lebanon Cemetery's former grounds | Photo: Michael Bixler

Using a 1895 Philadelphia Bromley Atlas and Google Maps as guides, this SEPTA bus stop at 19th Street and Snyder Avenue stands approximately in the center of Lebanon Cemetery’s former grounds | Photo: Michael Bixler

At the intersection of Passyunk Road and Penrose Ferry Road a low stone wall fronted Lebanon Cemetery with an iron gate that opened onto a spacious lawn. Inside: a chapel, tombstones, a sprinkling of tall monuments, and row of large trees.

Although the city plan showed an orderly grid of streets, none existed in actuality at the time beyond 21st Street to the west, Dickinson Street to the north, and a partial 16th Street to the east. To the south and east was “truck land,” where crops were grown for Philadelphia markets. Just a few houses were nearby the cemetery–eight across the street in a neat little row and four scattered to the cemetery’s southeast. There were also a number of undeveloped lots. Being mostly rural and dark at night it’s plausible to imagine the theft there was aided by a hole in the cemetery’s fence, making it easy to sneak into and to get away unseen.

Jacob C. White, Jr., 1902 | Source: “Evidences of Progress Among Colored People: Philadelphia” by G.F. Richings, 1902

It’s difficult to judge exactly how much credence to lend to the spectacular charges made in the Press’s scoop. A number of aspects are undoubtedly true: that 19th century medical schools struggled to obtain enough cadavers to teach students human anatomy through dissection, that bodysnatchers sometimes stole recently buried corpses from graveyards to sell to medical schools, and that African Americans and the poor were more likely to end up on the dissecting table than whites and the privileged. The Press alleged that Lebanon Cemetery was uniquely vulnerable since, they said, “superstitious” African Americans neglected the resting places of their ancestors. They reported that the cemetery had been systematically robbed for over two decades and that thousands of bodies had been taken for dissection. Looking back now the newspaper’s reporting reads like sensational hogwash geared toward filling column inches.

The newspaper claimed that its reporters patiently tracked nocturnal comings and goings between the cemetery and Jefferson Medical College since March of that year and factually declared that they had physically apprehended the graverobbers themselves, making a citizen’s arrest. Adhering to complete truth or not, details of their self-styled exploit poured forth, from the newspaper’s first suspicions (sparked by a coy joke by a Jefferson student about the recently deceased African American bartender at a bar frequented by both reporters and students) through the culminating trials months later.

Whether or not the Press exaggerated its reporting, their revelations and first-hand apprehension of the body snatcher triggered a firestorm of anger. As the initial story was picked up by national newspapers, fury swelled among the cemetery’s lotholders—and Philadelphia’s black population in general. They quickly determined that some things were indeed badly amiss at Lebanon. In the rear section of the cemetery, past a row of large trees, a mass grave with 56 bodies was discovered. Still, the community endorsed the cemetery’s board of managers, headed by the founder’s son, John C. White, Jr., known as Jake, a man as prominent and accomplished as his father–now perhaps best remembered for establishing the African American baseball team, the Pythians, with his childhood friend Octavius Catto. Blame was instead laid on the cemetery’s superintendent. The quick conviction of the apprehended graverobbers—less than two weeks after the Press reporter’s citizen arrest—may have ended the matter.

Surgical amphitheater, Jefferson Medical College, 1890s | Source: Archives and Special Collections, Thomas Jefferson University

Surgical amphitheater, Jefferson Medical College, 1890s | Source: Archives and Special Collections, Thomas Jefferson University

But later a whole new controversy erupted with the arrest of Dr. William S. Forbes, the Jefferson University anatomy professor who oversaw the dissection room and who allegedly gave the graverobbers their orders. Forbes adamantly insisted that his only role in procuring bodies for his classes was explicitly to receive them at the door, and, furthermore, that he could not possibly have violated Pennsylvania’s law providing for the legal distribution of cadavers to medical schools since he himself had authored it. Forbes’s 1867 Anatomy Act required superintendents of state institutions—prisons, hospitals, asylums—to turn over to medical schools the bodies of those who died there (and who lacked relatives with the means to bury them). The law, however, was not popular among any of its constituents. The poor rightly saw it as a form of posthumous discrimination, superintendents tended to dismiss it, and the rural-dominated Pennsylvania Legislature disliked the idea of dissection so much they limited the law to Philadelphia and Allegheny counties.

Despite the great speed with which the graverobbers were convicted, Forbes and his supporters among Philadelphia society publicly objected to his being “railroaded” while the newspapers—for Philadelphia’s many other papers had rushed to join the Press in the excitement—were still whipping up public sentiment against the doctor. Forbes and his supporters prevailed and he did not stand trial until March 1883. He then systematically denied every charge and point of testimony made against him: where did the bodies he used in his dissecting room come from? He had never thought about it, there being legal ways to obtain cadavers. Had he ever wondered why so many of the bodies he received were African-American? No. Why were the keys to Jefferson’s dissecting room in the pocket of one of the apprehended graverobbers? He couldn’t possibly say.

forbes

William S. Forbes, date unknown | Source: Archives and Special Collections, Thomas Jefferson University

Forbes’s acquittal was met with approval by the majority of the now-rapt Philadelphia popular and medical press. Not only was it unthinkable to many that such a gentleman be implicated in such doings, but it was even possible, as the Germantown Telegraph suggested, that graverobbing was necessary to keep crowded, unkempt urban cemeteries from overflowing. The crusading Press could not suppress a note of bitter sarcasm. “It must be said,” the Press wrote, “that when Dr. Forbes’s professional and collegiate associates assert that the acquittal clears him…of any complicity with or knowledge of the bodysnatchers, they impose a tremendous strain on the evidence which it will not bear.”

In the end, graverobbing was not the fatal insult to Lebanon Cemetery. The expansion of the city was. As the streets pressing against the cemetery’s edges were cut through—the 1892 expansion of McKean Street, for instance, knocked off the cemetery’s rear corner—Lebanon began to shrink. With few other burial grounds that welcomed African Americans, the remaining space became ever more cramped. By 1900, the cemetery had dropped from its original 11 acres to less than six.

When the Philadelphia Bureau of Health ordered the cemetery to be closed in January 1901, they deemed it a “sanitary necessity” that should apply to all cemeteries in the built-up sections of the city that had reached their capacity. Once considered a healthy distance from the city, the cemetery had become a perceived menace (and was also blocking the way to the proposed development of Girard Estates). Lebanon’s companion on Passyunk Avenue, Philadelphia Cemetery, was similarly ordered closed in 1903. That year, those buried at Lebanon were moved to Eden Cemetery in Collingdale, Delaware County. Incorporated by a group of African American business men in 1902, Eden eventually received the residents of several other Philadelphia African American cemeteries, including Olive Cemetery.

The Pennsylvania Legislature did in fact pass a new Anatomy Act in 1883 designed to make it easier to legally obtain bodies for medical education, but it was only partly in response to the scandal at Lebanon. In his defense, Forbes and his colleagues in the Philadelphia Anatomists Association had been working on proposed legislation since 1881. After his acquittal, Forbes’ career continued to thrive, although he nursed an air of grievous injury, deeming the accusations and trial the “most tragic event” of his life. Upon his death in 1905, Forbes was cremated.

About the author

Erin McLeary works in museums in Philadelphia. A native Michigander, she came to Philadelphia to earn a Ph.D. in the history of science at Penn and has never left. In her spare time she enjoys running the hills of greater West Philly, exploring urban cemeteries, and figuring out new ways to get more places by bike.



4 Comments


  1. I hope something will be done based on these findings! A historical marker, or the like, would be a great start. The voices of the descendants of those interred, whose grave sites may have been desecrated, would add to this narrative. What do current city council members think about what has happened to this historic site?

  2. I am the current Historian for First African Presbyterian Church, originally located at 7th and Shippen (Bainbridge) Streets. When our Elder Jacob White Sr. opened Lebanon Cemetery, and the church sold it’s church and grounds with cemetery, our bodies were moved to Lebanon. In 2014, I found an Internment book, with bodies on our grounds from 1840 to 1870, that were moved to Lebanon. I was so happy to be able to identify persons buried– and then so pained to discover that they may not be there after all- because bodies from Lebanon were stolen. I intend to write about this tragedy. Thank you- for uplifting my ancestors story and plight.

  3. I have heard so many stories about South Philadelphia (South Philly) from my father and his siblings. I am happy to see that you intend to write about these tragedies.There are several tragedies in South Philadelphia in regards to our history being taken away. So go for it,I wish you great success with this book

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