At the intersection of Dunks Ferry and Mechanicsville roads in the Far Northeast, not far from the Philadelphia County line, a weathered utility pole endures the sun. The shadow it casts makes a cross in the grass between a gravel parking lot and a lonely soccer field with overgrown weeds and a single goal. On the utility pole, someone has spray-painted, in big black letters, the word “POTTER’S.”
Across the street, boys run drills on a baseball field near Junod Playground while their coach stands with his thumbs hooked in his belt loops. Their cleats kick up dust around the infield diamond. But on this side of the street, the hush of the wind in the trees and an occasional car coming down the hill on Century Lane drown out any other sound.
Beyond the soccer field’s goal, in the center of a windbreak, a small space framed by two concrete median barriers opens near the ground. The opening is not visible from midfield. The trees in the windbreak look like the beginning of the woods, but beyond the barriers is instead a mown field 500 feet deep and 200 wide. This was Philadelphia’s last potter’s field; hundreds of unclaimed people are buried here.
“The boy’s headstone was right about in the center,” says Nancy McClernan, who grew up in nearby Bensalem. McClernan remembers riding her bike down Century Lane toward the Parkwood playground to use the pool in the summer with other kids from Bensalem. “Walking past that grave was the most unnerving aspect of going to Parkwood and back,” she writes in a blog about her experiences growing up nearby.
Back then, in the 1960s, the potter’s field at Dunks Ferry and Mechanicsville contained a single headstone. The inscription read, “Heavenly Father, Bless This Unknown Boy, February 25, 1957.”
The unknown boy, like the other people buried in this city cemetery, was never claimed. He was found in a cardboard box in Fox Chase and despite an investigation that lasted decades, was never identified. In 1998, his body and headstone were moved to Ivy Hill Cemetery. Now, in the center of the field, right about where the stone stood, a pair of groundhogs peak out of a hole leading into a network of tunnels in a mound of lumpy earth.
Patty McCarthy, who moved to the neighborhood near the potter’s field in 1965, says that many times in conversation with people in the neighborhood she finds that they do not even know about the existence of the city cemetery.
“When we were kids we would go and put flowers on the [boy in the box’s] headstone,” McCarthy says. Detectives working on the cold case moved the boy’s body and headstone to Ivy Hill Cemetery in 1998. The rest of the small cement markers sunk into the lumpy earth over time. McCarthy says she thinks the ground has subsided as the cheap fiberboard coffins deteriorated and caved in.
“Kids used to use ATVs back there, and they were just ripping up the land,” McCarthy says. Crushed beer cans and bottles pile up near trailheads on the far side of the field that lead down to the Poquessing Creek. Poquessing, Nancy McClernan notes in her blog, means “place of the mice” in Lenape.
A brass plaque with the words “City Cemetery” affixed to large stone along Dunks Ferry Road used to announce the location of the potter’s field, says McCarthy. Someone stole the plaque long ago, and now that the boy’s headstone is gone and the other cement blocks can’t be seen, it’s hard to tell the potter’s field ever existed. If it wasn’t for the spray paint on the utility pole or the freshly-cut weeds and mounded earth, the cemetery could be mistaken for just another soccer field.
The term potter’s field comes from the Bible. After Judas hanged himself, the priests who paid him to betray Jesus used his 30 silver pieces to purchase a plot of ground for his burial in the field where potters extracted clay for their work. This land was not otherwise useful for agriculture. The term became a catch-all for public burial grounds, where the poor and unidentified were interred.
Common Council established the first potter’s field in Philadelphia at Washington Square on September 21, 1705. Soon after, a councilman leased the land to graze his cattle, according to a historian writing for the Inquirer in 1931. During the Revolutionary War, large pits were dug here along Walnut Street “and filled by coffins piled one upon the other,” wrote the historian.
Other potter’s fields were spread around the city but developers and city planners did not hesitate to build over them. In 1953, two men were gardening in their backyards on the 300 block of Salaignac Street in Manayunk when they unearthed human bones. They consulted the 5th police district, according to a report in the Evening Bulletin. Police found that the area, once known as “Bucky’s Hill, was used by the old Roxborough poor house as a cemetery. The poor house went out of existence about 1850.”
One of the first potter’s fields in the Northeast was established in 1786 at the junction of the Byberry and Poquessing Creeks, not far from the city cemetery at Dunks Ferry and Mechanicsville.
For the first half of the 20th century, the coroner’s office buried unclaimed bodies in a cemetery at West Luzerne Street between North 2nd Street and Whitaker Avenue. Prior to 1956, when the city started using the field at Dunks Ferry and Mechanicsville, the coroner buried an average of 100 unclaimed bodies every year, according to a report by the Evening Bulletin. These included victims of the 1918 influenza pandemic and the increasing number of poor and unknown decedents in the city during the depression, who either went unidentified or unclaimed because their relatives were unable to afford burial costs.
Patty McCarthy, who moved back to the neighborhood as an adult in the late-1980s, says the cemetery on Dunks Ferry Road was initially maintained by prisoners from Holmesburg who were trucked in to work on the prison farm established there in 1931. The city originally planned to build a new prison on the farm, but those plans fell through and food grown on the farm was used to feed city prisoners, school children and patients in city hospitals.
“They put it out here because it’s as far out from the center of the city as it could go,” says McCarthy.
Prisoners were still digging graves and helping transport bodies to the cemetery into the early-1980s.
In the first 16 years after the coroner’s office was rebranded as the medical examiner’s office in 1955, investigators identified all but 18 of the 75,000 bodies it examined. In August 1957 the examiner’s office buried the most famous, if still unidentified, person interred in the cemetery, just a year after it opened. The headstone, purchased from a burial fund raised by city detectives and other donors, was placed above the grave of the “boy in the box.”
In 1964, the office buried only one adult in the potter’s field, a testament to the increased diligence of investigators and a growing network of missing persons agencies. The Evening Bulletin reported that only two of the 123 bodies brought into the medical examiner’s office unidentified in 1970 remained unidentified at the time of burial.
But as early as 1968, a concerned resident wrote to the Inquirer to complain about the cemetery’s condition. “This pauper’s burying ground used to be one of the best kept cemeteries in the city,” wrote the resident. “Now the grass and weeds are high and some of the graves have sunk several inches.”
By 1975, when 18 more unclaimed bodies were buried in the field, the remains of 446 people had been interred there. Five of the corpses buried that year were children whose families could not afford to pay the average $1,500 to $1,800 for undertaker’s fees at the time. The medical examiner’s office doubled up 16 of the bodies in their fiberboard coffins to conserve grave space. One of the bodies sharing a coffin with an infant whose parents could not afford a private burial was James Nolan, who, an Evening Bulletin reporter noted, wore white oxford shoes, gray striped slacks and a long-sleeved green shirt, when a group of children found him starved to death in an abandoned house on the 2800 block of N. 12th Street.
“All he had for identification was a doctor’s prescription and a bus ticket from Baltimore,” Jim McGovern, chief investigator for the medical examiner’s office, told the Evening Bulletin. Investigators could not confirm Nolan’s identity or find any relatives or friends to claim his body.
This group burial was the first in more than two years. The deceased were kept in a room in the city morgue where the temperature never went above 20 degrees. Burials continued every two or three years as bodies accrued.
“Lots of people don’t think it’s possible. But it’s very, very easy to die completely unknown in a big city,” said McGovern.
When McGovern attended the funerals, which he often did, he said a Catholic prayer. When medical investigator Al Rosenblatt attended, he said a Jewish prayer. By mid-century, Catholic, Jewish and Veteran’s organizations were paying for the burial of an increasing number of unclaimed decedents. But for those without such affiliations, a group of parishioners from nearby St. Anselm Roman Catholic Church, led by Gerald Whartenby, a city detective and member of the church, started attending burials in the city cemetery in the mid-1970s.
Less than a decade later, the pace of burials at the cemetery slowed significantly. Fewer than 70 bodies were buried there in the six years between 1975 and 1981. But then by the middle of the decade, significantly more unclaimed or unidentified bodies were being processed by the medical examiner’s office every year. In 1985, the Inquirer reported, the city ran out of the 5-by-5 inch cement blocks with grave numbers inscribed on them which were placed above every grave. The city maintenance worker who made the blocks for years quit and, according to an investigator at the examiner’s office at the time, budget constraints and red tape made it difficult to procure more markers.
Starting the following year, unclaimed bodies were cremated, unless they remained unidentified or if impoverished relatives objected to cremation.
The increase in unclaimed bodies, says Patty McCarthy, can be traced to a change in rules concerning death benefits. Prior to 1981, friends and more distant relatives could claim Social Security benefits to provide private burial services. The federal government changed those regulations allowing only children or spouses to collect those benefits.
Increasing burial costs and a lack of funding led the city to stop burying the unclaimed at the city cemetery altogether soon after.
For the next 25 years, the cremated remains were kept in the medical examiner’s office in labeled bags and cardboard boxes. In 2010, 1,500 of these remains were buried at Laurel Hill Cemetery with a single headstone reading, “1500 Citizens, Consigned to Earth, City of Philadelphia, 2010.” The office still maintains a room with the remains of the unclaimed who died after 2010.