For a city full of historic buildings, countless memorials, and massive cemeteries, Philadelphia has a muddled history with honoring the dead. The roots of Memorial Day–a time to honor those killed in active military service–stem from just after the American Civil War when folks were encouraged to visit and decorate the graves of fallen soldiers. Before that time, a soldier–whether killed in battle or merely a distinguished serviceman–may or may not have received special attention once he was buried. The lucky ones were left in peace buried alongside family. Others could have never imagined the journeys their remains have taken.
Respecting the Revolution
In 1954, Washington Square was being renovated into a place to memorialize those who died fighting for our nation’s freedom as part of a large-scale, and complicated, “Old Philadelphia” redevelopment plan, which included Society Hill, the Dock Street Market, and the establishment of Independence National Historic Park. To understand what was going on during the 1950s, you need to first understand what happened in the 1820s. A much-hyped grand tour return of the Marquis de Lafayette to America, and specifically to Philadelphia in September of 1824, coupled with the impending 50th anniversary of the Signing of the Declaration of Independence, spurred a local reinvigoration of patriotic Founding Father fervor after years of apathy.
With the death of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson on July 4, 1826, people began to realize that the events surrounding the founding of our nation were fading from memory. Up to that point, no great significance had been given to Pennsylvania’s State House aka Independence Hall. Along with the Liberty Bell, the landmark building was put up for public sale in 1816. The accompanying land, the State House yard, was destined to be cut up into building lots. There is no record of public outcry or protest. The city purchased it all for $70,000. One of the few groups concerned with the legacy of George Washington, the Society of the Cincinnati, had previously proposed to build a monument to honor “the Father of his Country” in 1810. The War of 1812 delayed their project, later known as the Citizen’s Washington Monument Fund. The memorial finally received authorization in 1823 for a 120-foot Greek Revival-inspired monument designed by William Strickland. It was to be built in the newly-renamed Washington Square at a cost of $67,000.
This patriotic awakening apparently dissipated quickly. By 1836, nothing had changed, and the Philadelphia Public Ledger published several articles concerning the complete disrepair of the area. One article described the State House as some “old barn” defaced with 40 years of bills and advertisements for fugitives, lost horses, and entertainments. It was further described as “Joseph’s coat of many colors” covering one side with two tons of paper and paste. Instead of the Washington Monument, in 1908 Washington Square would eventually become home to the Pennsylvania Volunteer aka the Washington Grays Monument in honor of the soldiers who served in the Pennsylvania Militia during the Civil War. Ultimately, a Civil War monument did not fit into the City’s plans to remake Washington Square, so the Pennsylvania Volunteer was removed–he now stands guard at the Union League on South Broad Street–and a new plan to create a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of the American Revolution was hatched. But the City needed an “unknown soldier,” so archaeologists were brought in to help uncover the proper remains.
Most Philadelphians know that Washington Square was once a potter’s field, which was a non-consecrated field designated for burials of slaves, prisoners, the poor, or anyone with no family of means to claim their body. This field was famous for its dead inmates from the notorious Walnut Street prison across the street, yellow fever victims, and both free and enslaved African Americans. During the American Revolution, both British and American soldiers were buried there in mass graves. It was up to the archeologists to dig holes and decide which bodies were which. At least nine exploratory holes were dug until they found a body they believed could be a soldier of the Revolutionary War, perhaps a victim of a musket ball. Yet, while they were fairly certain of their assessment, they admitted there was no guarantee that the body hadn’t been a British soldier. Whomever the poor man was, he now resides safely in a tomb bearing the words: “Beneath this stone rests a soldier of Washington’s army who died to give you liberty.”
Perhaps it doesn’t matter which side that soldier fought on, as it wasn’t unfounded for some soldiers to have initially served on the other side. Take the story of Brigadier General William Irvine. A graduate of Dublin University, he was a trained physician who served as a surgeon in the British Navy before immigrating to Pennsylvania in 1763. He was active in local politics, representing Pennsylvania in the Continental Congress and later in the House of Representatives. As a leader, his war-related correspondence included men such as General Washington and General Anthony Wayne. He was serving as the superintendent of military stores in Philadelphia upon his death. One expects he received full military honors during his funeral service. But where he was originally buried is a bit of a mystery. His remains were not exactly put to rest, at least not until 1952 when his body was interred for a third time. Several secondary resources generally report that Irvine was buried “within the shadow” of Independence Hall, but no definitive proof has yet been uncovered. The Philadelphia Archaeological Forum’s Historic Burial Places Database does list Independence Square as a burial ground with remains turning up as late as 1875. The second question is why Irvine’s body was moved from this original resting place.
What Lies Beneath
Historian and genealogist Charles Barker spent years culling through records searching for burial locations. He estimated “Old Philadelphia,” which included Southwark and the Northern Liberties, once held at least 120 Colonial cemeteries, of which fewer than 20 survive. Philadelphians are no longer surprised when development projects uncover long-buried and forgotten bodies. The first relocation of Irvine’s body seems to come about during the patriotic fervor of the mid-1820s. This is when entrepreneur and philanthropist James Ronaldson decided to get into the burial business. In 1826 he opened Philadelphia’s, and perhaps the nation’s, first nonsectarian cemetery. While it was independent of the local church congregations, it was still only available to white Protestants. His chosen location was in the semi-rural Moymensing township located just south of present-day South Street on a plot of land between 9th and 10th Streets and Bainbridge and Fitzwater Streets in what we today call Bella Vista.
Ronaldson is an interesting character. A proud Scot, he arrived in Philadelphia in 1794. The next year he could be found at his bakery on Landenberger’s wharf between Chestnut and Walnut Streets. After fire destroyed his bakery, he co-founded the first American typefounding business in 1797, which he ran until his brother took over the operations in 1823. This left him time to help found the Franklin Institute in 1824, while becoming its first president, a position he held for 18 years. He was also involved in a boys’ school in Southwark, a founding member of the Thistle Society, a member of the St. Andrew’s Society, and a Free Mason. As a property developer, he built 11 three-story brick houses on the west side of 9th Street between Cedar (South) and Shippen (Bainbridge) Streets. In 1829, he was petitioning the city for water access as he was having trouble renting the houses without it.
Ronaldson spared no expense in his new cemetery. He built a grand main entrance with an iron gate flanked by a caretaker’s house on one side and a “bell house” on the other. The bell house served an important purpose. When a person died unexpectedly they were placed inside the house for three days with a string in their hands attached to a bell. The caretaker’s job was to listen for the sound of the bell ringing. In Christopher Morley’s Travels in Philadelphia, published in 1920, the author speculates this practice of preventing people from being buried alive would have caught the attention of Edgar Allen Poe who lived in Philadelphia at the time Ronaldson’s opened. Morley also mentions an obelisk, Sacred to the Memory of Scottish Strangers, erected on the grounds.
By all accounts the cemetery was artfully landscaped full of trees and flowers and thought to be one of the most beautiful of its time. But how else might an enterprising man spur sales of cemetery plots? Perhaps an area featuring Revolutionary War Heroes might do the trick. Several early 20th century secondhand accounts of the cemetery state that Revolutionary War soldiers buried there were transferred from an old burial ground behind Independence Hall. Finding primary sources and determining exactly how that came about has proved difficult. A perusal of Ronaldson’s Cemetery records at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania created even further questions. The men identified as soldiers were reported as dying between 1804 and 1839. This makes their time of reinternment difficult to pin down. The bones of General Irvine were reported to have arrived circa 1827, but did others follow later? The list of internments by years did not yield any answers, as the names of these soldiers do not appear to be included.
By the 1920s Ronaldson’s Cemetery was struggling to survive. During the early 1930s new managers kicked out the roosters and goats now encamped among the tombstones and played up their Revolutionary War heroes in hopes of making over the site into a national shrine. By the 1940s, with no change, the city moved to take over the land and disinter the estimated 13,500 bodies buried there. In March of 1950, workers began moving bodies to the Forest Hills Cemetery in the Somerton section of Philadelphia. The former cemetery was eventually turned into a playground in the mid-1960s with a recreation center dedicated in 1979.
But what of those Revolutionary War soldiers who started their afterlife journey in the shadow of Independence Hall? Here is where yet another mystery lies. In the late 1940s, Dr. John Craig Roak, the rector of Gloria Dei (Old Swedes’) Church, learning of the plan to move the bodies, visited the cemetery in search of all the soldiers who had identifiable headstones. He found General Irvine, Captain William Monroe, Captain Abraham Parsons, Captain William McFadden, Captain Robert Rae, and Captain John Barber. Dr. Roak arranged for these soldiers to be reinterred in a special corner of the Old Swedes’ Cemetery at Christian and Swanson Streets.
When visiting Old Swedes’ today, you will find a plaque, dedicated in 1952 by the Pennsylvania Chapter of the National Society of the Daughters of Founders and Patriots of America, that reads “Here reset these tombstones of Revolutionary officers brought from Ronaldson’s Cemetery, thereby saving the same from destruction and oblivion.” The featured list is of eight soldiers, however, does not match the names of those originally identified by Dr. Roak. If you pay close attention you will find no mention of Capt. William Monroe, Capt. William McFadden, and Capt. John Barber, who apparently never made it to Old Swedes. But five other soldiers took their place. Yet another mystery to solve.