Never Enough Time

The question still remains: "Why were so many burials left behind?" As the project historian, I have been researching this question at local and national archives. According to the records of the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia (housed at the American Baptist Historical Society in Atlanta, Georgia), the entire burial transfer enterprise may have lasted only four months from November 21, 1859 to April 1, 1860. This is a rather short amount of time given to move burials from a cemetery that operated from at least 1702 to 1859.

The Arch Street Project is one year old now, and I like to think we have a pretty good understanding of what goes into the removal and reinternment of burials. Since November of 2016, the project team has dedicated many hours of labor in facilitating the removal and care of the hundreds of individuals’ remains recovered from the Arch Street construction site in preparation for their eventual re-internment. Such work would be impossible to reproduce using nineteenth-century technology. Without the benefit of modern construction and transportation equipment, one can only imagine the time it would take for the transfer alone, something attempted by the trustees of the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia in 1860. This Herculean task required moving thousands of individuals’ remains, including gravestones, coffins, and all material associated with each burial, across a river and over several daunting hills to Mount Moriah Cemetery, a distance of 5.9 miles along modern finished roads. And as we know, hundreds of interments from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries never made it across town.

At first glance, time was not a problem. In 1852, the congregation had out-grown the church bordering the burial ground, and work commenced on a new church at Arch and Broad Streets (across from where the Arch Street United Methodist Church now stands) and just north of City Hall. And, considerations may have been made concerning use of the burial ground at this time, as the frequency of burials immediately decreased. In the seven years following this move, records of only 17 burials exist—a clear drop from the roughly 600 burials that took place in just the 30 years prior to 1852.[1]

What prevented the trustees from moving forward until a public meeting seven years later is a mystery. One possibility is the lack of an appropriate new location for burials. Until the rural cemetery movement picked up in Philadelphia, urban burial grounds had become overcrowded and (it was thought) a threat to public health. When Mount Moriah Cemetery opened in 1855 it provided less expensive space than its two rural predecessors, the Laurel Hill and Woodlands Cemeteries.

Whatever the reason for delay, the ultimate decision to announce its intention at a public meeting on November 21, 1859 is not yet clear.[2] Nor is there any reason yet available for the Church’s acceptance of the tight window they received when seeking permission to commence with the relocation one month later. On December 13, 1859, the Board of Health gave the trustees permission “to administer the remains of the Dead in the Burial Ground La Grange Place upon the payment of Fifty Dollars provided that the same be done under the direction of this Board and provided further that this Permit Shall not extend beyond the First day of April 1860.”[3] We do not yet know why so short a time was given, but investigations into the relationship between the church and the Board of Health are underway. Whatever the reason, church officials agreed and on January 3, 1860, the trustees received a work permit, leaving just under three months to move what current estimates suggest could be anywhere from 2,000 to 2,500 individuals to the new site purchased: Lot 112, in Mount Moriah Cemetery.

Many possible explanations have surfaced in the last year for the hundreds of remains discovered on Arch Street and this is certainly not the definitive end of our ongoing research into why so many graves remained left behind. These new pieces of evidence do not yet provide an explanation, but they do help guide further research. Concerns among contemporaries about reviving past epidemics, the corrupt practices of less-than-reputable nineteenth-century workmen, or even just the complacency of the public toward its past may have indeed contributed to the outcome found by modern construction crews and archaeologists beginning last autumn. Whatever the contributing cause or causes, a rushed mid-winter timeline could not have helped.

[1] The ongoing list of interments comes from a wide range of records including those kept at the American Baptist Historical Society in Atlanta, GA and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and Philadelphia City Archives. A more detailed citation of sources will be made available in the future.

[2] Church minutes for November 21, 1859, Record Group 2, Archives of the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia, American Baptist Historical Society, Mercer University, Atlanta, Georgia

[3] Board of Health license agreement, December 13, 1859, Record Group 7.3, Archives of the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia, American Baptist Historical Society, Mercer University, Atlanta, Georgia