crawling from the wreckage

Spread the love

I haven’t been this excited since my first trip to Disneyland. After 22 years of visiting cemeteries, this little — somewhat macabre — hobby of mine has risen to nearly the same level as a visit to Walt Disney’s theme parks. Does that sound weird? Not to me it doesn’t. I have been to cemeteries all over the country. I’ve been awed by some of the monuments built to honor the memory of celebrities. I have been surprised by some of the more modest grave markers noting the spot where a world-renowned figure is laid to rest.  And I have been puzzled by how many beloved public figures lay — for one reason or another — in an unmarked grave. Getting past the locked gates of Mount Vernon Cemetery is like the “holy grail” of grave hunting.

Mount Vernon Cemetery was a premier, first-class burial option for the crème de la crème of Philadelphia’s wealthiest and most prominent members of society. Opened in 1856, Mount Vernon occupies 28 acres that once belonged to philanthropist Robert Ralston. His estate was sold and divided between Mount Vernon Cemetery and Mount Peace Cemetery that sits just on the other side of a barely-noticeable fence. Its massive gatehouse was designed by John Notman, who designed the Italianate-styled gatehouse for “friendly rival” Laurel Hill Cemetery, just across Ridge Avenue. Notman’s instructions for the Mount Vernon gatehouse were: “make it grander.” Mount Vernon began accepting burials not long after its founding. Some families (read: rich and white) were a bit put off by the close proximity of some gravesites in relation the neighboring Mount Peace. Mount Peace accepted burials of all races, including Irish and African-Americans, commonly shunned by other cemeteries in the area — Mount Vernon included. In spite of this, Mount Vernon’s reputation as a beautiful, peaceful, palatial garden cemetery grew and it flourished among its contemporaries.

In 1973, a lawyer from Washington, DC acquired ownership of Mount Vernon. Being an absentee landlord proved detrimental to the once-celebrated cemetery. No plots were sold after 1968 and the gates were often locked. Loved ones wishing to visit a family member’s resting place were required to make an appointment and, upon arrival, were escorted to the grave and watched until the visit concluded. Soon, appointment requests went unanswered and the grounds — and graves — fell into a state of disrepair. Vegetation took over, weaving thick cocoons of invasive weeds around the grave markers, monuments and statuary that dot Mount Vernon’s landscape. Vandals broke into the cemetery, removing the precious bronze doors from mausoleums to sell for scrap. Some homeless people made the grounds their temporary residence. The place became an eyesore and a sad testimony to what it once was.

Until 2021… when a Philadelphia court ordered the cemetery be placed in conservatorship. Enter the Mount Vernon Cemetery Conservation Company, a volunteer non-profit that seeks both physical and monetary support in an effort to bring Mount Vernon Cemetery back to its glory. For several years, MVCCC has recruited a group of eager volunteers to clean, cut, gather and otherwise maintain the grounds as best they can. A massive job ahead of them, the group has made a noticeable amount of headway, but still have a daunting amount of work to be done.

This past Saturday (April 15, 2023), for only the second time in twenty years, Mount Vernon opened its usually locked gates for a guided tour… and you bet I was right there. As a matter of fact, I was a half hour early. Around 10 AM, an estimated group of 75 to 100 anxious taphophiles assembled for an adventure that our informative tour guide prefaced as “either the short version, the long version or the very long version, depending on how receptive you guys are.” We were there for nearly two-and-a-half hours. Evidently, we were really receptive.

Our first stop was the staggeringly impressive memorial to Julia Hawks Gardel.

Julia was a teacher at an all female seminary in Philadelphia. In 1859, while on a trip to Syria, Julia and her traveling party were attacked and murdered by a group of thieves. Her husband Bertrand, also a Philadelphia teacher (and friend of famed painter Thomas Eakins), arranged for her body to be returned to Philadelphia for burial at Mount Vernon. Distraught at the loss of his wife, Bertrand commissioned premier Belgian sculptor Guillaume Geefs to create a memorial to Julia. Installed in 1864, the monument features a 25-foot pyramid adorned with large marble statues representing the continents of Asia, Europe and Africa. A figure representing America sits atop the pyramid. Just below that figure are figures of “Faith” and “Hope” holding a carved relief of Julia. Betrand spent an estimated $36,000 on the memorial. That’s equivalent to two million dollars today. Bertrand is featured in Thomas Eakins’s painting The Chess Game. He passed away in 1895 and joined his wife in a vault beneath the pyramid. The Gardel Monument was used in brochures and advertising for Mount Vernon Cemetery for years. Our tour guide noted that when MVCCC opened the cemetery in 2021, the Gardel monument was completely covered with weeds and vines and total obscured.

Just across from the Gardel monument is a recently cleared area containing the Ivins family plot.

The arrival of autumn in the Philadelphia area means a few things — cooler temperatures, the annual burning of Camden, New Jersey, the possible appearance of the Phillies in post-season play and Ivins Spiced Wafers showing up on supermarket shelves. Those familiar orange boxes contain a seasonally anticipated treat that has delighted Philadelphia appetites for over 100 years. J.S. Ivins began producing biscuits, crackers and those famous spiced wafers in the 19th century and his work was carried on by his son Eugene. The product is now produced at an Alabama commercial bakery, that also makes Ivins’ nearly identical competitor Sweetzels. They are the original purveyors of the “pumpkin spice” craze.

A little further along the narrow path we followed is the towering, angel-topped marker for the Bergdoll family.

Louis Bergdoll was a successful brewer in the section of Philadelphia that has come to be known as “Brewerytown.” Bergdoll produced a wide variety of beer at his massive plant that occupied a full city block. However, his business was shut down during Prohibition and never was able to rebound after the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed. Emma Bergdoll, also interred here, famously opposed her son Grover’s induction into World War I military service. She brandished a loaded gun and screamed at authorities who came for Grover. Grover, however, had escaped to Germany to avoid service.

Nearby is the Sauers mausoleum.

Henry Sauers was elected president of the Bergdoll Brewing Company in 1902. The company grew exponentially under Sauers, until Prohibition put an end to the success. (Note the missing doors and the wood planks installed to prevent further vandalism.)

The Fielemeyer mausoleum is an anomaly among Mount Vernon’s structures.

Although vandals have taken its doors, two fully intact, undisturbed stained glass windows flank the entrance. Our knowledgeable guide told the group that this mausoleum was encased in tightly knit vines that obviously protected the glass for all these years.

Just ahead, is the unusual monument atop the grave of Leonaura Monroe.

Volunteers have taken to calling this “The Big Baseball,” for obvious reasons. A nearby tree, it is surmised, is holding the big ball in place on its tiny base.

In 1867, the derelict Second Presbyterian Church burial ground on Arch Street was closed and 2,500 bodies were moved to Mount Vernon — which the church felt was a viable, thriving choice for reinternment. Little did they know….

Among the graves moved from Second Presbyterian Church is that of Christian Febiger.

Known as “Old Denmark,” Febiger was a commander during the American Revolution and a close confidant of George Washington. Febiger participated in important Revolutionary War battles including Bunker Hill, Yorktown, Quebec, Brandywine, Monmouth and Stony Point. He was the only soldier to do so (as later noted by the folks at Ripley’s Believe It or Not!). He was a member of the fraternal organization Society of the Cincinnati, boasting colleagues like Alexander Hamilton and George Washington. At the end of the war, he was given the title brigadier general, but, as a businessman, Febiger was content to use the more impressive title of “colonel.”

About fifty or so feet from Febiger’s grave is a collection of plush toys that is revealed to be a fox den.

It seems this family of foxes steal mementos from children’s graves at nearby Mount Peace Cemetery and stash them here. They are sometimes spotted carrying the toys around in their mouths, as though they were kits (baby foxes).

Along the main walkway is the grave of Charles Fechter.

Charles Fechter was a famous and revered actor in Europe. He performed in dozens of plays that had long impressive runs. In 1870, he came to the United States and remained here until his death. Fechter was widely accepted as “the greatest Hamlet” of the 19th century. In his later years, alcohol got the better of the notoriously temperamental Fechter and he lived in near-seclusion on a farm in Quakertown, Pennsylvania. He died at 54 years old and was buried at Mount Vernon, beneath this ornate marker that once held a bust of the actor, which has since disappeared. A jagged hole remains as a reminder.

Not too far from Fechter’s grave is the Drew family plot and the grave of one of Fechter’s biggest admirers.

John Drew and his wife Louisa Lane Drew were the patriarch and matriarch of a multigenerational acting family. John began his career as an actor and later became the owner and manager of Philadelphia’s Arch Street Theater. His wife Louisa was somewhat of a child prodigy on the stage and later joined her husband in managing and booking the Arch Street Theater. John died at 34, after tripping and falling at a party for his daughter Georgiana (who would later marry Maurice Barrymore and give birth to John, Ethel and Lionel). He was originally buried at Philadelphia’s Glenwood Cemetery but was moved when Glenwood was abandoned in the 1920s.

Also in this plot is Sidney Drew and his son S. Rankin Drew.

Sidney Drew was the son of John and Louise Drew. Carrying on the family tradition, Sidney was and actor and performed a comedy act with his wife Gladys billed as “Mr. & Mrs. Sidney Drew.” Their act was heavy on marital satire and was popular in vaudeville and later, in films. Sidney was often billed as “The Uncle of Lionel, Ethel and John Barrymore,” as he was, via his sister’s marriage. Sidney’s son S. Rankin Drew was an actor and director in the early part of the 20th century, appearing in or behind the camera on over three dozen films in just a four year period. His promising career was cut short when, as a pilot in World War I, his plane was shot down over France. He was just 26.

The crowning glory of the Drew family plot is John Barrymore.

After much success as a stage actor, John Barrymore — nicknamed “The Great Profile” — entered Hollywood where he enjoyed a fruitful and critically-acclaimed career in such films as Svengali, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Grand Hotel, The Sea Beast and many others, some of which have been inducted into the National Film Registry. Later in his career, he actually parodied his dramatic roles on radio and in film, in a surprising turn at self-deprecating humor. He died in 1942 and was interred at Los Angeles’s Calvary Cemetery. In 1980, John’s son John Drew Barrymore moved his father’s remains to Mount Vernon, fulfilling a request to be buried with the Drew family. John’s grave went unmarked for years until a fan group installed a marker in 1992. The “Alas Poor Yorick” quote alludes to John’s numerous performances as “Hamlet” and his title of “The Greatest Hamlet of the 20th Century,” a successor to his idol and fellow Mount Vernon resident Charles Fechter. (For those keeping score, actress Drew Barrymore is the great-great-grandchild of John Drew.)

There are many other graves yet to be uncovered by the good folks and determined volunteers of the Mount Vernon Cemetery Conservation Company. However, there are two that may never be found at Mount Vernon. Conflicting information from several unreliable sources put the final resting places of Judy Lewis and Dorothy McHugh at Mount Vernon. This is debatable. (Isn’t the internet filled with unreliable sources?)

Judy Lewis was the illegitimate product of an extra-marital union between 22 year-old actress Loretta Young and 34 year-old actor Clark Gable. While filming Call of the Wild, Clark Gable (who was to married to Ria Langham at the time) had a possibly, though doubtful consensual affair with Loretta Young. (Young, just a few years before her death in 2000, revealed that she was raped by Gable.) An embarrassed and fearful Loretta Young, a devout Catholic, hid the pregnancy and fled to Europe to give birth out of the judgmental American public eye. Upon her return, she claimed that she had adopted the baby. As Judy grew up, her resemblance to Gable was quite apparent. Judy only met her biological father once and nothing was ever admitted for many, many years. When she died in 2011, it was alleged that she was interred at the still-closed Mount Vernon Cemetery. Although she lived in suburban Philadelphia, evidence says this is unlikely.

Dorothy McHugh was a one-time Ziegfeld Follies girl and featured in an uncredited role in Artists and Models with Jack Benny. She is, however, best known as the original “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” Lady in a series of television commercials for Lifeline Systems medical devices in the 1980s. Dorothy passed away in 1995 at a Philadelphia assisted living facility and may or may not have been buried at Mount Vernon. According to our tour guide, who has access to burial records, it is likely that Dorothy McHugh is buried elsewhere.

At a little past noon, the tour group was escorted to the front gate. Once everyone exited, a giant chain and padlock were once again secured in place, only to be opened…. who knows when?

* * * * *