Philadelphia Inquirer, The (PA)
October 9, 1988
A TALE OF 47,000 BODIES, FINAL RESTING
Author: Donna Shaw, Inquirer Staff Writer
Four decades ago, the deal seemed pretty clear.
Thomas A. Morris, president of Evergreen Memorial Park in
Bensalem Township, was contracted to dig up 47,000 sets of
remains from the run-down Lafayette Cemetery in South
Under the terms of a 1946 Common Pleas Court decree, the
bodies were to be buried again on 40 of the 156 acres owned by
Evergreen, complete with caskets, drainage, new bronze markers,
roadways and perpetual maintenance of the grounds.
The 40 acres were renamed Lafayette Cemetery. Morris
estimated his costs at $105,000.
In return, Morris received clear title to the old cemetery
property, bounded by Passyunk Avenue and Ninth, 10th, Federal
and Wharton Streets. It was assessed at $166,000.
Now, 42 years later, that seemingly straightforward
transaction has become the focal point of a story so complicated
it may never be completely told: The story of those bodies, and
21,500 more Morris was paid to dig up from two other city
cemeteries and rebury elsewhere.
The bodies from Lafayette - described in a 1946 newspaper
story as "Forty- seven thousand persons who probably thought
they were through with arguments when they were buried" - were
dumped in unmarked trenches that Bensalem officials say bear
little resemblance to a cemetery blueprint that shows
individual, numbered lots.
"No one really watched Morris to see that he . . . did what
he was supposed to do," said the Rev. Canon J. Perry Cox,
president of Lafayette Cemetery.
"My recollection was that he was the type of guy who could
sell the Brooklyn Bridge," said state Superior Court Judge Frank
J. Montemuro Jr., who in 1958 was the lawyer appointed as
receiver for the Evergreen Memorial Park Association when
Morris, now deceased, got into legal and financial trouble. ''.
. . He was glib as hell."
The tale began to unravel late last month, when two anonymous
callers told township officials that a pair of unmarked graves
had been uncovered inadvertently at the Bensalem cemetery during
a construction project. The cemetery is on Neshaminy Boulevard,
across from Neshaminy Mall.
Although those two bodies, as it turned out, had been buried
more recently, township officials said it soon became apparent
that none of the remains transferred from the old Lafayette
Cemetery had been reburied in marked graves.
After spending a week and a half digging test shafts at the
site, officials last week said they had uncovered what probably
are 32 trenches, each 300 feet long.
Inside the trenches are stacks of wooden boxes, presumably
containing most of the remains. Officials do not intend to dig
up all the boxes to find out. But some of the remains and
clothing scraps found in the trenches will be sent to an
archaeologist to determine their age, according to Bensalem
police Detective Kenneth Hopkins, who is heading the
Based on accounts from longtime township residents who said
they had watched as trucks delivered the remains, officials
believe that some also were dumped into the nearby Poquessing
In 1947, one year after the Lafayette transfer, records show
the court also approved a plan under which the city paid $95,000
for Morris to remove 8,000 bodies from 2,400 graves in Franklin
Cemetery, located at Elkhart and Helen Streets in Kensington.
According to newspaper accounts, the remains were to be reburied
in a three-acre Franklin section of Evergreen Memorial Park.
That plan, too, called for perpetual care and markers.
Hopkins said last week that the township would wait until the
Lafayette investigation was completed before deciding whether to
search for the Franklin remains.
I. Alan Cohen, whose family owns Rosedale Memorial Park -
part of the Evergreen property before Morris went bankrupt in
1959 - has told police that he believes only 3,000 of the
Franklin remains were transferred to Evergreen. According to
Hopkins, Cohen, whose family bought the Rosedale property in
1960, said the 3,000 were reinterred on what is now the
adjoining property - King David Memorial Park.
Cohen said he believed the 5,000 other bodies were buried in
Sunset Memorial Park in Feasterville, according to Hopkins.
In an interview Friday, the Sunset office manager, who asked
not to be named, said no Franklin remains were buried there.
And Jack Livezey, manager of King David, said he knew "for a
fact" that they weren't at his cemetery, either.
Cohen could not be reached for comment.
Hopkins said the Cohens had told him that they had almost no
records from Lafayette. Raymond Reinl, a lawyer who represented
Lafayette Cemetery in the 1960s, said in an interview that he
recalled a meeting in that decade at which the Cohens were given
Until the unmarked graves were found, the Cohens were moving
an office and mausoleum building from one site to another on the
cemetery property and had a Bucks County Court order from Judge
Leonard B. Sokolove permitting them to reinter elsewhere any
remains they found. But the township, which has issued a
cease-and-desist order, is going back to Sokolove on Oct. 26 to
ask that he rescind his order, Hopkins said. The township now
wants the Lafayette property, and whatever bodies are there, to
be left undisturbed.
Construction work at an adjacent site, where a developer is
building a strip shopping center, is being permitted to resume
because the township determined last week that no remains are
buried there, officials said.
Although news stories from the 1940s say that Morris sold the
old Lafayette Cemetery property in South Philadelphia to a group
that planned to build duplexes and stores on the site, both
Lafayette and Franklin eventually were condemned by the city as
part of a multimillion-dollar playground-building project. Of
the 43 properties that were purchased, those were the only
Playgrounds were built at both sites. The Lafayette
playground is across from two of the city's famous food
landmarks, Pat's and Geno's cheesesteak emporiums.
Richardson Dilworth, who in 1947 was an unsuccessful
Democratic mayoral candidate, charged that one of the investors
who bought Lafayette from Morris, Republican Sheriff Austin
Meehan, had purchased the cemetery because he knew he could sell
it to the city for a huge profit. News accounts say that Meehan,
whose group paid $105,000 for the site and sold it to the city
for $153,500, denied the accusation.
In 1950, the city decided to transform yet another
19th-century South Philadelphia cemetery into a playground. That
was Ronaldson's Cemetery, founded in 1827 and believed to be the
oldest private cemetery in the country. Among those buried there
were John Stowers, said to have crossed the Delaware with George
Washington just before the Battle of Trenton, and Commodore
Charles Stewart, commander of Old Ironsides during the War of
Records at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania show that
the city paid $95,000 to buy the cemetery. Of that amount, the
records say, $72,410 went to Morris for the removal and reburial
of the 13,500 bodies in Ronaldson's, bounded by Ninth, 10th,
Fitzwater and Bainbridge Streets.
But this time, Morris was told to bury the remains at Forest
Hills Cemetery, located at Byberry Road and Philmont Avenue,
rather than at Evergreen, and to provide "aluminum markers so
that the records will show where particular bodies are buried,"
according to the records.
Andrew Deltito, sales manager at Forest Hills, said in an
interview that the Ronaldson's remains were buried there, in
their own section, complete with a large marble spire. He said
there were no individual markers.
"We have the records and we know where (the remains) are," he
In 1951, the Securities and Exchange Commission began to look
dealings - particularly his apparent habit of selling large
blocks of Evergreen cemetery lots to speculators with the
promise that the investors would be able to sell them for huge
profits. The sales, according to the SEC, were in the same
category as sales of securities, and Morris was not registered
to sell securities.
Morris began to pile up debts, with the federal government
filing tax liens against Evergreen Memorial Park.
In 1958, the Pennsylvania Securities Commission asked that
the courts appoint a receiver for Evergreen. In 1959, Evergreen
filed for bankruptcy.
In 1961, Morris - once hailed as a tireless fund-raiser for a
variety of charities - pleaded no contest in U.S. District Court
to charges that he had misrepresented Evergreen's financial
condition while selling two bond issues to finance his cemetery
business. He was fined $3,000 and received a suspended sentence
plus five years' probation.
To Bensalem officials, who now are obliged to deal with what
Morris left behind, the history is fascinating, but frustrating.
Detective Hopkins said he had been inundated with calls and
letters from outraged citizens.
There is even a song, written by township resident Margaret
Alice Butler, who sent him a copy. Part of it goes like this:
I'm telling you, in this day and age,
The dead people aren't even safe.
. . . Everyone's out for that almighty dollar.
Now only if the dead could holler.