Dark Secrets

Stories From A City of the Dead

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In 1843, Samuel Wollaston decided to create a cemetery on 10 acres of his land, Windsor Farm, in Wilmington, Delaware. Since it’s been quite some time I wasn’t able to track down his exact motivation for doing so. Rural graveyards were becoming popular and at that time this graveyard was just outside of town. Today, it’s firmly downtown but I’ve cropped those modern skyscrapers out of shot as best as I could 😉 .

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The entrance building.

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When the cemetery was first created it took its design trends where everyone looks for inspiration: Europe. The land was landscaped and laid out much like graveyards in Europe. Samuel’s cemetery became so popular that 200 of the lot holders formed a company to expand and further landscape the site. Wilmington and Brandywine Cemetery Co. was officially formed.

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Photo taken for obvious reasons of their amazing name 😉 .

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Not the former (and alive) U.S. President, this was George Washington Bush. It used to have an iron gate over the doors from older photos I saw, which has since disappeared.

Sacred Ground

The cemetery board hired engineer George Read Riddle to design the plots, paths and hillside terraces (and he enjoyed the fruits of his labor as he’s buried here too). Cedar trees from Palestine were specially imported and intricate monuments and mausoleums were built (angels pointing to the heavens and draped urns were common, as were broken columns or tree stumps to symbolize untimely deaths).

The beautifully landscaped burial ground became a hotspot and the most fashionable district in the city. Mansions and stately homes were built just around the area to be close to the cemetery. On Sundays, families dressed in their finest would stroll from the reservoir (Rodney Square today – we saw part of that when we had tea at the Green Room in the Hotel du Pont) to the cemetery and then wander through the graveyard’s tree-lined paths as if it was a park or botanical garden.

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Soldier’s Graveplot (though some soldiers are buried elsewhere in the cemetery and in family plots).

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Notable Residents

There are some 21,000 “eternal residents” of the cemetery. Some are remembered by history more than others. Just down the path from the entrance gate is Soldier’s Graveplot, where 121 Civil War soldiers who died of wounds or illness from the war are buried.

There are also captains of industry, signers of the U.S. Constitution, senators, war heroes, governors, judges, activists and everyone in between interred here; such as Wilmington’s first mayor Richard H. Bayard, Col. Henry S. McComb, the Civil War soldier and Reconstruction railroad tycoon (McComb, Mississippi is named for him), and Commodore Jacob Jones, a hero of the War of 1812.

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The non-denominational chapel was built in 1913.

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Here are some other notable residents:

  • Richard Bassett (1745-1815) – Born in Maryland he was abandoned by his father as a child and raised by his mother’s relatives. He served as Governor of Delaware and as a U.S. Senator. Bassett convinced the Delaware legislature to ratify the new U.S. Constitution (which he also signed) making Delaware the first state to do so. He also handled the recruitment, training and mobilization of Delaware’ militia during the Revolutionary War. He died in Maryland in 1815, but was reinterred in his adopted state in 1865.
  • Emily Perkins Bissell (1861-1948) – Emily was a social reformer who introduced the Christmas Seals to Delaware to fight tuberculosis (hoping to raise $300 for the open-air tuberculosis sanitarium she ended up raising $3,000. The next year the campaign went national and she raised $100,000!). She also opened the first public kindergarten and fought against child labor.
  • Levi Clark Bootes (1809-1896) – A Civil War Union Brevet (which means they were promoted temporarily during the war without receiving more authority or pay of that rank) Brigadier General he served 38 years in the Army. He distinguished himself during the Civil War for “gallant and meritorious services during the Battle of Gettysburg” when he commanded the 6th United States Regular Infantry. His name is inscribed on the Ayres Avenue monument in the Gettysburg National Park. He retired as a Lieutenant Colonel in 1874 having served in the Mexican-American War and having been wounded at Antietam and Gettysburg during the Civil War.

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James M. Elliott served as a Private in Company C of the 1st Delaware. He died during the war in 1863 but I was unable to find the cause of death.

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This one was puzzling. He was in a family plot that didn’t bear his name, where everyone had died over 100 years earlier and he had a plaque instead of an engraving. I could only find a few mentions of Tibor. He was involved in Raoul Wallenberg’s network and introduced him to some helpful people (Raoul was a Swede who saved thousands and thousands of Jews in Nazi-occupied Hungary during WWII. He was arrested by the USSR and disappeared, varying stories about how he was killed has circulated since). The plaque inscription reads “Born in a castle in Hungary. Died in a cottage in his mother’s country.” His mother Sallie May Price was born in Philadelphia but died at the young age of 32 in 1906 in Kapuvár, Hungary (a spa town with thermal waters but they seem to have leased an estate there). She’d married Maximilian von Berg in Austria years earlier and together they’d had one son: Tibor. Most of Tibor’s inherited property seems to have been confiscated during the wars with Germany. (Sources: 1, 2)

  • Commodore Jacob Nicholas Jones (1768-1850) – Trained as a physician, he practiced medicine before joining the Navy in 1799. During the Barbary Wars he served as Lieutenant of the Philadelphia when it was grounded in Tripoli harbor (in Lybia, Africa) in 1803. Consequently he spent 20 months in prison there. He also served in the War of 1812 and the Algerian War. As a Prisoner of War he passed the time by teaching his fellow prisoners mathematics, navigation and other topics. In 1804, sounds of gunfire awakened Jones and the other Americans. Stephen Decatur and a crew of American sailors entered Tripoli harbor on a small vessel, boarded the Philadelphia and set fire to the captured American warship. They then reboarded their ship and sailed to safety. The destruction of the Philadelphia was then known as the most daring exploit in the history of the Navy and raised the morale of the prisoners. In 1805 Jones and the prisoners were released after a treaty was signed.
  • Thomas Jefferson Jordan (1821-1895) – Thomas practiced law and ran a lumber business when the Civil War broke out. He was commissioned as a Major and promoted to Colonel of the 9th Pennsylvania Cavalry. He received recognition at the Battle of Chickamauga during the March to the Sea. He covered the left wing of General Sherman’s Army on the march through the Carolinas and led the advance to Fayetteville.
  • Charles Eugene LaMotte (1839-1887) – A handsome Civil War Union Brevet Brigadier General he enlisted in the army in 1861. As a Lieutenant Colonel in the 4th Delaware he participated in the battles of Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg.

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The inscription has partially faded away on Thomas Greer’s headstone. He served in the 2nd Delaware Volunteer Infantry. What can be read says: “Died July 22nd 1863 from wounds received at the battle of Gettysburg while gallantly defending…”

  • Bernard McCarren (1831-1870) – Born in Ireland, McCarren had emigrated to Delaware when the Civil War erupted. He enlisted in a three month unit. After that he joined Company C, 1st Delaware Infantry eventually being promoted to Corporal. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for seizing a Confederate flag from the 13th Alabama under fire on July 3rd at the Battle of Gettysburg. Before Gettysburg he’d seen action at Chantilly, Antietam and Fredericksburg. McCarren was discharged in 1863 but promptly reenlisted and was wounded in the Battle of the Wilderness. A musket ball was removed from his shoulder blade and he spent eight months in the hospital. After the war McCarren returned to his family in Wilmington where he died from dysentery at the age of 39.
  • Eleazer McComb (1740-1798) – A Continental Congressman he served as a Captain in the Delaware militia. During the Revolutionary War he played an important role in forming a relay system of ships to supply much needed flour and food to the Continental Army. Eleazer and his wife Lydia died suddenly in a nationwide yellow fever epidemic in 1798. The plague that year killed nearly 300 people in Wilmington alone.
  • Dr. John McKinly (1721-1796) – Born in Northern Ireland, McKinly served as a Major in the Delaware Militia during the French & Indian War and as a Brigadier General during the Revolution. He was the first Governor (then termed “President” of Delaware), an office he served until he was captured by the British in 1778 and made a POW. He was paroled a year later. (You can read about the practice of paroling POWs and the dangers of doing so in our previous post “The British Are Coming!” here).
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The USS Kearsarge was built during the Civil War’s emergency shipbuilding program in 1861 and was most famous for defeating the Confederate commerce raider, CSS Alabama, in 1864. You can see a photo of the Kearsarge’s deck after their fight with the Alabama, here. An hour into the engagement the Alabama was destroyed and sinking. The Confederate captain Semmes struck his colors (lowered the flag as a sign of surrender), threw his sword into the water to avoid capture and was ultimately rescued by a nearby British yacht Deerhound. He and his remaining soldiers escaped to the United Kingdom. 17 members of Kearsarge’s crew received the Medal of Honor for valor during the squirmish.

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  • Alice Moore Dunbar Nelson (1875-1935) – Alice was more than just a pretty face. Born in New Orleans she was an author, social reformer and teacher. First married to the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, she divorced him four years later in 1902. After, she taught English in Wilmington and was then a parole officer at the Industrial School for Colored Girls in the 1920’s. In 1922 she headed the Delaware Anti-Lynching Crusaders with her second husband (read about the only recorded lynching in Wilmington in our previous post “The Terrible Fate of Helen Bishop” here). In 1895 she published her first book “Violets” and had her short stories featured in national magazines. As a feminist she was involved in numerous women’s clubs.
  • James Parke Postles (1840-1908) – A Civil War Congressional Medal of Honor Recipient, James earned his medal while serving in the Union Army as Captain of the 1st Delaware, Company A during the Battle of Gettysburg. His citation reads: “Voluntarily delivered an order in the face of heavy fire of the enemy.” Postles arrived in Gettysburg quite ill after an exhausting march from Rappahannock River in Virginia. He volunteered to made a ride on horseback to deliver a command to have a farmhouse occupied by rebels attacked. The 22-year old Postles rode through heavy enemy fire without sustaining a hit. Arriving on Bliss farm he shouted out the order for the soldiers to storm the house. On his return trip he reigned in his horse, took off his cap and defiantly waived it at the rebel riflemen firing at him. The Confederates showed their appreciation of his bravery by ceasing fire and giving him the rebel yell. It would be 29 years before Postles act of courage was recognized and awarded the Medal of Honor.
  • Samuel Rodmond Smith (1841-1912) – Another Civil War Congressional Medal of Honor Recipient, Samuel was Captain of Company C, 4th Delaware Infantry. In February of 1865, he swam the partially frozen creek at Rowanty Creek, Virginia under enemy fire and established a safe crossing for his troops.
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On the left is Lieutenant Alfred Eugene Townsend. He served during the Civil War as a 2nd Lieutenant in Company D, 1st Delaware Volunteer Cavalry. He died of disease in Monrovia, Maryland during the war.

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The family’s grief is evident on the tombstone for their only daughter. It reads: “‘Tis but the casket that lies here. The gem that filled it sparkles yet.”

  • Thomas Alfred Smyth (1832-1865) – Born in Ballyhooly, County Cork, Ireland Smyth enlisted as a member of the 24th Pennsylvania Infantry, which was a six-month unit during the Civil War. After he was mustered out he returned as a Major of the 1st Delaware. He would advance to Colonel and commander by 1863 and participated in the battles of Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg where he commanded a brigade. Serving as a division commander he was riding along his skirmish line at Farmville during the April 1865 Confederate retreat from Petersburg, Virginia when he was shot through the mouth by a sharpshooter. The musket ball shattered his cervical vertebra and he was taken to a nearby house where he died two days later. He was the last Union general to be killed during the war. He was posthumously brevetted Major General.

*Gunning Bedford, Jr., signer of the U.S. Constitution, was also buried here but we will visit him and his house in an upcoming post. It’s now a Masonic Lodge but I found my way in to photograph it!

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Arm & Soul

The most unique burials must be awarded to the burial of one man’s arm or another who died “whilst under affections of the heart.” There are other more quiet residents too.

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Tiny headstones dotted in one corner are the location for burials from the Children’s Home. They belong to the boys and girls who died while living at the Home for Friendless and Destitute Children, founded in 1864 (a photo of the home can be seen here).

The Children’s Home was originally established in 1861 in a private house in town for neglected and destitute children. During the Civil War they formed a larger private orphanage to care for the scores of children left “friendless and destitute.” More than half were children of Civil War soldiers who were cared for for free. The other children came from destitute families who, though they could not support them in their own homes, paid small fees towards their maintenance.

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Children were taken into the home starting at three years old and discharged at 11-years old (boys) to 14-years old (girls). Records of the home in 1917 shows that of the 60 children being cared for 19 were there because of the death of one or both parents, 12 had willfully deserted their situations, 14 were there because of cruelty or neglect and 15 because of parental disabilities, illness or poverty. At that time a little over half of the children were eventually able to be returned to their families.

The home was progressive for its time. All of the children attended public school and had medical care. The home featured attractive dining rooms, well-stocked playrooms, outdoor playgrounds and individual gardens for the older children. The children were reported to be healthy and cheerful and had friendly relationships with the staff.

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In one annual report the secretary of the Board wrote: “What hope is there for them except in removing them from Yesterday…. For we must either give them a home now, where they may be trained to usefulness, or find them one hereafter as paupers or criminals in the almshouses or penitentiary.”

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The inscription for Mary Hoffecker reads: “Her’s was the crown without the conflict.”

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Eternal Rest

Part of the expanded cemetery was originally the Old Cathedral Cemetery. By the early 1880’s it had fallen into disrepair and Catholic Church officials urged their parishioners to reinter their loved ones at a new cemetery. By the mid-1950’s it was assumed that all remains had been removed and the property was sold to the Delaware Hospital for a parking lot.

When the lot was excavated in 1998 the remains of more than 2,000 individuals were found. A large team of archeologists worked diligently to respectfully disinter and move the remains to a new cemetery.

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Today the cemetery holds charity runs and walking tours to raise needed funds for the upkeep of the grounds. Not associated with any religion the graveyard holds Germans, Swiss, African-Americans, Polish, English, Civil War soldiers, housekeepers, elected officials, businessmen and more…which means they are not funded by any particular group. I hope to catch one of those tours soon and if I find more interesting stories I’ll report back!

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Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8