Many men and women live near, and walk or drive past, some of the region’s extraordinary historical sites every day without knowing that they’re there. I know that, prior to my research, I was one of them. Perhaps you are too? In light of the Halloween festivities, and in lieu of Veterans Day which right around the corner, I thought it might be fun to explore the Lehigh Valley’s spookier history. Bethlehem and Easton both have some interesting old burial sites that might interest the wary reader.
EASTON BURIAL SITES
Sure, everyone knows about the old Easton Cemetery. With its Greek Revival and Victorian Gothic style architecture, its park-like atmosphere, it is home to thousands of internments, from Revolutionary War heroes, to founders of the county and city, Civil War veterans, and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. But Easton Cemetery is a little too easy to point out–and while a valuable and important site, many of those interred were not originally buried there as it did not exist until the year1849. Easton’s founding goes back 1752, nearly 100 years before the ground was dedicated.
So this raises the question: from whence did those older remains come?
Well, cautious reader, that is precisely what I hope to answer…and maybe send a little shiver down your spine in the process.
Old Lutheran Burial Grounds – 4th and Ferry Streets
Walking down Ferry Street, one is taken, not by its antiquarian buildings but, by its modern edges: the Post Office and parking lots, the buildings that now line Larry Holmes Drive in the foreground, the sound of the water flowing through the dam separating the Lehigh and Delaware rivers. But on 4th and Ferry is an old church, made of red brick with a white steeple, St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church.
This impressive building, though not as old as the Reformed Church on 3rd Street (both Lutheran and reformed congregations once worshiped together), had its first cornerstone laid in 1830. The reason for its location is simple: the grounds were the location of all Lutheran burials in Easton dating from the 1740’s when the congregation was founded.
So what happened to those graves? Rather than removing some of the interred when the Sunday School portion of the church was constructed in 1889, it seems that they decided to just build over them. As a result, that section of the church has what is known as the ‘grave cellar‘.
But this is far from all of the old graves on this plot. The rest of what used to be the cemetery is now under the church parking lot. Presumably, all the graves were moved to Easton cemetery prior to its construction–notably, the remains of the aforementioned George Taylor among them. But were they all removed?
Some remain on the exterior of the property; though you have to know where to look. Anyone driving down 4th Street would likely miss them entirely as they are hidden by a row of shrubbery, but on the west side of the church a glimpse can be caught of the small row of half-chewed-by-the-elements headstones from Ferry Street which marks the only remaining exterior evidence of a burial ground.
One has to admit, this is all very interesting (and creepy); but another question is raised–what about the Reformed burial ground? After all, the Lutheran’s buried their dead in a separate location which we know is now the home to St. John’s. So where did the Reformed congregation bury their departed?
Old Reformed Burial Ground – (The Easton Public Library) 5th and Church Streets
Well, it would appear that the burial ground for the Reformed Church (which has been on 3th Street since 1776 when it had been dedicated–more on this below) was on a hill north-west of the church. Like with the Lutheran burial ground on 4th and Ferry, the burial ground on 5th and Church held some prominent members of Easton’s founding group–including the Father of Easton, William Parsons. So…what happened to it?
Well, over the years, the cemetery was deemed ‘full’, and so it fell into disrepair. With the development of Easton Cemetery now complete and with burials commencing there, the land sat.
In what seemed like unrelated business at the turn of the 20th Century, Easton was having all sorts of trouble with its public library system. Under its old management people were complaining of censorship and other oddities committed by the management. Finally the Easton School Board decided to take over the public library system and created, with the help of public funding, the Easton Library Association. With the added benefit of a generous donation by the great philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, the Association went in search of land with which to build a brand new library.
The pastor of the Reformed congregation saw an opportunity and wrote a letter asking the Association to consider the old burial grounds on Church Street. The Association agreed. But there was that troublesome matter of what to do about those 500+ grave sites!
Well, it seems that care for bodily remains was not considered one of the highest priorities, and so almost all the graves were disturbed, with the approval of the families, and re-interred (some would say unceremoniously) at Easton Cemetery (much like what was done with the Lutheran burials). But not all the graves were identifiable. It seems that about 30 graves were not claims, and the remains of those graves, along with other bits of unidentifiable body parts that were left, were thrown into a concrete vault. And upon that vault, they built the new Easton Public Library and paved over part of the vault to make a road.
The library opened in October of 1903. Additions were added to the Library over the next few decades (one in 1911, with the final addition being added in 1941). Only two named grave sites remain on the property: William Parson’s and Elizabeth Bell “Mammy” Morgan’s (her grave would not be marked until 1936).
But it seems like the formerly-interred did not approve of their bodies being dumped into a vault. Even before the library opened, there were reports of specters roaming the property:
These freakish happenings have continued at the library to this day. In 1987, the Morning Call did a story on the site and the library staff was more than willing to give accounts of what happened. The curator at the time, Barbara Bailey Bauer, as the story goes on to say, “displayed an early photograph showing a scene after the 30 bodies were less than carefully committed to the vault. She paralleled the gruesome scene of splintered wooden coffins and broken bones lining the bottom of the vault to the scene in “Amadeus” when Mozart’s corpse was unloaded into a community grave.”
Disturbing? Absolutely. And that photo, I believe, is still kept at the library. In fact the Marx Room–which contains all the old record books of Easton’s past–includes a section on the Reformed burial ground as well, along with the list of all the graves that were on site, with those which were unidentified and where they were located on the grounds prior to construction.
All are encouraged to make the trek to the library and experience these things for themselves. I’m sure the staff would be more than willing to help you find a book. Though if the staff is unavailable, perhaps some other luminous attendant there can direct you to what you need…just be sure you don’t follow them back down into the darkness of the vault.
BETHLEHEM BURIAL SITE
The next tale is one of a great national tragedy. Thousands of people drive along Route 378 into the city of Bethlehem every day, unaware that they pass by the site of one of the largest Revolutionary War mass graves in the region.
The Old Revolution War Mass Grave – 1st Avenue and West Market Street
During the years 1776-1778, over hundreds of soldiers were brought to Bethlehem’s local Continental Army hospital–which was actually a Moravian Brethren’s House–for treatment of wounds suffering in combat or of disease caught while on campaign. They were stuffed together in rooms, many were lying on nothing more than straw piles on the floor.
For about 500 men, this would be their last stop before the grave. Since Bethlehem had been considered a hotbed of Tory activities in the area, the dead were carted off at night–so spies for the British could not see the amount of losses sustained–and buried in a large pit. According to some earlier sources, there may be as many as 1,000 soldiers buried in this pit:
The boarding school for girls consists of three large adjoining buildings on Church Street with a handsome chapel in the rear. The centre building in front three stories in height with its steep roof and two rows of attic windows is a well preserved relic of the old style of Moravian buildings. It was originally The Single Brethren’s House and reminds one of a first class “Man of War” (before steam came into vogue,) on the stocks, the windows resembling her open ports; it was erected before the Revolutionary War, of 1776, and was used during that period as the general hospital by the American forces. Many distinguished American officers were inmates there at different times, either as patients or visitors; among them, General Lafayette, suffering from the wounds he had received at the battle of Brandywine. On the brow of the hill to the right hand of the public road, leading to Allentown, and west of the Manockasy, lie the remains of about one thousand American soldiers who died in this hospital during the war; no monument has been erected to their memory, and no stone marks the place of their repose. (John Hill Martin, Historical Sketch of Bethlehem in Pennsylvania , p. 100)
Now it is likely that Martin was exaggerating the figure. The more conservative estimate, about 500, is probably more likely as the region had three hospitals: one in Allentown (then called Northampton), one in Bethlehem (pictured below), an one in Easton–the Reformed Church–which we should consider in a minute. First, some helpful imagery to cement this concept in our minds:
I combined two famous sketches of Bethlehem to demonstrate how much a region can develop in a short amount of time. In the first (top) image is Bethlehem as a small little Colonial Moravian village. I highlighted the area where I believe the bodies to be buried–if you trace the road from the highlighted circle going to the right, across the Monacacy Creek, you will come to the Brethren’s House, dead center in the image (the tall building with many windows) . In the second sketch, below it, taking place in the start of the industrial revolution, one can see that Victorian style homes have cropped up everywhere along with factories and warehouses. The area where the bodies were buried has, at the time of this sketch, become a bustling neighborhood street corner–known as 1st Avenue.
The memorial to the site was finally placed on September 19, 1931, and local papers remarked that was a fantastic ceremony. At least one internment at the tomb was there when the plaque was made, discovered at some point when new houses were built in the region (possibly at the turn of the century–though maybe also around the 1920’s as discussed below):
Within the years that followed, additional remains were uncovered, mainly by private contractors. Now imagine this; you buy a home on 1st Avenue and want to do some landscaping. The contractor comes to your home and starts digging up your yard and…uncovers bone fragments and nails in the ground placed in a pattern that looks like they were once in a coffin. You wanted to plant a spruce tree and you came up with human remains. Eerie? Yes… yes it is. And it has happened.
The Morning Call published this in March of 1995:
They dug carefully, sometimes using tongue depressors, and gradually revealed a foot, then a leg, and finally the remains of a human skull. A few feet away — at the spot where a building contractor unearthed another skull last week — the archaeologists found scraps of wood and 200-year-old nails. They think these are all that’s left of a coffin.
Historians say the area of Bethlehem just west of the modern Route 378 was a cemetery for Revolutionary War soldiers from 1776 to 1778. On Wednesday, archaeologists said they believed they had uncovered two of the skeletons. “We know there were a lot of Revolutionary soldiers buried here,” archaeologist Mark Shaffer of the state Historical and Museum Commission said. “At this point, that’s what it appears to be.”
Wednesday’s digging started at 9 a.m., and it took less than an hour to uncover the first clues. There was still an outline of the first skull in an embankment where the contractor found it while excavating part of the lot to build a retaining wall. Shaffer said the nails were crucial. He described them as wroughthead nails, the kind where the nail head was attached to the rest of the nail by a blacksmith. The last time anyone used nails like that was around 1800. Dorothy Humpf, another archaeologist, studied the skulls and concluded from their teeth that they were males of European ancestry. She said one appeared to be a teen-ager and the other to be a grown man.
The archaeologists’ plan was to finish excavating the skeleton they found and take all the remains to Harrisburg for testing in a lab. When that’s finished, they plan to return the remains to Bethlehem for reburial. When the contractor discovered the skull and other bones last week on the lot on 1st Avenue, just west of Route 378, it was the first time since the 1920s that anyone had found human remains in the neighborhood. Shaffer said it’s likely that bones and coffin materials are all that remains of the soldiers. Other soldiers in the poorly equipped Revolutionary army probably took their weapons, equipment and clothing before burying them.
“I’m sure that they salvaged what they could from the dead,” Shaffer said. The site of the find is just west of an area where American troops set up a field hospital from December 1776 to March 1777 and from September 1777 to May 1778, according to retired Bethlehem teacher Charles Hafner. The troops buried their dead on the hill west of where Route 378 is today but did not record the precise location of their cemetery, Hafner said.
Very unsettling–both the way these soldiers died and how they left to rot without a customary funeral:
Their hospital was primitive. Soldiers arrived from the battle lines or from other field hospitals in rickety wagons, and surgeons amputated the limbs of gunshot victims without any anesthesia, Hafner said. The fall and winter of 1777 and 1778 were particularly busy. When George Washington’s troops retreated to Valley Forge after they were routed at the Battle of Brandywine, many of the injured soldiers were brought to Bethlehem. There were as many as 700 soldiers in the hospital at times.
The soldiers buried their dead at night, both to avoid detection by British loyalists in the area and to avoid damaging morale among the soldiers who were still alive. Sometimes 10 to 12 soldiers were buried in one evening. Altogether, Hafner said, there could be as many as 500 Revolutionary soldiers buried in West Bethlehem.
There is a memorial to the unknown soldiers along 1st Avenue, and the United Veterans of Bethlehem put up a flag pole there in 1993 in honor of the Revolutionary soldiers. Hafner said the last skeletons were found in the neighborhood in the 1920s. “When they built houses in that area they would find skeletons,” Hafner said. “What happened to the others, I don’t know.” Workers checked the ground along 1st Avenue from Broad Street to Market Street for skeletons before work started on Route 378 in the 1960s. They didn’t find any, and Hafner said the cemetery probably started a few feet west of 1st Avenue.
Loren Lee, the retired surveyor who has lived at 411 First Ave. for 30 years, said he’d heard there were skeletons in the area but never thought they were in his yard until the contractor uncovered the skull on Feb. 22. “I knew the hospital was over there,” Lee said, “but I had no idea that they just buried them any old place.”
There is no plan to look for more skeletons, aside from checking to make sure there are no others in the construction area. The workers who found the skeleton were installing a patio and retaining wall in Lee’s yard. After the workers found the first skull, they stopped work in the area where they found it. Lee turned the skull over to police, who kept it in storage until Wednesday. The Lehigh County Coroner’s Office confirmed last week that the skull was human. Shaffer said Wednesday that work could continue once the archaeologists finished digging on Wednesday. The skeletons were four or five feet under the soil at the edge of Lee’s property.
The contractor excavated tons of soil before hitting the skeleton, and Lee said the contractor had agreed to let the archaeologists check that soil if they wanted to. “It’s historical. I’m glad that I’m involved in it,” he said. “Of course, we want to give them the right burial, whatever we find.”
In 1996, these remains were placed in the tomb with the remains discovered in the 1920’s. From the Gettysburg Times, May 24 1996:
What must be remembered, of course, is that these were mass graves–the remains were not placed neatly with separations between them. As would happen, the bodies at the bottom of the it would likely be crushed by the weight of the bodies above–as well as the weight of the dirt that sealed their hopeless tomb. With hundreds of years of decay and the weathering elements, it is no wonder that so little remains have been discovered–without a full archaeological survey of the region of the tomb, likely few will be discovered in the future.
ANOTHER QUESTION TO PONDER
Dear reader, if you are with me this far, then you must know there are more questions to arise form this than I’ve let on. You recall the discussion of the Reformed Church? How it was also a Revolutionary War Hospital? One must wonder–how many poor soldiers died at that church? And what’s more: where are they buried?
Three options pop into my mind as the most probable:
(1) They were buried in the Reformed Cemetery. That would make sense, right? After all, during the construction of the library there were remains that were unidentified–could they possibly have been the remains of Revolutionary War soldiers who died at the Reformed Church during its tenure as a Continental Hospital? It may be that more remains are buried near or around the library that have not been uncovered–the grave sites that were removed by the contractors were all marked on a layout–but those were graves; beyond that there are no records of the church burials there. Without records, we may never know for sure. Could it be possible that there are veterans of our War for Independence still roaming the grounds of 5th and Church Streets?
(2) Not many died at Easton (and Allentown). It may be that Easton did not suffer the same problems that they did at Bethlehem. After all, it may have been something in the water that brought disease to the ill men at the Brethren’s House–their medicinal knowledge was rudimentary at best, they had no knowledge of germs. Could it be that the water was contaminated and the already weakened and wary soldiers fell prey to something they were drinking? What is certain is that the volume of soldiers at Bethlehem being treated were not much different than those at Easton and Allentown. This might explain why no burial sites have yet been uncovered.
(3) There is a mass grave site out there, somewhere. This seems just as likely. Whether the burial site is there or not is, like I said, unknowable. But if there is one, where might it be? Much of Easton’s geography has changed since the American Revolution. Also every inch of Downtown has a building on land that was once overrun with fields. Could it be that under one of our city streets are the remains of hundreds of Revolutionary War dead? I heard tales of remains being uncovered off the banks of the Delaware River decades ago that were thought to be soldiers of the American Revolution–near where Route 22 now crosses the span of the river from Easton to Phillipsburg; how true is this tale? I don’t know. I haven’t found any evidence of this. Still, don’t be too alarmed, should you decide to do some landscaping in your yard and, like those poor people in Bethlehem, stumble across a pile of bones.
SOME FINAL THOUGHTS
I recognize that this subject is not a laughing matter–in fact, in light of Veterans Day, please remember these heroes during your picnics and the parades. Buried in the ground, around the Lehigh Valley, hundreds of soldiers lie without a name, without having ever received the honor we accord to veterans of recent wars. It is easy to forget these men; to brush it off during our daily routines. But this November, let us not forget them. After all, one of these brave men may be your ancestor!
I have attempted to answer some of these questions in a recent Express Times article, which you can read here.
I published this article in the Journal of the American Revolution which highlights the men who died in Easton during the Revolution.