NBC10.com - Nefertiti Jaquez
Water department workers uncover an unusual find at a Philadelphia elementary school. Caskets, a skull and what's believed to be gravestones. NBC10's Nefertiti Jaquez has details.
Residents spooked by the discovery of several caskets, a skull and marble slabs underneath the playground of a North Philadelphia school should not fear.
"Even though it is a bit unsettling," said Thomas Keels, a historian and author of Philadelphia Graveyards and Cemeteries, "I don't think people should expect to see poltergeist activity or things flying through the air."
A police investigation is underway after workers with the Philadelphia Water Department unearthed several wooden caskets with headstones -- one of which belonged to a child -- shortly after 2 p.m. Wednesday.
The uncovered remains were part of two cemeteries, the Odd Fellows Cemetery and the smaller American Mechanics Cemetery, Keels said.
The graveyard is roughly situated beneath the present-day boundaries of 22nd and 25th streets and Dauphin and Diamond streets, where the school and Raymond Rosen Manor sit today.
Odd Fellows was one of the first options in the area for blue-collar laborers to have a proper burial, Keels said.
"Even though you were a working class guy, you could be buried with all the dignity and beauty that wealthy people had at Laurel Hill," said Keels, who added that a cemetery plot was a luxury in the 19th century.
Members of the Odd Fellows fraternal organization were entitled to be buried in the society's cemeteries, which was a reason many people belonged to the group, he said.
Established in 1849, the Odd Fellows Cemetery became inactive around the early 1900's, Keel said.
Civil War veterans, most likely general infantry soldiers, were laid to rest there, along with George Lippard, a well-known author at the time, he said. Lippard's most prominent work, The Quaker City, sold more than 60,000 copies in the 1840's and was loosely based on an area murder.
About 85,000 bodies were relocated in the early 1950s when the city decided to convert the land into the Raymond Rosen public housing development, which officially opened in November 1954. Most are in a mass grave at the Lawnview Cemetery in Rockledge, Pa.
The novelist's remains-- one of the few individually relocated-- is also at Lawnview along with the grave's original monument.
"We don't know what really happened back then," said Donovan Herrig, who lives near the site. "Maybe somebody was rushing the whole process or they were like, 'I'm sick and tired of this! I'm not taking anymore bodies. We can leave the rest of them here and hopefully nobody finds them.'"
The Historical Society planned to examine the property Thursday.
More caskets and skeletal remains could surface as the organization responsible for the initial removal and relocation of the graves did a sloppy job.
"[The city] bid it out to the lowest bidder and they did get what they paid for," said Keels, a self-described taphophile, which is Greek for lover of graves. "There seems to be a greater degree of negligence of moving bodies with Odd Fellows and American Mechanics than there were with other cemeteries at that time."
The developer of the now-demolished Raymond Rosen towers postponed the project several times as crews continued to uncover more graves during construction, he said.
According to sources, the Water Department crew was excavating the playground behind the school. They began digging on Tuesday and originally thought they were hitting wood and debris rather than caskets. It wasn't until the next day that the crew realized they were running into buried caskets.
This isn't the first time a grave site was found under a city playground. Three feet under Wecceocoe Park in the Queen Village section of the city, archaeologists found a gravestone and several bones during a July dig.
That site is believed to be the final resting place for some 3,000 African-Americans who were interned there in the 19th Century. At the time, cemeteries would not accept African-Americans and the site was outside of the city limits.
"Philadelphia is an old city," Keels said. "If you dig a hole anywhere in Center City, chances are you are going to hit somebody's grave."