Monday, August 15, 2011

Unearthing Hattie May Wiatt

Philadelphia is a corrupt place. Or I should say was a corrupt place (ok, is!), as city politics in the second half of the 19th century and first half of the 20th most likely make any of the past decade's shenanigans pale in comparison. One of the most notorious, and yet very much forgotten, examples is the numerous burial grounds which were cleared out of the city in the name of progress. While some had truly fallen into states of sad disrepair, this was often latched upon by corrupt politicians and greedy developers as an excuse to wholesale remove those cemeteries for their own gain. Some ended up being turned into hardly-used playgrounds or failed shopping centers, and yet major Philadelphia landmarks like Pat's & Geno's and Temple University also sit atop what a mere half century ago were cemeteries.

The main focus of my attention has long been the Temple location, formerly known as Monument Cemetery from 1837 until its destruction in 1956. As Philadelphia's second rural cemetery after historic Laurel Hill Cemetery, it was the (not so) final resting spot for numerous notable Philadelphians and home to a large obelisk monument dedicated to Washington and Lafayette from which the cemetery got its name. It is of specific interest to me because it was the burial site of some of my relatives including a great-great-great-grandmother who died in 1915. At that point the cemetery was already past its prime and over the following decades it languished mostly neglected and ignored. As its Broad Street neighbor Temple University continued to grow it was hungry to expand, and this eyesore cemetery was the perfect opportunity for it. As was routine by now, Temple got the politicians involved who paved the way for the cemetery to be condemned. While it wasn't the most shameful of the cemetery closures (that would be the city's Lafayette Cemetery, whose movement ended with some of the bodies dumped in a creek), the treatment of Monument was no less scandalous in other ways. While the bodies were exhumed and removed to unmarked graves at Lawnview Cemetery outside the city, the many ornamental monuments were criminally dumped into the Delaware River to act as a foundation for the Betsy Ross Bridge (Don't believe me? See The Cemetery Traveler blog's recounting of his visit to this creepy site along the Delaware).

What I find most disturbing of all, is that one of the graves which were violated was one who could be called the very founder of Temple University. And no, I don't mean Russell Conwell, the official founder of Temple who grew the school out of his Broad Street church (and yes, his body was moved from Monument when it was closed onto a memorial garden on campus). What I mean is a little girl in his Sunday School, Hattie May Wiatt, who in essence was the spark which made it all happen. You see, around 1883 Hattie May could not attend Sunday School most weeks because the room at church was too small. Finding Hattie outside one Sunday, Conwell brought her inside and cheered her up by saying hopefully one day a bigger building would be built to fit all the children. Hearing this, Hattie resolved to save her pennies to make this happen. When she died not long after, the victim of diphtheria at just age 5, a small purse was found under her pillow containing the 57 cents she had saved. At her funeral, her mother gave the money to Conwell, which he took to the church and, telling her story, announced it as the first gift towards the new Sunday School building. He changed the money into pennies which he offered for sale, bringing in $250 and most pennies returned to him. The movement took off, and inspired by Hattie May's generosity, the congregation not only built a bigger Sunday School but an entire new church. The "Wiatt Mite Society" named for her managed to raise the money against all odds and the church was built right on Broad Street. Hattie's pennies were accepted as the first down payment on the property, and though it was still called Grace Baptist Church, this new church also became known as The Temple. It was out of this church, bought with Hattie's pennies, that Temple University grew, along with hospitals and other institutions. Conwell declared that this congregation of thousands was born out of Hattie May's small investment. He said "she is happy on high with the thought that her life was so full, that it was so complete, that she lived really to be so old in the influences she threw upon this earth."

A forgotten part of of Hattie May's story which makes it even more tragic that I uncovered from the cemetery record is that her baby sister Annie died just five days after her of the same disease. This extra detail makes an already tragic story even more unthinkably so for her family, but somehow was completely forgotten as the story was passed down. Also neglected was Hattie and Annie's grave, which when it was dug up to be moved did not get any special treatment as Conwell's did. Their grave had already been moved once within Monument Cemetery by the family in 1904, and two years later their maternal grandmother was buried with them. When Monument closed in 1956, their remains were moved to a mass grave at Lawnview Cemetery. While Hattie's original grave marker might have been sent to the bottom of the Delaware like the rest of Monument's, Hattie was fortunate in a way because someone saw to it that her new grave in Rockledge outside the city limits was marked to some degree. A small brass plaque was placed on her grave and a limited number of others, though it says nothing except the last name of those buried below. Hattie's happens to say "Ball", as it was her grandmother's last name. So while her grave isn't marked with her own name, it is marked... or is it?

The destruction of Monument Cemetery began with its highest pinnacle

I took a visit out to the Monument mass grave at Lawnview, and found that almost all of these brass plaques have sunk completely below the soil level over the past 50 years. One wouldn't know a single person is buried there, as it appears to be nothing but an open grassy field. What is the use of having one's grave marked if the marker is completely underground? Hattie is buried in the Susquehanna Lawn, Section 76, Grave 7. After some advice from a groundskeeper and surveying of the site on my own, I learned that the lower the grave number the closer it is to the fence where Lawnview runs up against neighboring Montefiore Cemetery. Each section is actually a row, the number of each is indicated by stones which are now mostly buried too. Through a mixture of digging up section markers and some counting, I determined the approximate location of Section 76 and walked it down to the fence. While there were no visible markers in the immediate area except for a recently placed one dedicated to celebrated Civil War nurse Anna Maria Ross, I got the idea to just start thrusting my shovel into the ground. I started hitting markers deep below the surface and dug them up one by one until I was greeted with the dirt-encrusted outline of a B, followed by an A and L. Soon I had totally uncovered the Ball plaque and knew I had just found the forgotten grave of Hattie May Wiatt, apparently I was the first to do so in years if not decades.

I have to ask, why has a little girl with a tragic story who still managed to change the face of North Philadelphia, been allowed to lie so ignored and forgotten? Temple University owes its very existence to her, and yet I had to dig up a plaque which doesn't even contain her name from deep under the soil. The Ball plaque is now exposed once more, but it seems it is only a matter of time until it is reclaimed by the earth. Doesn't Hattie May deserve something more fitting? I hope that with this blog post at least her story can be told, one of triumph out of tragedy if there ever was one, and that perhaps Temple University will come across it and realize what injustice they have shown to their adolescent foundress. After all wasn't it Ben Franklin, namesake of yet another defiled Philadelphia cemetery, who said: "Show me your cemeteries and I will tell you what kind of people you have"..
The end?


NovaNardis said...

Is this how "Monument Street" got its name? Interesting.

Bianka said...

wow! i didnt know any of this. very cool!

Karina said...

good find on local history!

Revonish said...

The story of Hattie May is well known to us clergy, because of her simple and straightforward way of dealing with (not fretting about) a challenge. I appreciate your digging up (pun intended) the other part of the story, about dishonoring her memory and grabbing land. I think of this alongside the desecration of so many historic Armenian graves, like the Azeri army did in Nakhitchevan in '98 and '02, ostensibly to create a military training ground. But how different are we Americans from them? We can talk about it, sure, but will it change anything?

Jennifer M. said...

You find the most interesting bits of cemetery history.

Anonymous said...

Its heartbreaking. That one who has humbled me so can just be cast aside. Thank you for educating us.
But tell me,...
What can I do?
How can I help?
I dont have power or influence, but I want to do something.
Do I start a petition?
Im unemployed so much of what ai can offer you is just my time.
Tell me, what can we do about this?

sandy said...

Thank you for your work. Now I will know where to go to see my Great Aunt's grave.

tonya said...

I read several articles on this story. One states the grandmother died 2 years later whose last name was Ball and was put with Annie the baby sister who died 5 days later and Hattie