Thursday, July 16, 2009

Vacation Recommendation (for real!)

The photo on my banner above is of Montgomery Cemetery in Norristown, Pennsylvania. Seemed appropriate, considering my Possessed Series novels are semi-historical ghost mysteries. Cemeteries can evoke thoughts of ghosts and mysteries, and this particular burial ground is as historic as they get. Also, Montgomery Cemetery plays a significant role in my 4th (and yet unpublished) novel--titled FEAR ITSELF.

Like my protagonist, Pat Montella, I had kin (a grandmother, 2 uncles, an aunt, and 4 cousins) who lived within a block of Montgomery Cemetery. Their street ended right at the gates. As a kid, the graveyard seemed ancient to me. Derelict, too. Stones were toppled, the grass was always high. I never saw anyone venture inside. My relatives, as far as I was concerned, lived beside the mysterious ruins of a bygone civilization. How cool is that?

Fast forward a few decades, to when the Historical Society of Montgomery County took charge of the cemetery and began restoring the grounds and giving free tours. Main reason for today's blog--their tours continue this weekend and I highly recommend them. See info at the end of this article.

Before about 1850 in America, public burial grounds were usually potter's fields, that is, cleared land used for burying anyone who had no connection with a church, no burial plot on their family's property, no money for a funeral, or for anyone who died while traveling and had no family nearby. Sending a corpse home was a rare occurrence. Embalming fluid didn't catch on until the Civil War. These fields often had few or no markers.

Mid-19th century, the idea of "garden cemeteries" became popular. These were public parks where you could come to picnic on a Sunday afternoon while paying respects to your deceased loved ones. Montgomery Cemetery was founded in 1847 with this concept in mind, although it's laid out in a formal pattern instead of meandering like many other garden cemeteries (West Laurel Hill near Philadelphia, for example). Montgomery was actually one of the first cemeteries of its kind and has one of the largest collections of underground vaults in the region. (An underground vault is essentially a subterranean mausoleum--a room with shelves, usually accessed by ladder through a slab on top.)

If you're a Civil War buff, you shouldn't miss this place. Montgomery was the final resting place of 5 Union generals, the most famous being Major-General Winfield Scott Hancock, said to have "saved the Nation" at the Battle of Gettysburg, before going on to become a candidate for U.S. President in 1880, losing by a very narrow margin to James A. Garfield (who was shot only 4 months later). Hancock's funeral in Norristown was attended by thousands, and his pallbearers included Generals Sherman, Sheridan and Buell, and Secretary of State Bayard.

The other generals buried in Montgomery were Hartranft (the officer in charge of the Lincoln Conspiracy prisoners, who gave the final order for the first execution of a woman in the U.S.--he went on to become governor of Pennsylvania and welcome the world to the state during the American centennial celebration), Slemmer (who fired the first Union shots of the war), Zook and McClennan.

The cemetery is chock full of other historic personages, plus fascinating stories, like the huge mound that supposedly marks a witch's grave, and the tale of Charles Hunsicker whose skull was stolen by grave robbers. Legend has it that the robbers all went on to became victims of some form of accidental decapitation. Besides all this, Montgomery's tomb architecture is amazing--worth the trip all by itself.

For more info on Montgomery Cemetery and the free tours, go to


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