Penny Heaven, gravediggers, and chickens

Feuding over a baby’s death: When people can’t afford a gravedigger

Schley Alley and W. 7th Ave., North York

Project Penny Heaven: Remembering the Forgotten Ones. Go to Preservation PA to make a donation to help us reach our goal: $20,000.

The situation

The remains of baby Margaret Williams were at risk of being dug up. Not by graverobbers, but by chickens. Livestock had taken over York’s City Cemetery in North York. In reality, thieves would have no reason to visit Margaret’s grave. The baby came from a family so poor they had to dig the burial hole themselves. 

Instead of a pristine memorial garden, Margaret’s body lay in Penny Heaven – a place for the people with no family, were unidentified, or in Magaret’s case, no financial means. 

Today, the city mows York City Cemetery or Penny Heaven (also known as potter’s or pauper’s field), keeping the appearance trim and neat — so neat you wouldn’t know more than 800 people are encased in unmarked graves. However, 100 years ago, the keepers of Penny Heaven cared so little for those interred in this grassy field that conditions deteriorated into a barnyard.

A plymouth barred rock usually won’t do too much damage to an open field. But they can expose patches of dirt to bathe in.

According to an article from The York Dispatch in 1906, York’s “disgrace[d]” City Cemetery lodged pecking hens, rooting hogs, and cackling roosters which scratched at the field’s surface. “A Plymouth Rock hen was dusting herself in the center of a small grave,” the article reads. It could have been the fresh dirt from Margaret’s mound since she was the only person known to have been buried in that year, but we can’t be sure. 

Such little regard was paid to the deceased, that “if it were not for a few insignificant markers,” the article reads, “no one would be able to locate them.” Rain, wind, snow, and tall grass eventually consumed the wooden markers, leaving the cemetery blank, save one small stone in the southeast corner that wasn’t installed until 1995.

Next to baby Margaret and the other burial plots, someone heaped piles of lumber and manure. It got so bad that W.J. Boll, the undertaker, prompted an investigation, offering carriages to York’s the mayor and council members for their personal inspections.

A single marker – the only indication that this plot of ground is a cemetery.

The witness

Who was responsible for Penny Heaven’s neglect? In all likelihood, it was a groundskeeper named Lecrone  – Keeper of Potter’s Field. The city paid Lecrone $40 annually (about $3,500 today) to maintain the property, including digging the graves of York City residents. He clearly wasn’t doing his job, including the burial of little Margaret. In fact, a feud ensued surrounding this child’s death between Lecrone, the keeper, and Boll, the undertaker. 

Boll had gotten to know and empathize with Margaret’s family. Her mother, Sarah Hall, had already lost two children buried in Penny Heaven. In a letter to The York Dispatch, Boll explained how he had “gone to some expense and considerable trouble to bury the infants of Sarah Hall,” and “never received nor expected to receive one penny for [his] services.” 

After purchasing the coffin and trimming from the almshouse as well as a burial permit, he asked Lecrone to dig the grave. $3 was Lecrone’s charge, a fee “Twice,” Boll wrote, “what gravediggers in other cemeteries charge for infants’ graves.” Boll refused to pay, and the family couldn’t afford it either. Boll explained that the child’s relatives were “almost destitute and had no money to pay any price, to say nothing of double price.” Lecrone wouldn’t budge. 

With no one to dig the grave, family members found themselves armed with shovels and digging bars, unearthing an infant-sized hole for their own kin. 

Margaret’s death certificate shows she did from malnutrition. This was also a time of segregation in York County. But that didn’t matter for Penny Heaven. Black and white people were buried side-by-side. In death, race didn’t matter as much as your class.

Almost at once, Lecrone inspected the site. He found the family buried Margaret only two feet and eight inches deep — more than a foot shallower than legal requirements — and immediately went to the authorities. The sanitary committee ordered Boll to “take up the body” and rebury it four feet deep. Baby Margaret still could not rest in peace. 

Boll’s response? He claimed Lecrone only went to the authorities because he didn’t get paid: “Annoyed because he had failed to extort a double price from a destitute man,” Boll wrote, “Lechrone saw fit to report the matter.” Plus, Boll argued that the baby’s plot depth reached three feet three inches, not two feet eight inches. 

In addition to the exhumation, the committee passed a resolution that stated, “hereafter will not allow any person to dig a grave on potters’ field except Mr. Lecrone or his substitute.” Furthermore, Lecrone would get paid $3 for each dug grave, save York City residents. 

Sarah Hall lived on the 100 block of E. Philadelphia St. 

Boll had been publicly kicked out when the committee granted Lecrone sole access to grave digging in Penny Heaven. Boll bitterly responded by reporting Lecrone’s chicken coops and pig pens to authorities. There was an investigation, but the clean up order must have been a private matter because no known newspapers reported on it. 

Today, the remains of more than 800 souls rest in Penny Heaven. But you wouldn’t know it from the view. It’s merely a grassy field. The only known records of the plots are an Index of Graves from 1930, and even those are incomplete —
Margaret Williams isn’t even mentioned. 

In one of the The York Dispatch articles, the journalist copied this quote: 

“Rattle his bones over the stones; he’s only a pauper that nobody owns.”

Let’s change this. 

Honoring the dead

Efforts are underway to publicly recognize those who were unidentified, had no family, or no money. Jamie and the Friends of York City Cemetery are raising money to install a permanent memorial. If you’d like to contribute, visit Preservation PA’s Donation page. A public event is coming in early September to lay out plans to better mark this cemetery and to honor those buried there.

Episode 2.11 of Hometown History: Jamie and Domi’s YoCo Backstory goes deeper into the story of Baby Margaret Williams.

Hometown History: Jamie and Domi’s YoCo Backstory – Season 1, Episode 4 focuses on three cemeteries in York (Prospect Hill, Lebanon Cemetery, and City Cemetery).

The questions

I pieced this story together using their public rebukes in The Gazette and The York Dispatch. Both Lecrone and Boll went to the newspaper to air their grievances against one another (I get it – it was before you could vent on Twitter and Facebook). However, the victim of this story was a dead baby from a low-income family who is not recognized in the records. How can we better serve those in-need? What can we do to keep the important things in focus – people?

Related links and sourcesThe unmarked graves of forgotten Yorkers“; “It’s more than a grassy field, City Cemetery bears 800 unmarked graves by Jamie Noerpel; York’s Potter’s Field exhumations center of early dispute about disease” by Jim McClure; Photos of cemetery and chicken, Jamie Noerpel; Mike Shanabrook provided burial records; Research assistance by Samantha Dorm.


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