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Local author tells tales of historic Fishtown and Kensington cemeteries

Dead people generally keep pretty quiet. But in his latest book, local historian Kenneth Milano tells tales of long-gone fishermen, shipbuilders, soldiers, ancestors of a great baseball family, community leaders and others buried in historic cemeteries in Kensington and Fishtown.

In Palmer Cemetery and the Historic Burial Grounds of Kensington & Fishtown, Milano details the role Kensington founder Anthony Palmer and his heirs played in creating Palmer Cemetery in the mid-1700s and of an early 1800s battle where another to-be community institution, First Presbyterian Church of Kensington, tried to wrest control of the burial ground from its trustees.

In a battle of printed pamphlets, church leaders said the trustees were negligent in their duties while the trustees said what the church, which was running low on construction funds, really wanted was the cemetery’s money. The state legislature ruled in favor of the trustees.

Milano tells the sad story of a busy time for those in the burial business, the 1793 Yellow Fever outbreak. Between August and November, he writes, an average of 42 people were buried each month – compared to the usual 4 per month. The illness is believed to have been brought to the area by Elizabeth Hill, wife of one of the community’s original fisherman, Jacob Hill Jr. Reports say she was sailing near the “infected wharves” in Philadelphia, but Milano says, “In all likelihood, she was probably transporting fish to sell at the fish market at Front and Market streets.”

Milano also writes about cemeteries that used to be in the community, but were closed, and the remains they contained moved elsewhere. The historian’s research make it clear that many bodies were likely left behind.

In a section of the book that should not be read with breakfast, he details the demise and removal of a cemetery that operated from about 1831 to 1892 on the south side of Vienna (now Berks) Street between West (now Belgrade) and Gaul streets. The cemetery had many names, including the Union Burial Ground of the Northern Liberties and Kensington and West Street Burial Ground, Milano states. Whatever people called it, it was a source of trouble for neighbors by 1876, when the city declared it a nuisance.

Cosmetic fixes were made, but in summer 1878, neighbors along Vienna (Berks) Street complained to the city that “foul oozings from the ground pour out upon the pavement.”

According to an Aug. 15, 1890 Evening Herald article Milano reprints in his book, residents of Allegheny Avenue, near the Aramingo Canal, reported to police that Highway Bureau workers were moving soil from the cemetery to the marshy areas along the canal bank, and “that among the dirt had been found human skulls, ribs, arm and leg bones.”

Milano reports that in 1892, the cemetery land was sold and remains were moved to a mass burial plot at Northwood Cemetery, 15th and Haines streets.  

The book contains many old maps and photographs, as well as more current photographs showing the modern looks of blocks where cemeteries used to be.

The book is available through the publisher’s website at www.historypress.net. Search for Milano. It can also be purchased at book store chain’s local locations and at Laurel Hill Cemetery Gift Shop and other local stores.

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