Regina Miller knew the situation had gotten out of hand at Mount Vernon Cemetery when the mailman showed up at her home with somebody’s ashes.
For the last half-century, the historic cemetery, high above the Schuylkill, has been owned by an enigmatic lawyer from Washington, D.C., named Joseph Dinsmore Murphy.
Murphy is rarely seen around these parts, and nature has reclaimed the final resting places of 19th-century Philadelphia beer barons, the Drew and Barrymore acting dynasties, and two delegates to the Continental Congress.
Sections of the cemetery’s fence have been consumed by aggressive flora, creating the impression of an unruly forest threatening to spill onto the sidewalk of West Lehigh Avenue in North Philadelphia.
Miller had tracked down Murphy several years ago because she had been unable to get into the cemetery to visit her grandparents’ graves. A researcher and archivist, she agreed to his request for help pulling records and locating burial plots.
But Miller soon learned that Mount Vernon — described by a local historian as “one of Philadelphia’s most interesting yet underappreciated pieces of land” — was not only overgrown and inaccessible, but that some people who had purchased plots there were no longer being buried in accordance with their wishes.
“I know because the remains were sent to me,” Miller said, describing how in 2017 cremation ashes for two people mysteriously arrived at her Overbrook Farms home.
Murphy, she said, had told her he didn’t want to mail them to the cemetery’s then-groundskeeper because they might be stolen off the man’s front porch.
“I said: ‘I don’t know who these people are. I can’t dig a hole in the cemetery,’” Miller recalled. “He told me to hang on to them.”
Better days could lie ahead for the 165-year-old cemetery.
A group of Philadelphia preservationists, cultural leaders, and volunteers, including Miller, recently wrested control of the cemetery from its out-of-town owner with a novel use of Pennsylvania’s Abandoned and Blighted Property Conservatorship Act, also known as Act 135.
Employing a legal route used for rehabilitating old rowhouses and other abandoned buildings, the group succeeded last month in getting a city judge to appoint the Philadelphia Community Development Coalition as conservator to do large-scale landscaping and repairs at Mount Vernon until a long-term steward can take charge.
That cleanup process could involve a small army of … hungry goats.
The judge’s ruling followed failed negotiations to have Murphy voluntarily relinquish control of the cemetery. A deal was close a few years ago but ultimately fell through.
The Washington lawyer did not respond to The Inquirer’s requests for comment left at two phone numbers and an email address associated with him, nor to a message left with his lawyer.
“Murphy just vanished. We sort of got ghosted,” said Thaddeus Squire, a board member of the nonprofit cemetery corporation that is prepared to take control of Mount Vernon once the conservatorship’s work is completed.
Squire said Murphy, who inherited the cemetery from his father in 1973, needed to be “forcibly ousted.”
“If you ask him, he feels that he’s been an excellent steward of the cemetery,” Squire said. “Unfortunately, the conservatorship was really the only route we could go to get him out of there and start to move forward.”
Ruins of an ‘Italian fairy tale’
Mount Vernon Cemetery was founded in 1856 as part of the “rural” or “garden” cemetery movement, where cemeteries were designed to be not just burial grounds but also public green spaces on the outskirts of crowded cities.
The 27-acre cemetery, across Ridge Avenue from the older Laurel Hill Cemetery, was popular among Philadelphia’s 19th-century nouveau riche, particularly people tied to the beer breweries and those of Germanic descent. They paid enormous sums to build mausoleums, underground vaults, and monuments to the dead. Also there: thousands of 18th-century graves from the Second Presbyterian Church burial ground on Arch Street, including heroes from the Revolutionary War.
Architectural historian Constance Greiff once described Mount Vernon’s elaborate gatehouse and now-collapsed bell tower, designed by architect John Notman, as “the setting for an Italian fairy tale” with an “ethereal and dreamlike quality,” according to J.P. Webster’s Vanishing Philadelphia: Ruins of the Quaker City.
Today, that gatehouse feels like a portal into another world.
In the heat and humidity, the cemetery grounds have been transformed into a slow-motion phantasmagoria of kudzu, wild grapevine, ivy, and Virginia creeper. The vines run up century-old trees and across cemetery roads, and swallow entire marble monuments and 20-foot-tall obelisks.
“Welcome to lunacy,” Andrew O’Brien, a landscaper hired by the conservator to battle the growth, said during a recent tour.
O’Brien has been working to clear the roads that run through the cemetery. The brush is so dense that when he finds a gravestone, he calls Miller so she can look up burial records and tell him where the road is supposed to be.
Glass has been shattered above a waterlogged crypt. Bones are floating in the muck below, believed to belong to a deer that fell in and died.
A mausoleum’s bronze doors were looted in recent months. Inside, a wooden box contains the remains of a 10-month-old girl, Catherine Sauer, who died in 1901. Her family was in the beer business.
“Absolutely disgraceful,” Miller said of the vandals who have repeatedly targeted Sauer’s mausoleum. “It’s heartbreaking.”
In the gatehouse, the ashes of at least one person were stashed in a desk drawer for a decade, according to the Act 135 court petition.
Nearby, there is the limestone grave of a Medal of Honor recipient — from the Civil War.
Actors Louisa Lane Drew, Maurice Barrymore, and John Barrymore are also buried at Mount Vernon. Weeds have completely covered their graves.
“The Drews are behind here,” O’Brien said, pointing to an overgrown area. “You can’t see anything.”
But the centerpiece of Mount Vernon is the 25-foot pyramid-shaped Gardel monument, built in 1864 by the Belgian sculptor G. Geef to honor Julia Hawkes Gardel, the principal of a female seminary in Philadelphia killed by bedouins while traveling from Jerusalem to Damascus. The monument features statues of Hope and Faith holding up a carved relief of Gardel.
This summer, O’Brien was able to clear the monument of vines. With more work, he sees Mount Vernon as a historic cemetery and potential tourist attraction that could rival its well-kept neighbor across the street.
“This place, if it was clear,” he said, “would be way better than Laurel Hill.”
Clearing the growth is a massive and expensive undertaking, one that might require a creative solution.
“Right now, we’re leaning toward goats,” said Dustin Houck, of the Philadelphia Community Development Coalition, the court-appointed conservator. “We’re considering hiring about 100 goats.”
The idea is that an entire farm of North Jersey goats could slowly eat their way across the property. Natural landscapers. Will work for water.
Money is tight, and PCDC is hoping to avoid dipping into the approximately $1 million in Mount Vernon plot trusts left by families of the deceased for upkeep and flowers. Neither was being done under Murphy’s ownership in recent years.
“Right now, we’re just footing the costs ourselves to do this,” Houck said. “We can’t just go out and spend half a million dollars on landscapers. The goats would be cheaper and much more eco-friendly.”
Murphy had not sold any plots since 1968, but the cemetery is believed to include a significant amount of unsold land. If it can be rehabbed, some of the future uses being considered are:
Construction of a new columbarium for urns. Interfaith burials. Charitable plots. Biodegradable alternative burials. Historic tours and arts programming similar to those at Laurel Hill. A community corps of volunteer gardeners to maintain or develop plantings. Or even, leaving it, at least temporarily, partially overgrown, a Philadelphia version of London’s Abney Park Cemetery.
“Unlike some historic cemeteries that are literally full, Mount Vernon has a little bit of life left in it, so there’s a lot of interesting potential there,” said Squire, of Social Impact Commons, who has been working on the cemetery project for about four years.
Squire’s group is in the process of establishing a fund-raising mechanism for Mount Vernon. It also wants to restore the gatehouse and possibly renovate it as a residence for a full-time caretaker.
Aaron Wunsch, a historic preservation professor at the University of Pennsylvania and expert on Philadelphia cemeteries, said the rehabilitation of Mount Vernon must balance the interests of several constituencies, including relatives of the deceased, urban explorers, and local runners and dog walkers.
“These places have always had a public dimension to them,” said Wunsch, who is also involved in the Mount Vernon project. “But you always have to be aware of what the descendants of people buried there feel about that, too.”
Houck, of PCDC, admitted that he was initially skeptical of the community impact of the project. Then, a couple of months ago, when he was unlocking the gates, a family from South Carolina happened to show up, trying to find their buried relatives. He was able to let them in. Otherwise, they would have encountered a locked gate.
“I was like, ‘OK, there are thousands of people this is going to help,’” Houck said. “There are a ton of people buried here and they have family. That’s honestly the biggest community impact I can think of for any project we could do.”
On a recent Friday morning, Gretchen Van Buren watched as her uncle, Conrad Schuler, 84, placed a sunflower arrangement by the gravestone of her parents — his brother and sister-in-law.
Van Buren, a preschool teacher from Jenkintown, said that when her father died in 2005, Queen Anne’s lace wildflowers had sprouted up in the cemetery, creating an eerie vibe.
“The family and friends that came I think were just spellbound by what was going on,” she said. “You felt like you were pulling into some kind of horror movie.”
A massive obelisk towers over the plots. Van Buren believes it was purchased by her great-great-great-grandfather Benjamin Hendricks, a real estate broker who died in 1902.
Over the years, the state of the cemetery has only gotten worse, she said. The family tries to visit each year but getting ahold of Murphy had been difficult.
In recent years, Miller and others behind the plan to restore the cemetery have let Van Buren and Schuler in for visits.
“It really means a lot to be able to visit,” she said. “For a while, we were losing hope that anything was going to happen.”
Besides, the cemetery still has a few customers waiting.
After watering the flowers at his brother’s grave, Schuler, a florist, glanced over at a nearby spot on the ground.
“This,” he said, “is where I eventually will go.”