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Grave sights

For Halloween, haunting visits to notable residents' resting places.

The grave marker of Robert Patterson is a lion at Laurel Hill Cemetery. The lion represents courage and determination of the soul whose tomb he guards. In the foreground is the grave marker of General Francis Engle Patterson. ( Charles Fox / Staff Photographer
The grave marker of Robert Patterson is a lion at Laurel Hill Cemetery. The lion represents courage and determination of the soul whose tomb he guards. In the foreground is the grave marker of General Francis Engle Patterson. ( Charles Fox / Staff PhotographerRead more

Martha Drinnan's male forebears were long the caretakers of the Laurel Hill Cemetery, high above the Schuylkill toward East Falls. One eerie night in 1904, the sweet young lass of the poor Irish family disappeared. Months later, her headless body was found on a floating bed of ice in the Delaware River.

Though Martha's murder was never solved, each year about this time her voice and visage come up for air at Laurel Hill, a part of the cemetery's "live" "Not Ready for Afterlife" flashlight Halloween tours.

"We like to have ordinary people speak from beyond the grave at Halloween," said Laurel Hill education director Gwendolyn Kaminski. "It is a famous cemetery, but what is wonderful now is the stories the actors can tell."

Lots of pretty famous folks are buried in Laurel Hill: Declaration of Independence signer Thomas McKean; David Rittenhouse, astronomer, mathematician, and first director of the U.S. Mint; 42 Civil War generals; industrialists Matthias Baldwin and Henry Disston, not to mention Henry Deringer Jr., the inventor of that old-timey-Western gun type.

The Halloween Flashlight Tours, every 15 minutes from 7 to 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, will offer some sagas of the less obviously famous ($20, 215-228-8200, 3822 Ridge Ave.). There will be actors, for example, portraying Mahlon Heberton and Singleton Mercer. Heberton, according to Kaminski, was a well-known "player" in mid-19th-century Philadelphia, and took advantage of a sister of Mercer's. Mercer was incensed, and one day followed Heberton on the Camden ferry across the Delaware River and shot him dead. Because of the extenuating circumstances, Mercer got off on a claim of temporary insanity, but as fate would have it, many years later, after Mercer himself had died and been buried elsewhere, his family bought a plot and moved his body there - right next to the one long holding Heberton.

Visiting Ben

The folks at Christ Church Burial Ground also like to do it up at Halloween time. This year's theme is the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, which killed thousands in the city, including many buried in the main church burial ground at Fifth and Arch Streets.

The most prominent of the graves there - though he died several years before the epidemic - is that of Ben Franklin, alongside his wife, Deborah. The main gate for the burial ground used to be along Fourth Street, with Ben's stone far off in the back. Yet being the famous guy he was, many people wanted to visit his grave, so tours now start from the gate nearby on Arch Street. The tradition has long been to throw a penny on Ben's grave for good luck, which Christ Church director of tourism Anne McLaughlin said started with brides on the way to their weddings. If the coin landed face up, their marriages would be full of good fortune.

Franklin's grandson, Benjamin Bache, who was heir to the famous printing business, died in a later yellow fever epidemic in 1796, and is buried near his grandparents. The tours are Friday and next Friday, Nov. 5, at 5:30 p.m. Price is $5 (215-922-1695).

No ghoul like an old ghoul

There are some wonderful gravesites of centuries-old famous Philadelphians who probably wouldn't mind a Halloween visit.

Right outside her home, with stone cats near her grave, is Elizabeth Griscom Ross Ashburn Claypoole, better known as Betsy Ross, said to have sewn the first American flag. She was actually married to Ross for only a couple of years before he was blown up by munitions he was guarding down by the Delaware River. Ashburn and Claypoole were her later husbands. The Betsy Ross House is at 239 Arch St. and it's open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

Not far away, at Washington Square, near Sixth and Walnut Streets, is the original Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the one from the Revolutionary War. The tomb was built here in 1957, with a body disinterred from a potter's field. The tomb reads, "Beneath this stone rests a soldier of Washington's army who died to give you liberty."

At 412 Pine St., the churchyard of Old Pine Street Presbyterian Church holds the graves of Jared Ingersoll, a signer of the Constitution; William Hurry, the man who rang the Liberty Bell on July 4, 1776, to alert all to the signing of the Declaration of Independence; and Eugene Ormandy, who directed many bell-ringers in his time as conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Across the street at 313 Pine St. is the St. Peter's Episcopal Church graveyard, "home" to painter Charles Willson Peale; Commodore Stephen Decatur; John Nixon, who gave the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence; and the only vice president of the United States from Pennsylvania, George Dallas, for whom Dallas, Texas, was named. The ghost sightings here are mostly of several Indian chiefs who contracted yellow fever in the 1793 epidemic and are said to wander the grounds nearly every night.

Walt Whitman, too, is said to wander from his crypt at Harleigh Cemetery at 1640 Haddon Ave. on the border between Collingswood and Camden, open Mondays through Saturdays, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Take me out

Philadelphia sports fans can have a devilish time at Halloween visiting ghosts of the past. Why not start with the favorite announcers Harry Kalas and Richie "Whitey" Ashburn? Kalas' grave at Laurel Hill Cemetery has seats from Veterans Stadium nearby, the better to "hear" Harry singing his signature "High Hopes." Fans can envision Ashburn wearing his cap and chewing on his pipe, wincing at a Kalas one-liner in the graveyard of the Gladwyne United Methodist Church, 316 Righters Mills Rd., Gladwyne.

On the border between Cheltenham and Philadelphia at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery (4001 W. Cheltenham Ave.) is the resting place of the Grand Old Man of Baseball, Connie Mack, who owned and managed the Philadelphia A's for more than 50 years.

Head over to Morgan Cemetery on Cinnaminson Avenue in Palmyra to visit an obscure baseball figure who nevertheless made a lasting contribution, Russell Aubrey "Lena" Blackburne. Though Blackburne's career lasted eight unremarkable seasons for four teams, after he retired he discovered mud on his Burlington County property that took the sheen off the horsehide of major-league baseballs. The mud, which his descendants sell to baseball to this day, is from a secret creek bed where Blackburne is said to wander these fall nights.

If you can catch him, there is the ghost of Charles William "Sandy" Piez, there in Atlantic City Cemetery along New Road in Pleasantville, N.J. Piez played but one year in the majors, 1914, and came to bat only eight times, with three hits for a .375 lifetime average for the New York Giants. But Piez was so fast that the Giants decided to use him in 33 other games in the theretofore virtually unused position of pinch-runner. No one had ever done it more than a dozen times a season, and Piez is said today to take off many nights and speed as quickly as his feet can take him, out toward Atlantic City.