'IT IS the most interesting neighborhood in the city," says Patricia Stringer.

There are 100,000 residents in its 85 acres and not one complains about crime, city services, taxes, schools, or anything else.

That's because they're all dead.

They are interred in Laurel Hill Cemetery, the first graveyard to be designated a National Historical Landmark. Stringer, 62, is one of 30 volunteer tour guides.

The cemetery in East Falls, established in 1836, is bounded by Ridge Avenue on the east, and overlooks Kelly Drive and the Schuylkill to the west. It is a view of beauty and tranquillity.

Laurel Hill's two most famous residents - although you can get an argument about this - are Gen. George Gordon Meade, the Union hero of Gettysburg, and Harry Kalas, the baritone hero of Veterans Stadium and Citizens Bank Park. There are a half-dozen Philadelphia mayors, other politicians, Medal of Honor recipients, Titanic passengers, bankers and brigands and nobodies buried here.

I'm there last Saturday on a raw day under a slate gray sky that's threatening to do something ugly.

The bad news is it's cold. The good news is the cold means no crowds. There are fewer than a dozen on my tour and the cemetery is hosting no other living souls, except for the groundhogs. More about them in a bit.

There are about three dozen theme tours offered throughout the year, on different days of the week with different start times. Most are $12, a few are more, and some are free.

The tour I'm taking is "The Pen Is Mightier Than the Sword: Writers, Editors and Publishers of Laurel Hill," and if I have to explain why I chose this one, you're not paying attention.

At the start, Stringer apologizes for being hard of hearing, but her husband, Tom, wearing a Penn baseball cap, is there to translate if necessary. He's a volunteer guide too, and since he had been a medical editor, he leads tours highlighting physicians.

Residents of the Burholme section of the Northeast, they became guides about three years ago after hearing a KYW NewsRadio story that mentioned the need for guides, most of whom have one or more specialities. Guides are unpaid, drawn in by their love of history, each responsible for researching and writing their own scripts. No fiction is permitted.

At a leisurely pace, the tour takes about two hours, making about a dozen stops covering most of the 85 acres. I have a few favorites.

One is Sarah Josepha Buell, born in 1788 into a New Hampshire family that believed women should be educated. When her older brother Horatio came home from Dartmouth, he taught her what he had learned, making her "America's first distance learner," Stringer says.

At 25, she married lawyer David Hale, who encouraged her, and she had many essays and poems published in local newspapers anonymously, without payment. It was considered indecent for a woman to write for money, says Stringer.

David died nine years into their marriage, leaving Sarah with five children. Several of her husband's friends raised money to publish a collection of her poetry, again anonymously.

The book sold well. She then published an antislavery novel called Northwood, 25 years before Uncle Tom's Cabin. This carried her name, Sarah J. Hale, and eventually led to a job offer from Philadelphian Louis Godey, who published an enormously popular women's magazine and wanted Hale to edit it.

She agreed, but only if she could do it by mail from Boston because she wouldn't move to Philadelphia until her youngest child was out of school. As editor, she steered away from what she called "watery verse and sugary romance," and instead published the works of Edgar Allan Poe and Washington Irving, making Godey's the most influential magazine of its day. Working by long distance made Hale "America's first known telecommuter," Stringer says with a smile.

She popularized white wedding dresses and Christmas trees, and petitioned five presidents for a Thanksgiving national holiday, finally succeeding with Abraham Lincoln.

These are mighty achievements, but you may know her best for a four-paragraph poem she wrote: "Mary Had a Little Lamb."

Hale came to Philadelphia from Boston. George W. Childs came from Baltimore.

At 14, he decided not to re-enlist in the Navy and came to Philadelphia, snagging a job as an errand boy in a bookstore. By 16 he was the chief buyer. By 21 he was half-owner of a publishing firm with offices in the building that housed the Public Ledger newspaper. The Ledger foolishly didn't support the North in the Civil War and was collapsing in 1864. Childs and Anthony Drexel bought it, reversed the editorial policy, and reversed its fortunes.

Childs was an unusual publisher. He never asked anyone to do anything he would not do, so in addition to writing, he worked the presses and swept the floor. Even more unusual, employees got paid vacations and pensions, women were paid the same as men for doing the same job, and everyone got a $100 Christmas bonus.

Those were days when newspaper ownership created fortunes rather than wrecking them.

His honesty and generosity became legend, and in 1888 several influential people encouraged Childs to run for president. He refused, "saying, after all, he was just a businessman who had never held public office," recounts Stringer with a wry smile that a certain bottle blond presidential candidate would not like.

Finally, we turn to William Wood, whose marker calls him a comedian, but who referred to himself as a "general actor." He's included in this tour because he had a published memoir.

"Theater in the 19th century wasn't a passive experience," says Stringer. Playing Romeo to his wife's Juliet in the Chestnut Street Theater in 1811, someone threw a musket ball at the stage, hitting Mrs. Wood.

The husband broke character and ran to the front of the stage to confront the "critic."

The audience broke into riot. Makes you wonder just how bad their performance was.

After that, Wood always carried a loaded pistol and a sword cane into the theater, and two uniformed police officers were present for each performance.

"The next time you hear about Philadelphians throwing snowballs at Santa," Stringer says, "think about this incident."

At the start of the tour, she warned walkers to watch out for groundhog holes, which are about the size of a human foot. Toward the end of the tour, we did see one, which reminded 62-year-old Tom Stringer of this story:

Flags are placed at all veterans' graves on the Sunday before Memorial Day, and he noticed after Memorial Day the flags were disappearing.

The no-admission-fee cemetery is open daily until 4:30 - walkers, picnickers and dogs are welcome - so there were many suspects.

He soon realized the thieves were not coming in the gate, they were underfoot.

Groundhogs were stealing the small flags and dragging them underground to use as lining in their burrows.

That's what Tom said, and - remember - no fiction is permitted.


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