April 6th is Tartan Day – a national observance celebrating Scottish heritage. Laurel hill has quite a few notable Scots buried here, and we wanted to take this chance to highlight some of them.
General Hugh Mercer
(Painting: The Death of General Mercer at the Battle of Princeton, January 3, 1777 by: John Trumbull)
Now, how does a Revolutionary War hero who died in 1777 find himself in Laurel Hill, which didn’t open until 1836? The short answer is: advertising.
Here’s the long answer…
Hugh Mercer was born in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. He attended the University of Aberdeen to study medicine, and graduated a doctor. His medical skills made him valuable to the army of Bonnie Prince Charlie where he became assistant surgeon. After the battle of Culloden (which did NOT go well for Hugh or his fellow soldiers), Mercer fled his homeland, and crossed the Atlantic to land in Pennsylvania.
(Yes, we are yadda-yadda-yadda-ing over a lot here, but we’ll gladly get into more depth on one of our tours!)
He eventually became a brigadier general in the Continental Army and served closely with George Washington. It’s believed that Mercer played a huge role in the famous crossing of the Delaware on Christmas Eve, and he was largely considered an American war hero before he even got to the Battle of Princeton, which is where he would meet his ultimate fate.
Leading a small vanguard of about 350 soldiers, Mercer’s men unexpectedly ran into a large group of British soldiers, and a fight broke out. Mercer’s horse was quickly shot out from under him, but he got to his feet and began brandishing his saber, ready to continue fighting.
It’s guessed that the British mistook Mercer for George Washington himself (Mercer was on a white horse, and that was part of Washington’s overall aesthetic), which might explain the brutality of what happened next.
He was struck on the back of the head with a rifle, knocked down, and bayoneted seven times. He sustained 5 wounds to his body and 2 to the head. Despite these massive injuries, Mercer hung on. Benjamin Rush was sent to tend to him personally, which might have helped him linger on for the next nine days. Ultimately his wounds proved too grievous and Mercer finally died on January 12, 1777.
He was laid to rest originally in the Christ Church Burial Ground in Philadelphia. Shortly after Laurel Hill opened, in an effort to attract new business, the company sought to re-inter some celebrities here. The idea of spending eternity as a neighbor to some of our country’s greatest heroes was attractive to many, and Laurel Hill was happy to provide a place of honor for General Mercer.
The moving of his remains was treated with pomp and reverence. His coffin was escorted from Christ Church to Laurel Hill by both the Saint Andrew’s and Thistle Societies, along with an honor guard made up of many United States Officers and the First City Troop.
He now rests under this monument in Section G, Lot 121, and as intended, he has many neighbors.
John Notman is especially important to Laurel Hill, because he’s the reason much of the cemetery looks the way it does today.
Born in 1810 in Edinburgh Scotland, he emigrated to the U.S. as a young man in 1831. We don’t know much about his life between 1831 and 1836 when the cemetery was founded, other than the fact that he was listed in a city directory as a “carpenter.”
Some time between March and June of 1836, John Jay Smith, one of Laurel Hill’s founders, put out a call for design submissions for the new rural cemetery he was planning outside the noise and crowding of Philadelphia. (Laurel Hill was originally 3 miles past the city limits.)
We don’t know how many designs were submitted, but we know that three were in the running for the final design, and John Notman’s plan is the one Smith chose.
His design called for roads and pathways, a gatehouse, a chapel, a cottage for the superintendent, and a housing for the Old Mortality sculpture grouping which would greet visitors as they entered the grounds. Notman was only 25 at the time.
Notman went on to design many other buildings such as a home called “Riverside” in Burlington New Jersey (now demolished), which introduced the Italianate style to America. He also designed The Athenaeum, St. Mark’s Church on Locust St., the gate for Mount Vernon Cemetery, the New Jersey State Lunatic Asylum in Trenton, and the Church of the Holy Trinity in Rittenhouse Square.
His work made an impact, as evidenced by the fact that he was invited to be one of the founders of the American Institute of Architects.
Notman died March 2, 1865, and he is now buried in Section M, Lot 163 N 1/2, right within view of the gatehouse he designed.
John Struthers was a marble mason born in Irvine, Scotland. He emigrated to the U.S. with his family in 1816. His work with marble was so sought after, that he provided monuments for every prominent Victorian cemetery in the country. Here in Laurel Hill, he carved Commodore Issac Hull’s Monument, among others.
(Issac Hull’s Monument at Laurel Hill)
Early on in his career, he associated himself with William Strickland. Together, they worked on St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, the steeple on Independence Hall, and the United States Naval Home to name a few.
Struthers later went into business for himself. He provided the marble, and acted as chief mason for the building of the Second Bank of the United States, and The Merchant’s exchange. He also made some of the most elaborate marble mantlepieces on display in homes throughout the city.
When the bodies of George and Martha Washington were to be placed in a more secure housing, Struthers donated the marble sarcophagi which would house their remains. He carved the interiors to fit the leaden coffins, and placed the new tombs on the grounds at Mount Vernon.
(George and Martha Washington’s marble sarcophagi at Mount Vernon)
John Struthers died April 30, 1851, and is buried at Laurel Hill in the “Shrubbery” section (Medalion Garden), Lots 1-5.
If you’re celebrating your Scottish heritage today, why not swing by the cemetery to visit some notable Scots from Philadelphia’s past? Tartan not required (but highly encouraged!)