If you’re on our mailing list, you should be receiving the 2018 Laurel Hill Ledger any day now. In it, you’ll see an abbreviated interview with one of our star volunteers, Rich Boardman. What follows is the expanded version of his interview.
Rich Boardman is a Laurel Hill Cemetery member, a guide since 2016, and a volunteer who is currently working on updating our Notables Database—a useful tool used by Laurel Hill Cemetery Tour guides to help them create their tours. A transplant from the south side of Chicago, Rich spent 43 years with the Free Library of Philadelphia, retiring as Head of the Map Collection in 2015.
Interview held on May 18, 2018
How did you originally get involved with Laurel Hill Cemetery?
I saw a listing for cemetery tours with longtime tour guide Michael Brooks in the catalog for the Mt. Airy Learning Tree. Even though I had passed the cemetery so frequently while commuting to the Free Library, I never really thought about visiting. Once I took Michael’s tour and learned about the tour guide classes, I was hooked. After the tour I started guide training and began volunteering soon after.
In your own words, what exactly is the volunteer project are you currently working on?
It’s a data base of “notable” individuals that are buried at Laurel Hill which the staff developed for use in tour guide training. These are individuals that have some biographical information in the lot files and who have done something “of note,” (or who have had something done to them).
Most of the biography descriptions have been entered and I’m concentrating on going back to verify birth and death dates by using a combination of Genealogy Bank, Family Search, and Ancestry.com; finding these dates can be a real challenge. Along the way I sometimes discover incorrect information (dates, people not actually buried at Laurel Hill, etc.). For each entry I go through both the biographical file and the lot folder so that I don’t miss anything. From my years of working as a Librarian I have learned to not put something out that that isn’t verifiable, and to always document my source, so this is the perfect role for me. So far, this project has identified over 1,100 notables with certainly more to come.
In looking through so many records, have there been any particular stories of interest you think people might like to know?
There are so many interesting stories but there are definitely a few that still surprise you when you read them. To name just a few:
- Stephen Duncan (Section T – Lot 145), a native Pennsylvanian, was one of the largest slaveholders in the country before the Civil War (ironically, his first wife’s family owned a plantation in Adams County, Mississippi with the name “Laurel Hill”)
- Morris Waln (Section 4 – Lot 41, 43, 45) liked to go camping and hunting out west. On one of his trips in 1888 he and a friend were murdered in Wyoming by their guide. The only part found of Morris was his jawbone which was subsequently buried in the family lot at Laurel Hill in 1926.
- Frank Whiteside (Section 13 – Lot 92) a renowned artist, was shot at his door in 1929, not because of a robbery gone bad but because of a jealous boyfriend of one of his students. The boyfriend thought he had painted a nude portrait of his girlfriend and was having an affair with her (neither was true). The boyfriend murdered his own girlfriend, and originally confessed to killing Whiteside but later recanted. The case still remains unsolved today.
- Lewis C. Levin (Section 10 – Lot 32) was virulently anti-immigrant (read anti-Catholic) and involved in the 1844 Kensington Nativist riots. In an odd twist, his wife and daughter converted to Catholicism after his death.
- There is a mysterious burial permit for a Ta Zak Way Chung (Section G – Lot 65) but not much else is known about him/her or how they got here. At the time of their burial here in 1857 (and well into the 20th century), Laurel Hill had racial restrictions on who could and couldn’t be buried here so it makes this burial even more of a mystery.
- James Charles Sidney (Section 7 – Lot 171), was an immigrant from England, an architect, engineer, surveyor and landscape architect who was employed by Laurel Hill founder John Jay Smith. He produced several important Philadelphia maps and designed the south section of Laurel Hill where he is buried. He died at age 62 after mysteriously falling off the roof of his house.
From all of the time you have spent poring over the lot folders, do you have any great insight into the Victorian mind? What about the lives of Philadelphians of yesteryear do you think modern audiences would find funny or interesting?
The more I look at the information, I realize both how much has changed and how much remains the same. Just as there were accidents, depression, murders, suicides, political intrigue and sickness in Philadelphia in the 1800s, so there is today.
Perhaps the obvious difference is in the shorter life span and the high mortality rate due to infection. There also seemed to be a greater recognition and acceptance of mortality; perhaps that’s why Victorians developed such elaborate rituals and customs concerning death. I’ve been reading the Victorian Book of the Dead (available in the gift shop) and it’s sometimes hard not to scratch your head at some of the extremes people went to when grieving, especially those in “polite” society.
I’ve also been reading the Diary of Sidney George Fisher, 1834-1871 (Sidney is buried at Woodlands but his brother Charles Henry Fisher and his family are buried at Laurel Hill). Sidney was certainly of the wealthy and landed class but his observations on the economic, political and social culture of the times is fascinating. Sidney was a bit of a snob and elitist but his description of the death and burial of his niece, sister-in-law and brother show a very human side.
What is your favorite part of the “job”?
I quite enjoy reading about and researching the individuals and families buried at Laurel Hill. It’s a nice continuation of what I did at the Free Library—the idea is to connect researchers with the information that they need. Of course, if you can’t share the stories then what good are they, so I have to say I also really do enjoy sharing what I’ve learned through being a guide.
Do you have a favorite Monument at Laurel Hill?
I have three that I quite like which were installed for the same purpose but each conveys that feeling in a different way. They all were installed in the memory of children which is the topic of my upcoming tour Forever Young: Died Before Their Time.
The first belongs to Mary Florence Martin (Section T – Lot 269 & 270), the only child of city treasurer Joseph Martin and his wife Mary. When she died at the age of 12, the family installed a very, very tall pedestal with a statue of young Mary standing on top. It’s clear that they wanted to memorialize their lost child in a grand way and they had the money to do it.
The second is the simple but elegant Greek revival temple design for the family of Matthew Miller (Section A – Lots 67 to 77). The design by architect William Strickland is so clean and lends an atmosphere of reflection and rest. The lamb on the center stone is in memory of the 12 children in the lot.
Third is the lot of Samuel and Maria Barton (Section 3 – Lot 280) which is rather spare in its arrangement of memorials. The parents had 13 children from 1825-1855 but only one lived past their 20s; in fact, 3 died within just days of each other in 1857. The individual rough stone markers commemorating each of their twelve lost children stand in a long row which is quite striking. It’s hard not to feel the heartbreak of this family.
As one of the contributors, how long do you think the Notables Database project will take?
The hardest part is verifying the birth and death dates. I have been at this for over a year, one day a week for six hours per day starting at the beginning of the alphabet and today I am only on Robert M. Bird. I expect it to take a very long time, perhaps many years, and I am eager to get back to working on it.
Since 1978 the Friends have depended on volunteers to complete all of the work that needs to be done to preserve, protect, and promote the Cemetery. We currently have over 100 volunteers, including 35 Tour Guides. For more information about becoming a volunteer, you can follow this link or contact Beth Savastana at 215-228-8200.