By: Brian Harris
In the small town of Collingdale, just outside Philadelphia, there are five cemeteries; the dead far outnumber the living. Growing up in a place like that leaves one with a distinctly different perspective on the cities of the dead. Our parents taught us not to fear the dead, according to them it was the living not the dead, who were dangerous.
The local elementary school is Margaret B. Harris Elementary, named for the town’s first teacher. She served this community her entire adult life, from 1891 when the town incorporated until her retirement in 1938. At the age of 5 my mother took me to what Dad called, “Aunt Maggie’s School”, to sign me up for Kindergarten. There, I was asked, “Are you related to Margaret B. Harris?”; a question I’d hear countless times throughout my life. Mom and I were standing in front of a portrait of what looked to be a very old, scary looking lady when the school’s Principal put that question to me for the first time. All I could really say was “yes”, since I had no memory of my Aunt Maggie. I did hear about my aunt from a cousin and my sister who both said they “were scared to death of her”. My Dad on the other hand described my Great Aunt Maggie as having been the Principal, Janitor and First Grade Teacher at Collingdale’s Bartram Avenue School. When the town celebrated it’s 75th birthday Aunt Maggie was portrayed as a ruler wielding schoolmarm. It looked as if my sister and cousin might have had good reason to be scared of her. After completing Kindergarten at Aunt Maggie’s School it was parochial school, where that portrayal was accurate, except that the ruler wielding Ninjas were nuns. In 1974 I started high school at Collingdale High and that question started the very first day, “Are you related….?”. Freshman year I shared a locker with Bill Harris, no relation, I think he was genuinely relieved by my arrival because people quit asking him about Margaret B. For the next four years I was asked that question more times than I can count. I felt kind of bad not being able to answer that question, but I honestly knew next to nothing about her.
After high school it was time to figure out what I would do with the rest of my life. There are few better ways to find direction and maturity than serving in the US Marines. While stationed at “the birthplace of boredom”, Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina, I began my educational journey setting my sites on becoming an elementary school teacher. My genetic connection to my hometown’s first educator played no part in my choosing that career path. Growing up a “Delco Kid” it was understood that if you wanted to be a teacher, you went to West Chester. It was there as an Elementary Education major that “deja who”, in the form of that same question, would come back to haunt me once again. This time it was my Professor Jack Grafton asking, my answer hadn’t changed, “yes but I really didn’t know her”. He seemed to think she was something special, telling me how even during her 80s she was always seen around town with her black umbrella regardless of weather. Maybe she wasn’t a mean old lady after all.
I spent the next 32 years teaching elementary school, mostly Kindergarten and 2nd Grade. One of the Schools was Sarah Starkweather Elementary in West Chester. Sarah Starkweather had been the first female Superintendent of Schools in Pennsylvania during the latter part of the 19th century. We taught the kids about her significant contribution to the educational history of our town, made more significant by the inequities endured by 19th century women. While Sarah Starkweather was at the helm of West Chester School District she did not have the right to vote, when she married the law required her to resign her position. It was then that I made the connection for the first time; Sarah Starkweather was a lot like Aunt Maggie. It was during that same time period that one of my fellow teachers came to me and asked “the question”. I gave her my standard answer, but her response caught me completely by surprise. She told me her husband had been in my Aunt’s first grade class 60 years before and he said, “your aunt was the kindest and gentlest soul he’d ever known”. The time had come for me to find out who Aunt Maggie actually was. My journey started where my Aunt Maggie’s journey ended, Laurel Hill Cemetery.
A very young Maggie Harris and a picture taken at her 90th birthday party
It was truly love at first sight. I spent the first 18 years of my life living right next to a cemetery and I’d visited more than a few, including Arlington National Cemetery, none of them could hold a candle to Laurel Hill. The natural and man-made beauty combine with history to form the soul of this necropolis. It is so overwhelmingly unique I’ve found myself able to spot a first-time visitor simply by the look of amazement on their face. This city of the dead is more like an art museum than a graveyard. My first stop was the office to find out where Aunt Maggie was buried, a quick check found her in South Laurel Hill, quite a long way from the Gatehouse. Given a map with an X to mark the spot I started my journey passing the John and Helen Dick monument just across from the Gatehouse. I would later learn they were my great-great-great-great grandparents.
Making my way toward South there were so many things to see, obelisks that seemed to increase in size from one to the next and monuments in such a wide variety of styles, most of which I’d never seen before. As I approached the bridge which would take me into South Laurel Hill I entered a neighborhood unique to Laurel Hill, Millionaire’s Row. This section had mausoleums of various types and sizes, some built into the hill while others were free standing. Some of the names looked familiar; Widener, Baldwin, Elkins and of course Disston. Some looked like mansions which I would come to call “mansionleums”.
In the years that followed I became a frequent visitor, attending tours where I stood at the exact same spot President U.S Grant stood when he attended General George Gordon Mead’s funeral in 1872. I’ve spent warm summer evenings watching acrobats on a high wire at The Ghostly Circus, dramatic productions like a Mid-Summer Night’s Dream, and celluloid classics like Dementia 13 and Beetlejuice at Cinema in the Cemetery. As the chill of autumn descended, I’d seen the Not Ready for the Afterlife players bring Laurel Hill’s eternal residents back to life through dramatic portrayals of triumphs and tragedies. I’ve found that regardless of the type of event I always see something new; a monument I hadn’t seen before, our mascot Foxy with her kits out of the den for the first time, a Commandant of the Marine Corps who had established the Eagle, Globe and Anchor as the official symbol of our branch of service. What began as a simple trek to the final resting place of an ancestor, whose life story I am determined to put into written form, has become so much more. It has become a story of connections I’ve made with ancestors resting here who until now… I never knew existed.
In the Harris family plot, where Aunt Maggie rests, is her Grandmother Sarah McAllister Harris Spackman. She was born and raised in a home originally built for, but never lived in, by George Washington, called President’s House. The structure was part of the University of Pennsylvania campus where her father was Superintendent of Buildings and Grounds. When she was just 8 in 1824 she accompanied Marquis De Lafayette on a tour her father gave of the University grounds during his widely celebrated return to America. Sarah married Enon M. Harris in 1836. She moved to New York and started a family by having two boys; William Frederick and Enon M. Harris. In 1839, tragedy struck the young mother when her husband died at sea, a tragedy she would endure a 2nd time later in her life. Sarah returned to her parents home a single mother and 23 year old widow. The family quarters had become a part of the Penn Medical School, which is where she met Dr. George Spackman, her 2nd husband. The two were married in 1854. Just six months prior to marrying Dr. Spackman tragedy would once again visit Sarah when she learned her son William Frederick had been lost at sea at the tender age of 17. Perseverance seemed to be a foremost characteristic in Sarah, which would be tested once again when Dr. Spackman passed in 1861. While many Victorian Era widows bathed in black would withdraw from all social activity, Sarah threw herself into service, organizing the first group of nurses to treat wounded Union soldiers in Philadelphia. Tragedy would visit her again in 1862 with the death of her first grandson William Frederick, at just 9 months old. William’s mother Kate would perish less than 2 years later, mother and baby are buried together in the Harris family plot. Meanwhile, Sarah continued to serve as a nurse during the Civil War, once escaping near certain death when a confederate cannonball passed through her state room just 30 seconds after she’d left it. At times during her service Sarah went ashore to treat the wounded. On one such trip she encountered a wounded Confederate soldier who had developed pneumonia. Recognizing that without a doctor he would surely die she directed the stretcher bearers to come with her to the Confederate Headquarters where a doctor was summoned. The doctor immediately recognized Sarah as he had trained at University of Pennsylvania under Dr. George Spackman. Following the Civil War Sarah received a letter from the boy’s mother telling her that half of her loved Sarah for saving the boy’s life while the other half hated her because she’s a Yankee.
President’s House built for, but never lived in by George Washington. Located at what is now 9th and Spruce Streets was part of the University of Pennsylvania campus. Sarah McAllister Harris Spackman (Grandma Bam) was born here in 1816. Portrait courtesy of Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
Anyone entering Laurel Hill through the Gatehouse entrance passes the John and Helen Dick monument next to John Notman’s (architect who designed Laurel Hill). John Dick was a very successful florist who during the 19th century had an expansive nursery located at what is now 53rd and Woodland Avenue in southwest Philadelphia. I literally walked past this monument hundreds of times not realizing there was a familial connection staring me straight in the face. Through shoe leather research with a bit of help the folks at Ancestry I discovered John and Helen Dick’s daughter Helen Nellie Dick married Enon M. Harris Jr., my great-great-great grandfather in July 1886 making John and Helen Dick my great-great-great-great grandparents. A picture taken the following year shows the entire Dick family including Enon M. Harris Jr. and his wife Helen Nellie Dick Harris holding their newborn baby, my great-great grandfather Enon M. Harris III on her lap. I learned that Enon M. Harris Jr. and Helen Nellie Dick Harris while raising their family shared their home with Enon’s sister Margaret B. Harris (Aunt Maggie) and Enon’s grandmother Sarah McAllister Harris Spackman(Grandma Bam).
While doing research one Sunday afternoon, I was working in the Gatehouse Gift Shop. As often happens a visitor came in asking for assistance in finding an ancestor. I really wasn’t paying close attention but I did hear Dave say, “but if you’d like to meet your cousin, he’s sitting right over there”. It turns out this man was a distant cousin, another great-great-great-great grandson of John and Helen Dick. While the beauty of Laurel Hill was truly what sparked a “love at first sight” experience for me, it’s the connections I’ve discovered when meeting my ancestors resting eternally here that have kept me coming back. When one day my life journey comes to an end, not that I’m in any hurry to get there, I will join my ancestors in the Harris Family plot down in South Laurel Hill. Maybe I’ll be a stop on somebody’s tour, “This is the final resting place of Brian Harris, this guy loved Laurel Hill so much there was just no getting rid of him!”.