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Stories From An Early American Cemetery


One coda to our story of Philadelphia in 1808: that year a neighborhood north of Old City became known as Fishtown. Close to where William Penn signed his treaty with the Native Americans, it was home to those fishermen and boat builders. The land was owned by Anthony Palmer. And when he died in 1749, he set aside property to be used as a burial ground for Fishtown residents. Even today, if you live in Fishtown, you can be buried in the Palmer Cemetery.

Mr. KEN MILANO (Fishtown Resident): You get a free plot.

HANSEN: A free plot?

Mr. MILANO: A free plot. You have to pay for the burial.

HANSEN: That's Ken Milano, the unofficial local historian of Fishtown. The cemetery is about the size of two big city blocks with small hills, winding paths, shade trees and a haphazard collection of headstones. One of the oldest is that of John Hewson who died in 1821 at the age of 77.

Mr. MILANO: He's our local revolutionary war hero. We still have a street in his name. And he was an English immigrant who Franklin brought over and helped set up in a calico printing works. John Hewson's fabrics rivaled anything that was coming out of London and Paris, and he was considered the first textile printer of high quality in America. And he also, when the revolution broke out, he was very keen on fighting the crown. He was not a monarch by any means.

One of the reasons why his parents had asked Franklin to take him to America, they couldn't handle his behavior over there. But he formed a militia, a company of militia out of his workers, and got a commission as a captain and served honorably in the revolution being captured, having a bounty on his head and being captured and hauled off to Long Island after spending some time in Walnut Street prison. He escaped from Long Island, almost drowning in the process, making his way back here to fight again in the revolution, then to - also to open his factory up again.

Mrs. Washington, Martha Washington, would come to his printing works to buy fabrics and had him commission a silhouette of Washington. He's a pretty famous guy. He's one of our - he's probably, I would say he is our most famous guy in the cemetery.

HANSEN: Ken Milano says there is an ages-old procedure to determine where in the cemetery a deceased resident of Fishtowne would be buried today.

Mr. MILANO: You will go, and you will pick out a spot where you would like to be buried. For example, right here there seems to be an empty spot there.

HANSEN: Right.

Mr. MILANO: So they might go and start poking with those big long metal rods that they have. And if they poke in enough spots, and they don't hit anything - I mean, it goes down six feet and they don't hit anything, then you can be buried there.

HANSEN: But empty plots are getting harder to find. Ken Milano says that there is talk that the burying days may come to a close, which could be a good thing. Right now the graveyard cannot be designated a national historic spot because it is still an active cemetery. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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