The Plot Thickens

Locals are dying to get into this Fishtown cemetery.

By Frank Rubino
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 16 | Posted May. 18, 2005

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On a sunny but chilly spring morning, the brisk air aromatic with the scent of blooming flowers, I'm straining my eyes trying to read inscriptions on old decaying headstones.

I'm in gentrifying Fishtown, a half-mile from hipster bar Johnny Brenda's, in a square-block community graveyard that Norman Rockwell would've loved.

This is the Palmer Cemetery/Kensington Burial Ground, the quaintest, quirkiest cemetery in Philadelphia.

"I've never heard of another like it anywhere," says my guide, professional genealogist Ken Milano, aka the Kensington Historian.

Snuggled between Belgrade, Memphis, Montgomery and Palmer streets, this enclave, established in 1732, was bequeathed by legendary land baron Anthony Palmer, founder of the colonial town of Kensington.

Wandering around it today is like touring a free museum dedicated to three centuries of life along the Delaware.

Here, under gargantuan maple trees, lumpy grass and all manner of memorials, lie shipbuilders, fishermen, ironworkers, glassblowers, seamstresses, carpet makers and veterans of nearly every war the United States has entered.

After stunning me with the revelation that Fishtown is technically part of Kensington, Milano shows me eroding limestone markers engraved with monikers such as Bakeoven, Baker, Bidermann, Faunce and Pote. Under them rest German fishing families that arrived during the mid-18th century.

"It's been said that back then you could walk to Jersey on the backs of shad," he says.

Milano next points out a thin marble stone for Martin Cramp (1805-1895) of the celebrated Cramp shipbuilding clan.

"The Cramp shipyard, which stretched from Norris Street to Lehigh Avenue, was at one time the largest in the world," he says.

Milano finally escorts me to the grave of Revolutionary War stalwart John Hewson, who was born in England in 1744 but was such an anti-monarch as a young man that his wealthy parents persuaded Benjamin Franklin to spirit him off to America.

"Hewson fought with the patriots," Milano says. "The British hated him for taking up arms against his own king, but he became quite a hero on our side."

Minister Harry Hosier, who founded Philadelphia's first African-American Methodist congregation in 1794, is also reportedly buried here, as is lumber magnate Alexander Adaire (1779-1839), whose name graces a Palmer Street elementary school.

But even more intriguing than the souls spending eternity here are the unconventional dictates by which this operation is and has always been run.


Like most other entitlements, the right to be buried in Palmer comes with strings attached.

First, you must be living in Fishtown at the time of your death. Specifically, you must be living within the original boundaries of Fishtown-York Street, Frankford Avenue and the Delaware River.

Second, you can't arrange to be buried at Palmer until you're dead, which is no mean feat.

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 16 of 16
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1. Michael Manorowitz said... on Oct 25, 2009 at 08:06PM

“Who is responsible for the care of Palmer cemetary. I would like to offer some services to the cemetary. Thank you Michael”

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2. Richard F Love said... on Dec 8, 2009 at 09:21AM

“Does anyone have a copy of the site map? Looking for Goodwin Worrell. Civil War veteran. Someone is putting up American flags. Perhaps they have a list of veterans.”

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3. Janet McClelland said... on Jun 21, 2010 at 01:40PM

“Totally facinating article! I have family buried in Palmer Cemetery. My great-grandmother was Martha Faunce Smith and I know that she is buried there. My mother used to say that my great-grandmother was buried in the same grave with another family member because it had been 19 years between the deaths.”

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4. Pat Wilk said... on Jan 17, 2011 at 07:59PM

“I am searching for confirmation of the burial of James Main in the Kensington
Burial Ground. SAR records indicate that he is buried there, but the grave is unmarked. Do records exist?”

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5. Jim kingsmill said... on Feb 9, 2011 at 05:54PM

“The Palmer Cemetery is one of the greatest historical sites in Philadelphia. It's true that veteran's from every war from the Revolutionary War to Viet Nam and maybe even later conflicts. The cemetery is currently managed by a small group of which I am the Vice President, working with Jim Weiss, who is 83 years old and living at the Penn Retirement Home in Fishtown. The caretaker, Rich Wenglicki and his wife handle the maintenance issues at present. While there are still burials in the cemetery, they are getting more scarce, do to the lack of space. Cremation remains are routinely buried in the graves occupied by deceased relatives. The cemetery is in need of repairs, from fencing and sidewalk problems and crumbling headstones that need to be repaired. Grass cutting is done on a regular basis inside the fences, at a cost of about $1500.00 per cutting.The grass is cut approximately 10 times a year, from March thru November. Volunteer clean-ups are done several times a year also.”

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6. Mikey said... on Feb 12, 2011 at 09:40AM

“Is there adatabase of burials? How can I locate a grave or find out if my Grandparents are there?”

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7. Mikey said... on Feb 13, 2011 at 08:27AM

“So yesterday I took my first tour of Palmer Cemetery. It's such an interesting place. I was in search of ancestors there. Sadly I didn't find any traces of ancestrors but i did find a poor soul dying on one of the graves. At first we thought it was a sheet covering a newly dug hole, but it was the white jacket of a young man who was face down on a grave. His hands and face were completely white and he was not breathing. It was such a sureal situation. something that you would expect in a film but never imagine to see in real life. Happily, once the paramedics arrived, they shot him with adrenalin and he awoke. He was just a young boy of 20. Apparently it was an overdose of heroine. I am happy to have been there at the right moment because he basically died at the moment we were there, and then managed to be reanimated by the paramedics. I never got to finish searching for ancestors. Would be nice if someone could tell me where to find a list of interents. My Palmer adventure!”

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8. Linda said... on Feb 27, 2011 at 01:21PM

“Looking for Margaret Shetzline, Supposed to be buried in Palmer Burial Ground. She died 21 Aug., 1879. If anyone knows how to find out if she's there, I'd appreciate their help. Thanks!”

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9. Mikey said... on Mar 1, 2011 at 10:10PM

“Linda?Margaret Sheltzine,

Are you sure of the death date. I found a Margaret Sheltzine buried there but date is different. If you can go to www.familysearch.org and do a search. You will find her there, I just did.”

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10. Jim Kingsmill said... on Mar 21, 2011 at 04:29PM

“New wesite for info on Palmer Cemetery...Palmercemeteryfishtown.com I am new Presdient/Trustee of Palmer Cemetery. I need volunteers on a regular basis to help with clean-ups inside and around the perimeter of Palmer. Much work is needed to get things done, such as debris removal, old decorations, tree branches, trash etc...Next clean-up day is April 16th at 830am. Also looking for donations of gas powered weed trimmers, leaf vacuums and chipper. These items can be loaned to us or donated. We really need motivated people to come out and help with some heavy work, cleaning raising toppled headstones, and general cleaning. See the website for more info. Thanks, J Kingsmill”

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11. Ghostmystery said... on Mar 25, 2011 at 04:04PM

“Hi please contact me if you know the hours that the public
is permitted at the cemetery. Hitoyou909@yahoo.com”

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12. Crysty Boucher said... on Apr 22, 2011 at 12:49PM

“I am a direct decendant of Aaron and Anthony Palmer, the founders (My great-grandmother was Catharine Palmer, daughter of Samuel the fire chief, etc.). My grandmother was her only daughter, Catherine Davis (93 and still alive).

I am looking for information on which of my ancestors are buried there. How do I get this information, please?”

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13. Elliott Collier said... on Jun 27, 2011 at 12:48PM

“Descendent of Jacob Faunce sr, d. 21 September 1867, here. How can I make a donation?”

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14. Mary Clark said... on Nov 29, 2011 at 01:12PM

“I am looking for some family members. Their last names are Mallo and Sims. Is there anyway of finding out about these names? I believe both names were children. Any help would be great.

Many thanks...”

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15. Looking for Kramer and Dwier said... on Jun 26, 2012 at 04:54PM

“I am looking for relatives there were buried here with the last name Kramer and Dwier. Thanks.”

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16. Wendy said... on Aug 22, 2013 at 01:38AM

“My great great aunt and uncle and at least one of their children are buried here. Some records can be found on findagrave.com. Other deaths can be researched at familysearch.org where you can view the death certificate and see if your family is buried here.”

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