Wandering in York County

Part of the USA Today Network

Project Penny Heaven: What started as a pretty view took on a much graver meaning

The Friends of York City Cemetery and I are launching an initiative to raise $20,000 for York’s City Cemetery. Here’s what started us on this journey.

I needed to find an apartment, and fast. After touring multiple locations, I decided on a rental on  Schley Alley in North York. Why? The second story views of distant Prospect Hill Cemetery and a nearby grassy field were simply beautiful. Each night, I’d take a walk through the cemetery, meandering through the headstones.

I remember one marker in particular of a woman named Sarah who died at exactly my age – 30 years old. Unlike others who might find this grim, I helped me appreciate being alive. I also find the iconography super interesting. The images, words, and design all take on a meaning of significance.

My desk faced the southern side of my new apartment which overlooked that grassy field. I did a lot of thinking as I’d read or write, gazing outside. One evening, fate moved me to change my evening stroll to this field. There, I found a monument – the only one:”In memory of Clashay Johnson and all those laid to rest in these hallowed grounds.”

Um, excuse me? This was a cemetery… of unmarked graves?

I quickly found Jim McClure’s article on York’s potter’s field. Yes, I learned, my apartment was surrounded by burial plots – some with headstones, and hundreds without.

Little did I know that 800+ people are buried in unmarked graves in this field in North York. Jamie Noerpel Photo.
This stone is the only indication that the field is a cemetery. Jamie Noerpel Photo.

Digging into the research

My discovery inspired me to write a blog article “It’s more than a grassy field, City Cemetery bears 800 unmarked graves” and Witnessing York article “Class division, even in death.”

I was most disturbed by the stories of the people buried here: All were either unidentified, had no family, or no financial means to pay for a burial plot. Find A Grave and Mike Shanabrook, a city planning engineer from 1977 to 2002, helped me trace the people buried here. Words like “invalid,” “poor,” “murder,” “suicide,” “transient,” “single mother,” or “alcoholism” dotted the records. Regardless of these labels, these were people. Their legacy dwindled down to a few phrases. My heart sank.

I wanted to know more of the people buried in Penny Heaven, another name locals use for the cemetery. Using old newspapers, I pieced together these two bios.

Martha Beckman (56 Years)

Martha Beckman died on a Saturday. Her last days – she was only in her 50s – were spent in the county home. It was 1931, and times were tough with the Great Depression digging into York County’s employment opportunities, especially for Black women like Martha.

After she died, no funds were left to pay for a burial in a cemetery with a headstone. Instead, her body is believed to be buried in the York City Cemetery  in an unmarked grave with over 800 other bodies. She died from bacteria or other germs that entered her bloodstream, traveling to her heart. Her last few days were in the county home or York County Almshouse on Chestnut Street. “Invalid” is written next to her name.

Fourteen years before Beckman died, around the age of 42, she said her matrimony vows in a Philadelphia Methodist Episcopal church to a man named Norman. The couple then took a honeymoon trip to New York. Once they came back to York, they lived with Martha’s mother-in-law at 116 East King Street. She left behind her maiden name, Fells, along with her family in Chanceford Township. 

Her father, Isaac Fells, died only a few years before her but was buried at Pine Grove Methodist Burial Ground in Maryland. You can visit his grave, but you can’t visit Martha’s. The last people to see her body attended her funeral services at C. A. Strack Memorial Chapel on George and Princess streets. Now, all we have is an index of graves for the cemetery, indicating Martha at Plot 322. But Plot 322 can’t be located. 

Eugene Avery (5 months and 20 days)

Two months before Martha found herself in an unmarked grave, Eugene Avery came into the world, along with his twin. For five months, his parents, Ira Avery and Sarah Jamison, changed his diapers and burped him after feedings. The winter of 1932 proved too harsh for baby Eugene’s health. Pneumonia had infected his lungs, taking his life by February. I can’t imagine the pain Ira and Sarah endured as they watched their healthy five-month-old struggle to breathe. He died at home at Campbell’s Station in Hellam. His twin survived. 

City employees dug a grave at plot 322 for Martha Beckman in October, and four months later, excavated another plot for Eugene. However, we don’t know his plot number – we only know he was buried in the cemetery after a Find a Grave search.

Eugene isn’t the only babe whose remains lay under the grass of potter’s field. Dozens of others, like Catherine Brooks who died at 9 months in 1915, from pneumonia, met similar fates. If only the tree that stands on the west side of the field could talk, I bet it would have tales of tear-soaked handkerchiefs of parents whose children died much too young. 

The monument – a permanent marker to remember the forgotten ones

Fast forward a few months when a professor from Penn State York, Joy Giguere, asked me to speak at the Association for Gravestone Studies‘ annual conference on the topic. Mayor Helfrich happened to be in the audience. He caught me after the conference, explaining his shock at learning of this barely identified cemetery. “There should be a monument there.”

And with those six words, I was unleashed.

After months gathering information, collecting burial marker quotes, and forming the Friends of York City Cemetery committee,  our all-volunteer group is launching our campaign to install a monument in Penny Heaven. Silbaugh Memorials from Shrewsbury is giving us a large discount on the granite stone. We also found local sign companies to make a bronze plaque, describing the history of the cemetery, as well as a laminated sign showing the index of graves. We have a $5,000 maintenance fund for mowing and washing the monument and a few hundred dollars for landscaping.

Like Prospect Hill – a cemetery where people could afford to purchase headstones with images, designs, and sculptures – Penny Heaven is a green, uneven field with that one marker memorializing Clashay Johnson . The very lack of symbolism denotes neglect, that these people lacked significance.

This very much is a project to show that those buried in City Cemetery did matter – do matter. With your financial help, we will erect a monument marking this place as a site of significance. And our volunteer Friends won’t stop there. We’re going to tell the stories of those buried in Penny Heaven. In that regard, you can help. If you know about any of these individuals buried in City Cemetery, please let our committee know.

In the 1990s, a group of college students unearthed the story of Clashay Johnson – a one year old placed in a bath of scalding water. Johnson died from those wounds, and he was laid to rest in Penny Heaven. His is the only name. He would be only five years older than me.

A marker alone won’t give this hallowed ground significance. But the stories of those resting here will tell us much about our community. Those who lived here. Worked here. Played here. And yes died here.  Our understanding of those buried on that hilltop in North York will bring yet another moment of significance. We can learn a bit about ourselves along the way.

More: Witnessing York’s “Feuding over a baby’s death: When people can’t afford a gravedigger


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.