York Town Square

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Hannah Penn Junior High School, right, was built on the former potter's field right before the turn of the 20th century, becoming known as York High. William Penn Senior High School replaced the school in 1927, and the former high school became known as Hannah Penn. Stephen H. Smith prepared this based on a photo from York County History Center files.

York’s Potter’s Field exhumations center of early dispute about disease

The year 1896 had been a tough one on the public health front in York County.

Typhoid had caused 11 deaths. Scarlet fever nine.

And diphtheria was its own thing: 42 deaths. Public health officials had seen that disease increase near city dumps. They just built that King’s Mill incinerator to burn infectious hospital waste and other city trash rather than bury it.

So perhaps public health officials could be excused for their caution in digging up bodies from desirable land called Potter’s Field on West College Avenue to make way for a new high school.

Smallpox victims who could not afford burial costs in cemeteries or whose identities were not known had been laid to rest for decades in pauper’s graves on the proposed school site. That acreage for the indigent and infectious disease victims was analogous to present-day Hart Island in New York, where unclaimed dead from the COVID-19 pandemic are being interred.

And public health officials in 1896 and 1897 were as uncertain about the threat to the public of disinterring possibly diseased bodies as today’s epidemiologists are about addressing COVID-19.

According to local newspaper accounts, York health officials seemed to argue against locating the high school on these mass graves in two ways:

The act of exhuming and transporting the bodies to a new pauper’s field atop the hill in North York could represent a smallpox threat. And who knows what residue from those bodies would remain in the soil under the school? A heated school could cause the organisms to wick up into the building.

The public got into the act, saying Lancaster built a sports field atop its Potter’s Field with no adverse health effects. Those opposed pointed to accidental uncovering of bodies in the South that reportedly caused a yellow fever outbreak.

Dr. Benjamin Lee of the state Board of Health backed local Medical Society officials in protesting building on that field, saying he couldn’t imagine a worse scenario than a school standing on an old cemetery.

“The only use that should ever be made of the ground is that it should be thoroughly cultivated so that all the putrefactive elements may be disposed of by a natural process of vegetation, and then set aside for a public park,” he wrote.

In pressing for a park, he was being consistent. Just across the street, the city was investing heavily in improving Penn Park, former site of the U.S. Army General Hospital, where 14,000 wounded or diseased Civil War men were treated and 200 died.

School backers argued that the new Dempwolf-designed Soldiers and Sailors monument and other Penn Park improvements was the very reason the unkept Potter’s Field should be home to a modern high school. The neighborhood was on the rise.

As with COVID-19, the controversies that erupt from real or perceived public health threats are endless. History shows decisions around public health are a magnet for controversies.

York City Cemetery in North York, the former Potter’s Field, rests behind the 1000 block of North George Street, off 7th Avenue. (Submitted)

York High went up

The school, in fact, was built on the field where paupers formerly rested.

The removal of the bodies on the two lots set aside for that use by William Penn’s heirs attracted a great deal of interest and scant social distancing against the germs that might be emerging.

At one point in April 1897, 619 bodies had been exhumed, and some of them were described in local newspapers.

One body showed evidence that the man was a member of a fraternal organization. He wore a badge stating “Workingmen’s Association No. 1, Lancaster, Pa.”

Two pennies were found near another body, one dated 1810.

But the body that would become York County lore was one of the four “Figi Cannibals.”

The diminutive performer was part of P.T. Barnum’s Circus that was in town in 1872 and set up across the street at Penn Park.

But the “Figi Cannibal” took sick in his hotel and died, his absence noticed by the considerable audience at the “Greatest Show on Earth.” He was buried in Potter’s Field.

Things get murky after that, so we’ll let York Sunday News columnist Gordon Freireich tell it, as he did in a January 2018 column:

When the “Cannibal’s” body was discovered in April 1897, those in charge decided not to exhume it, but move it the next day along with other remains being transported to North York.

When work resumed the next day, it was discovered the body was missing.

According to one story, a York doctor took the body, cleaned the bones and reconnected them with wires, all for display in his office.

Perhaps science would have the last say in this controversy after all.

Marker in City Cemetery, formerly Potter’s Field, in North York. (Submitted)

Replaced by a new York High

As it turns out, the new building did not reach its 30th birthday as a high school. In 1927, William Penn Senior High School opened, and its once-controversial neighbor became Hannah Penn Junior High School.

About 40 years later – and no smallpox outbreak reported – the Hannah Penn building was razed and the land covered with blacktop, forever sealing in whatever germs might have resided there from those days in which worries of contagion reigned.

In 1970, some were still reflecting about the Potter’s Field controversy.

“Henry,” in a letter to the York Dispatch, noted that a half-dozen years after the bodies were reburied in North York’s graves, local farmers were planting potatoes on the property.

“No epidemic broke out among the potato eaters,” Henry wrote. “This might throw some light on the life expectancy of a buried smallpox germ.”

Since this high school-Potter’s Field controversy is being discussed here 120 years later, imagine how long we’ll be debating who was right and wrong concerning COVID-19.

The addition of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument on York’s Penn Park was among the improvements to this longtime commons. These types of improvements prompted some city officials to seek a replacement use of the Potter’s Field across the street. Thus, the idea of building a new high school there emerged. This image appears to be taken from the vantage point of an upper floor of the old school. The exhumed bodies were transported to a new burial plot in North York, purchased earlier in the year for $600.