Dozens Of Coffins, Bodies Discovered At Construction Site In Old City

By Anita Oh and David Spunt

PHILADELPHIA (CBS)—Crews found dozens of coffins in a former parking lot near 2nd and Arch Streets in Old City Thursday. The discovery brought construction of a new apartment complex project there to a halt.

The coffins were part of the First Baptist Church Burial Ground established in 1707, when Benjamin Franklin was just a year old. Records show the bodies should have been moved to the Mount Moriah Cemetery in Southwest Philadelphia around 1860, but historians agree that someone didn’t do their job.

“It’s a business unfortunately and sometimes it’s cheaper to cut corners in a business,” Dr. Lee Arnold with the Historical Society of Pennsylvania told Eyewitness News.

Arnold said the discovery is significant and he’s glad the remains are being treated with respect.

The newfound remains, those of both children and adults, are in addition to some first discovered here by a PMC Property Group contractor in November 2016.

“We are finding some intact coffins and also finding some in really poor condition; they’re deteriorating,” said Anna Dhody, director of the Mütter Institute.

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The site is the future home of a 10-story, 116-unit apartment building with two underground levels of parking.

Construction should be complete by April 2018, but at this time work has stopped as crews and archaeologists focus on the careful excavation of the remains. Officials say that process should be completed by the end of the day Saturday.

On Thursday, Chopper 3 showed cranes lifting more coffins out of the dirt and archaeologists bagging remains.

“We’ll try to find out anything that these bones can tell us about who these people were in life,” said Kimberlee Moran, an associate teaching professor and director of forensics center at Rutgers University.

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“This is a rare opportunity to learn as much as we can about the earliest residents of Philadelphia. Ultimately, we want to reinter them at Mount Moriah Cemetery with the rest of the remains from this time period,” Moran added.

Moran says deterioration is natural and not from construction work, but it will still take several months of lab analysis to determine the ages, genders, and ethnicities of the remains.

“If there are any living descendants, we are going to try to identify them,” Moran said.

The coffins were far below the standard six feet we know today, but that doesn’t mean they were buried deep. Layers of streets have been added over time.

“They wouldn’t have had to dig the bodies this low, six feet under was plenty. In winter it was almost impossible to bury somebody,” Philadelphia historian Ed Mauger told Eyewitness News.

Lenny Ryan works across the street from the construction site and says given Philadelphia’s history, the discovery is not surprising.

“I’m sure if they excavated a lot of this city, they’d find a lot more,” Ryan said.

After research is complete, the remains will be reinterred at Mount Moriah Cemetery. PMC Property Group Executive Vice President Jonathan Stavin tells Eyewitness News the company will take care of those costs.

On Saturday, March 12, officials confirm that 20 bodies were also found at the construction site. They are being taken to the Rutgers lab for analysis.

 

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