More than one-third of the 2,490 identified so far buried at Bethel Burying Ground are infants 2 years old and younger. The lack of a nutritional diet accounts for the majority of these deaths. Starvation was a very real problem for the desperately poor families. More often it was a lack of protein (meat) that was expensive and out of reach of many families. Also, the inability of pregnant women to obtain adequate nutrition contributed to the birth of babies with weakened immune systems that made them more susceptible to a long list of deadly diseases.
For an excellent overview of the subject see African Americans in Pennsylvania: Shifting Historical Perspectives, pages 335, 337, 343-44, 353, 354-55.
All deaths are tragic. Some more so than others. Twenty-one-year-old Elizabeth cole died this date, October 21th, in 1848 of Tuberculosis and was buried at Bethel Burying Ground. Ms. Cole appears to have been the female head of her family with her mother deceased or away and her father a seaman and also absent from home for long spells. Census records show that Ms. Cole cared for 3 siblings while occupied as a day worker. Two of the smaller children were attending the Shiloh Infant School. The Cole family lived at 41 Currant Alley where they rented a room for $28 a year. The Cole family attended religious services, presumably Bethel Church (now Mother Bethel).
Currant Alley ran from Walnut Street to Spruce Street between 10th and 11th streets in the Ward 7 of the City.
Burials at Bethel Burying Ground were often, but not always preceded by a memorial service at Bethel Church (now Mother Bethel). The historical record contains the details of such a service in 1805 in which the following hymns were sung –
-Rejoice for a brother disceased [sic]
-Hark from the tombs
-My God my heart with Love inflame (1)
On the way to the gravesite, the procession sang “A solemn March we make.” On returning from the grave, the mourners would also sing. A popular hymn for this occasion was from the hymnal that Richard Allen published in 1801. It was “O blessed estate of the dead.”
“Richard Allen: A Collection of Hymns and Songs,” p. 40. Published by Mother Bethel AMEC (1987).
Long lines of mourners in procession from 6th and Lombard Streets to 5th and Queen Streets singing to the heavens – what a beautiful scene that must have been!
(1) American Methodist Worship, Karen B. Westerfield Tucker, 207-08.
Three-year-old Francis Tate died this date, October 16th, in 1852 from a fever of unknown origin. He was the son of Arthur and Margareta Tate who lived with their four other children in a room located in a 3-story brick building in the 900 block of Lombard Street near Bethel Church (now Mother Bethel). Their rent was $11.75 a month. Arthur was employed as a porter and Margareta was a day worker according to the 1847 African American Census. It appears from the Census that Francis attended the nearby Lombard Infant School. One of the parents was formerly enslaved and gained their freedom through manumission.
The attending physician puts the “Bethell Ground” in the Moyamensing District, but it is really in the Southwark District. Usage of “Bethell” is a very common error by the Church, Health Department and physicians through the decades. It might have something to do with the existence of a well-known Philadelphia merchant family by the name of “Bethell.”
A Black man, approximately 40 years old, accidentally drowned and was buried this date, October 12th, in 1847 at Bethel Burying Ground. The process by which a stranger to everyone can evidently be buried at Bethel is unknown. The majority of those with no given name buried at BBG are for the most part infants or babies born dead and have not yet been given a name. The circumstances around this man’s dead suggest suicide in my experience. Yet I have not been able to locate any newspaper account of such an event. Did one of the Church’s beneficial societies learn of his death and agree to bury him? Normally in a case like this he would have been buried in Potter’s Field. Hopefully, his story will not end here and further evidence will surface in the future.