Picture it! Rural Pennsylvania. The sun has just set and a thin fog settles in on a small cemetery. Tombstones bound in cages. Burial mounds clad in iron, and off in the distance… what is that? You hear a voice. “Darkness falls across the land. The midnight hour is close at hand,” Wait a minute… “grizzly ghouls from every tomb are closing in to seal your doom,” hey, is that?… “and though you fight to stay alive, your body starts to shiver,” Vincent Price? “For no mere mortal can resist, the evil of the thriller!”
Tis the season for the spooky and scary; a time to tell stories of monsters and urban legends. There is a tale of local lore about vampires in Pennsylvania, more specifically Columbia County (near Bloomsburg, if that’s helpful). On a country road in Franklin Township there is a tiny graveyard called the Hooded Grave Cemetery. The resting place of about 24 souls is also home to two graves that are shackled to the earth in iron. But why? For years people believed that these people were caged to keep them in or to keep someone out.
The locals referred to it as Old Mt. Zion. Across the road used to sit the Clayton School where services were held for the Mt. Zion Methodist congregation until about 1874 when their church was finally built with an adjoining cemetery. This boneyard is unique. In fact, there may not be any like it in the country.
These two hooded graves belong to Asenath Thomas and Sarah Boone. Both were young, newly married and died in June 1852. According to a newspaper article from the 1960s there was a third cage that had fallen into such disrepair it was removed a few decades earlier. That grave is the resting place of Rebecca Clayton, who died a month before Asenath and Sarah. Interesting facts: she was also a newlywed and all three were related.
Above, from left to right, are the graves of Asenath, Sarah and Rebecca. Notice the red arrow; you can see, what I think are, the remnants of the cage’s foundation.
The Star of the North, an antiquated newspaper from the time, reported their passing but not the reason. Not having a definitive cause of death along with the “cages” led to rumors that the women were victims of vampirism and voila! an urban legend is born.
Who knows what really heralded the deaths of these young women. Quality of life was quite different than we know today. Early settlers during this time were confronted with disease and poverty. Life was hard. Perhaps these ladies contracted a contagious illness or died in childbirth. We may never know for sure.
What we do know is that these cages are called mortsafes. They were prevalent in Scotland and the British Isles in the early to mid 19th century. These structures were meant to ward off body snatchers not vampires! Grave robbing during that time was as common as shoplifting is today. “Sack’em-up Men” supplied medical schools corpses for anatomical dissection and I am sure the families of these three ladies were well aware of the seedy practice. These types of colleges were as close as Philadelphia and as deaths were announced in the papers grave diggers would know where to go for a fresh body.
Another reason for the decorative cages could be that the family was in the iron business. Iron furnaces were commonplace along the Susquehanna River. Several members worked in the industry such as ironmasters and furnacemen. This may explain the use of iron and perhaps the fancy-shancy detail displayed in the mortsafes.
The Hooded Grave Cemetery may be the only one of its type in the US. It’s definitely worth a visit if you’re, I don’t know, going to Knoebel’s Grove or taking a country ride in northeast Pennsylvania. The graveyard sits next to a home so please be respectful.
Happy Halloween. Boo!