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For decades, Lawrenceville library's basement has concealed a mystery

Tale of the tombstone

Wednesday, October 23, 2002

By Johnna A. Pro, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

It's a perfectly modern elevator that takes a visitor to the bowels of the century-old Lawrenceville branch of the Carnegie Library, down, down, down to the rarely used basement that serves as storage for long-forgotten bookshelves, historic furniture and books for sale.

Author/historian Alan Becer visits the former caretaker's apartment above the Lawrenceville branch of the Carnegie library, which was built in 1898 on the grounds of a former cemetery. Becer solved the mystery of the tombstone in the library basement. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette photos)

There is a dusty piano on one side of the room, which according to the sign taped prominently to the front, can't be moved because it's propping up the empty bookshelves.

And across the room lies a tombstone, worn and crumbling, but a tombstone nonetheless.

"See, you're in the crypt," quips Lane Maggio Cigna, spokeswoman for the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. "It's part of the library's lore."

The tombstone apparently has been in the library's basement since it was built in 1898, although it may get moved now and then from desk to shelf to floor.

If historian Allen Becer is correct, the tombstone is the last remaining remnant of the Lawrenceville Burying Ground, a tract of land donated to the community by the founder of Lawrenceville, William B. Foster, in 1814. The library and the Stephen C. Foster community center, named for his son, now occupy the original grounds, along with a monument in the center and a pit of bones on its northernmost edge.

"It's pretty spooky," concedes Melissa Gotsch, the library's branch manager. "I would prefer to have [the tombstone] displayed."

Becer grew up in Lawrenceville hearing the tales of the tombstone, but he was well into adulthood before he actually saw it while doing research for a history book, "Monsters on the Allegheny and Other Lawrenceville Stories."

He was determined to find out whom the tombstone belonged to and why it ended up in the library's basement.

"I'm amazed it's been there all these years and hasn't been damaged further," Becer said. "There's nothing anywhere about it. There's no real records. It was just always there in that basement. It's odd that somebody saved it."

A legal tug-of-war

According to Becer's research, the tale of the tombstone begins in 1814, when Foster donated to Lawrenceville Borough a 1 1/4-acre tract between what is now Main and Fisk streets.

Foster wanted that land to be used as a burial ground for soldiers and townspeople, calling it "My free gift to the people of Lawrenceville and their children and descendants." It was called the Lawrenceville Burying Ground.

A decade or so later, at the request of residents in the growing town, Foster agreed to allow a small portion of the property to become the site of a school as long as the land could be reclaimed when it was needed for graves.

By 1834, the Foster family had left the community and Lawrenceville's borough council renamed the cemetery, calling it the Washington Burial Ground. They set fees for burials and hired a sexton to be the general caretaker. Eventually they also removed the tiny school, installed fences and walkways through the grounds and created a lovely, peaceful area for the deceased.

Despite competition from the newly opened Allegheny Cemetery, families continued to bury their dead in the Washington Burial Ground until 1868, when Lawrence-ville became part of the city of Pittsburgh.

By then, some 500 bodies were buried there, 217 of them adults. In the ensuing years, though, the property fell into disrepair, and by 1879, only one burial was held at the cemetery.

Two years later, Pittsburgh City Council agreed to turn the property over to the Pittsburgh School Board, which wanted to build a school on the land.

The school board notified residents that bodies buried there would have to be removed and that unclaimed bodies would be reburied on a portion of the lot that would be "enclosed, protected, and taken care of in a proper manner."

The tombstone for Henry Snowden, who died at 15 months of age in 1830, rests in peace in the basement of the Lawrenceville branch of the Carnegie Library.

Becer learned that a local resident, Hugh Danver, reported removing 450 bodies, of which only 70 were claimed. The rest were to be reburied. But the following year, the school district's contractor began grading the land and in doing so uncovered clothing, bones, coffins and tombstones.

The community was outraged, as was Morrison Foster, William's son.

The younger Foster filed suit to stop the digging and the transfer of the property. In May 1882, he won an injunction in Common Pleas Court, which was upheld by Commonwealth Court.

In an effort to end the legal wrangling, both sides eventually hammered out a deal in which the district would rebury the unclaimed bodies in a trench on the northern side of the property and erect a monument identifying the grounds as having been donated by William Foster.

In turn the Foster family agreed to allow a school to be built. It was opened in 1885. A decade later, the district donated a portion of the property back to the city so that the Lawrenceville Branch Library could be built.

Solving the mystery

But what of the tombstone?

With its worn inscription, Becer had little to go on when he began his research because the only letters visible on the stone were:

"IN MEMO/ NRY / RY & C / SNOWD / who departed Dec. 7th 183 /ged 1 year & 3 mon."

Common sense suggests the first line read, "IN MEMORY OF.

The rest was a mystery.

Becer began culling census records and discovered that a family named Snowden had lived in Lawrenceville.

Henry Snowden was an Irish immigrant who worked as a grocer in Pittsburgh before moving to Lawrenceville. By 1850 he was into real estate and described his occupation as "gentleman."

Becer suspected that the SNOWD on the third line of the tombstone was the name Snowden.

Knowing that some bodies had been moved from the original Lawrenceville burying ground, Becer headed to the Allegheny Cemetery where, after some digging, he found the records for a Snowden family: Henry, his wife, Catherine, and six Snowden children, including one named Henry who died Dec. 7, 1830.

All of their bodies had been reburied in the Allegheny Cemetery in 1882, after being moved from the Washington Burial Ground.

"Among the list was the boy. They had his age and date of death," Becer said. "It had to be the exact match-up."

Becer never did find out why the headstone was not moved with young Henry's body, but he suspects that it may have been left behind because of its condition. It was most likely covered up when the land was graded to make room for the school.

Becer suspects that contractors erecting the library in 1898 found it and, for whatever reason, decided to leave it in the basement.

"I just don't think anybody remembered this was a graveyard," Becer said. "Most people probably don't realize the unclaimed bodies were buried in a ditch. But my biggest thrill was discovering who the stone belonged to. It was luck. Luck and little research."

Johnna Pro can be reached at jpro@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1574.

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