Ivy Hill Cemetery and “the worst mess I have encountered”

One of Witmer Stone’s collecting grounds for violets was the Ivy Hill Cemetery in the Cedarbrook section of Philadelphia.


His correspondence with Middlebury College president and violet expert Ezra Brainerd led to Brainerd coming to Philadelphia in 1905 to visit Stone’s violet haunts, including Ivy Hill. Violet taxonomy is still exasperating for modern botanists: described forms are often difficult to differentiate, and some forms freely hybridize. Stone and Brainerd were of the impression that Ivy Hill abounded with hybrids. After his visit, Brainerd told Stone that the cemetery was “full of mysteries”; when it came to attempts at identification, the violets there were a “hopeless confusion” and “by all odds the worst mess that I have encountered.”

I encountered Ivy Hill Cemetery on a beautiful June day. Ron, the grounds superintendent, was a great help, and he directed me to most of the items in this post. A beautiful old red-roofed receiving vault, now used for general storage, used to be the repository for newly arrived bodies; when the ground was too frozen for immediate interment, the bodies sometimes stayed in the vault all winter. (The progression from shovels to backhoes has been largely responsible for the elimination of that problem.)


The cemetery is the final resting place of local notables including boxer Joe Frazier, singer Harold Melvin of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes/“If You Don’t Know Me By Now” fame, and, on a much bluer note, “The Boy in the Box,” a young boy found murdered and left in a box in a woodlot in 1957. The murder has never been solved, and the boy’s identity remains unknown:


Ivy Hill has its share of ornithological features, both current and historical. Philadelphia naturalist Philip Laurent notified Stone in November 1892 that an acquaintance had recently collected a Saw-whet Owl in the cemetery. Clearly, the immediate neighborhood had a much more rural character then.

An obelisk beside one of the most amazing old oaks in a cemetery full of remarkable trees bears the name of John Bardsley, an Englishman residing in Germantown.


In 1869, Philadelphia politicians decided to introduce English Sparrows in an effort to eliminate Elm Spanworm Moth caterpillars that were attacking city trees. Bardsley was sent to England and returned with 1,000 of the birds, which soon proved to be more of a nuisance than the insects they were imported to control. Bardsley was honored with the sobriquet “Sparrow Jack” for his efforts, but was forever blamed for the presence of the House Sparrow (as it’s now usually called) in Philadelphia.


Ivy Hill Cemetery is currently home to some native and less controversial feathered Philadelphians. This young Chipping Sparrow just off the nest was keeping up a constant clamor for food:


Danger lurks in the cemetery for baby birds and other critters. A pair of Red-tailed Hawks was on the prowl; I spotted one of them perched atop a snag, clutching a snake in its talons.


It had two well-grown youngsters to feed on a nest in a Norway Spruce:


Here’s another photo of one of the young Red-tails:


Whenever the hawks flew, they were hounded mercilessly by a pair of Eastern Kingbirds, who doubtless had a nest or young nearby.

Last but not least: how about all those vexing violet species Witmer Stone used to collect? Alas and alack, I had my eye out for violets, but found not a one. Ron and I came up with two possible reasons for that: a) violets may have been more likely 100 years ago because the grounds were probably not as intensively tended and manicured as they are now, and b) the cemetery was only partially full at that time, with the unused areas left wild and wooly − maybe Stone’s violets were in those parts of the grounds. So these days, Ivy Hill is a little light on botanical mysteries, and the time is past when a violet hunter can look forward to a hopeless confusion and the worst Viola mess he might ever encounter. But it’s still a lovely, tranquil, green oasis in an urban area, with some magnificent old trees and lots of interesting breeding birds.

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Ivy Hill Cemetery and “the worst mess I have encountered”

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