Finds and Flops: Revisiting the 3 Penn med students buried in 1825
In March 2018, on the anniversary of the vestry’s approval of this memorial, our Facebook page presented what little I knew about this moving tablet now on the north wall of the Parish House’s entry portico. It was originally the grave marker for three Penn med students who died and were buried in 1825 just east of the north tower, with the tablet above the grave on the tower itself. The marker was moved when the cemetery was covered by architectural additions beginning in 1878.
The archives yielded little more information about the project or the students, however. That’s how I learned that St. Stephen’s first rector, The Rev. James Montgomery, recorded no funerals and burials, as required, in the Parish Register for these founding years (1823-1834).
How did these three young men die? Why are they buried and commemorated together? Why were these natives of Virginia and South Carolina not sent home? Why this particular brand-new churchyard over others also nearby?
After a year, despite lots of help, the big questions remain unanswered. Penn archivist Timothy Horning confirmed that they were indeed matriculated there. Josh Blay of the City Archives provided microfilmed records of burials for those years with nothing on our three. The head of the Social Science and History Department at the central Free Library, David Ninemire, however, found a death notice--in a Boston paper!--with a death date (Wednesday, January 26) and home town (Norfolk VA) for one, Edwin Lee. Nothing on how he died or the other two students, or. . . .
So speculation. It seems plausible that Penn’s medical community who worshipped at St. Stephen’s played a part in bringing them here for respectful burial, near comrades who commissioned the plaque from the sculptor/marble mason long involved with the church, John Struthers. I look especially to the eminent Virginia-born Dr. Nathaniel Chapman, a church founder also on the vestry--whose family vault inside the premium parcel is possibly the closest. Whatever his role then, today Dr. Chapman seems to support these ill-fated young men as he rests close by in death, both grave markers still visible.
Thanks to all librarians and archivists who helped, sympathized, and hope for answers too.
—Suzanne Glover Lindsay, St. Stephen’s historian and curator