The Matthews Monument at Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, NY

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Secrets of the Symbols

This entry will highlight several symbols carved on gravestones or placed on metal markers that have stymied me.  Some I think I have solved, but others continue to puzzle me.  In some instances, it's a case of time and climate eroding the image, making it almost impossible to decipher.  In other cases, I just cannot find any information about the symbol. 

I am sharing them and asking for ideas.  Please email me at if you have any bright ideas or moments of insight.  :)

St. Thomas Whitemarsh Cemetery, Fort Washington, PA

 Ancient Order Knight of the Mystic Chain, Hendricks Castle: possibly a splinter group of the Knights of Pythias, this fraternal order was founded in Reading, PA in 1870.  "Mystic chain" is a Masonic term used to show the close connection of the fraternal brothers as they form a circle, each crossing his arms in front of himself and giving his left hand to his neighbor to the right, and his right hand to his neighbor to his left.  It seems to not have been very popular outside of Pennsylvania, which could explain why this is the only marker I have seen.  The individual chapters were called castles.

St. Mary's Cemetery, Honesdale, PA
Member of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and Motion Picture Machine Operators.  "IA," as it is known in the biz, is a union organization, and was started in 1893 as the National Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.   Its current name is The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts of the United States, Its Territories and Canada.

New Hanover Lutheran Cemetery, Gilbertsville, PA
The Order of the Knights of Friendship, a fraternal society organized in 1868 by Dr. Mark G. Kerr when he lived in Norristown, PA.  The organization was never very large, perhaps having only 200 members at its height.  Previous to this, Dr. Kerr taught at the Women's Medical College at a time when the idea of women doctors was still ruffling quite a few male feathers.  Dr. Kerr was also a chemist who manufactured and sold a "Compound Asiatic Balm" under his name and that of a partner (Bertolet).  It claimed to cure cholera, diarrhea, dysentery, cholera-morbus (gastroenteritis), summer complaint (cholera infantum), sea sickness, vomiting, fainting, cramps and colics of the stomach and bowels, and for the disease of nervous or general debility.  Unfortunately, his advertising of this cure-all balm constituted medical quackery, and this caused a scandal for the Women's Medical College that was just about to be recognized as a legitimate medical school by the Philadelphia County Medical Society.  Kerr was forced to resign his faculty position in 1867. 

Stroudsburg Cemetery, Stroudsburg, PA

Crown or a Triangle with Rays:  The symbol to the right is Jr. Order of United American Mechanics, and the center is the All-Seeing Eye and the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (many fraternal organizations used the all-seeing eye as a symbol, usually representing God).  [Check out my archives or use the search function to learn more about Jr. OUAM and IOOF]   But I am not sure about the one on the left.  It could be a crown, or maybe a triangle with rays.  Either have roots in Freemasonry, with the crown being part of the Masonic branch of the Order of Knights Templar (but it usually is accompanied by a cross also).  The triangle represents the Trinity/God but there is normally many rays around it, not just two.

St. Francesco Italian Cemetery, Eynon, PA
Coal Pick & Shovel:  Italian immigrants who came to the Scranton area in the late 1800's and early 1900's often found work, albeit dangerous work, in the anthracite coal mines.  Many of the early Italian cemeteries feature "homemade" gravestones, usually created from concrete and tiles.  Nazzareno Attoni came to NYC in 1913 and somehow got to Eynon, PA and died soon after in 1914.  Was it in a coal mining accident?  He was from the Isola Fossara section of Italy, southeast of Florence and northeast of Rome.  His tombstone was erected by his friends. 

South Gibson Cemetery, South Gibson, PA
United Spanish War Veterans:  The Spanish American War began and ended in 1898 and the Phillipine American War began in 1899 and ended in 1902.  The US government considered these separate conflicts as the same war, as did the fraternal organization shown above.  Over 400,000 served in these wars.  After the war, several fraternal organizations of veterans were created, but within a few years, they quickly realized they could further their aims of caring for their brother veterans by combining forces into one society, the USWV. 

Mention of the Spanish American War always reminds me of the Cary Grant movie, Arsenic and Old Lace, which features a character who thinks he's Teddy Roosevelt, leading the Rough Riders in the war in Cuba up San Juan Hill.  CHAAAAAAAARGE!!!!!

Bristol Cemetery, Bristol, PA
Order of Independent Americans:  A nativist fraternal society, this organization was very active in Pennsylvania during the early 20th century.  Along with the Jr. Order of United American Mechanics, it lobbied Congress in the 1920's to halt immigration of foreigners into the United States.  (the more things change, the more they remain the same)  The OIA's biggest push was to compel Bible reading in public schools.  (Hence the open Bible above the school building).  In 1913, the Pennsylvania government passed into law a mandate requiring the reading of ten Bible verses a day in public schools, and it had been heavily supported by the IOA and other nativist organizations.  I can't find information about what F.P.A. stands for, though.

Close-up, Davisville Cemetery, Davisville, PA
What is this?  A mushroom???  There were a lot of Addis family members in the Southampton/Richboro area of Bucks County, but I can't find this Joseph Addis in the census records.  Maybe he was a mushroom farmer.

My brother-in-law said it looks like a pestle, as in mortar and pestle.  So maybe Addis was a druggist.

Davisville Cemetery, Davisville, PA

Close-up, Dunmore Cemetery, Dunmore, PA
This one fascinates me, but I can't find anything definite on it.  I think it's the family crest for the vonMaur family.  The family (from Austria, I think) owns VonMaur department stores in the Midwest, starting with the one they opened with partners in Davenport, Iowa in the late 1800s.  I can't see it clearly but their crest on their gift cards looks similar to this. 

Dunmore Cemetery, Dunmore, PA
I know it's hard to tell for sure, but I see a resemblance.

Edgewood Cemetery, Pottstown, PA
I am guessing this is a surveyor's instrument?  Pop, let me know.

Evergreen Cemetery, Gettysburg, PA
So is this a Grange symbol (Patrons of Husbandry)?  I don't know, as the Grange didn't have a women's auxiliary, because they allowed women to be members of the "boys' club."  When I look at this, I see a skeleton in a skirt holding a mop.  At the bottom, there is definitely two shaking hands.   Any ideas?

Evergreen Cemetery, Gettysburg, PA

Hays Cemetery, Easton, PA
Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen & Enginemen:  This fraternal benefit society eventually became a trade union.  It started in 1873 for only firemen, but then expanded in 1907 to acknowledge that many of its members had been promoted to engineers.  In the late 19th century, being a fireman on a locomotive was actually more deadly than the job of a hard-coal miner.  It was physically demanding, as the firemen had to move heavy loads of coal on a swaying platform.  Boiler explosions and railroad accidents killed many firemen, or broke their arms, legs, ribs or resulted in amputations of the first two.  The creation of a benevolent society ensured that workers and their families would be taken care of in event of injury or death.  But in the late 1800's, that protection was only for white males who were not recent immigrants. 

St. Paul's UCC Cemetery, Swiftwater, PA

Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA
Res Non Verba:  Loosely translated, it's Latin for "actions speak louder than words."  Perhaps this is a family crest.  I have to get back to Laurel Hill and check out the family plot of this monument.

Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA
At first glance, I thought it was a goat with bat wings.  But I think it's a military hat with a plume atop, over a crossed sword and gun, with flags or regimental colors behind it.

Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA

An urn in front of --what?--a wall?  An altar?  Was there ever something on top of the "wall"??

Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA
At first I thought this was an odd tree.  But I think it's the hand of God coming out of the clouds of heaven.  What He is grasping is anyone's guess.

Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA
Hmm.  "O" is not the Greek symbol for "O."  That would be Omega, which is sort of like an upside-down horseshoe.  The funny "E" on the right is Sigma, the Greek "S."  I don't know, is this religious?

Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA
Damn acid rain and other pollutants from an industrial city like Philadelphia!! 

St. Paul's Lutheran Blue Church Cemetery, Coopersburg, PA
???  Help.  My brother-in-law's guess is a gunpowder pouch.  Need to do some research on Charles Derr.

Trumbauersville Cemetery, Trumbauersville, PA
A WWI symbol?  Or this guy was a delivery man for FTD florist?  Or a big fan of the Greek god Hermes, the speedy messenger??

Trumbauersville Cemetery, Trumbauersville, PA

Close-up, William Penn Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA
B.U.H.F. This means Brotherhood of the Union Holy Flame, which was a fraternal organization started in Philadelphia by George Lippard, one of the most interesting humans ever: Lippard, Literature, A Lodge and Labor

William Penn Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA
St. Andrew's UCC Cemetery, Perkasie, PA
If you have any thoughts or answers, email me at and we'll see what happens when we put our heads together.  Thanks for reading.


Joyce Boyle said...

So very interesting but unfortunately no insights! Weez & I love to prowl cemeteries. Will show to sister. Great photos. Love this blog. Best wishes to you!

Unknown said...

B. U. H. F. stands for "Brotherhood of the Union [Holy Flame]".

Call Me Taphy said...

Thanks Tim!

Mobile Phones Fan said...

Excellent page. :-)

Good to see at least one example from hereabouts (Bristol), especially since it happens to be the reason I've stopped by your site. I can answer two of your questions and I'll offer some more-or-less helpful comments on a few others, for good measure.

Here goes.:

1. O.I.A/F.P.A flag holder; Bristol -- As one might guess from its association here with O. of I. A., 'F.P'A.' stands for 'Fraternal Patriotic Americans'. Yes, this was yet another of the many White-Protestant nationalist group founded right here in Pennsy. See...

And you're not the only one who's been asking about that acronym. Check out the 'Unidentified' section on this page.:

2. Addis; Davisville - I vote for mushroom, as well. Puts me in mind of the popular 'bundled wheatsheaf' symbol, which has Masonic implications as well as being a traditional motif representing resurrection.

3. Derr; St. Paul's Lutheran Blue Church -- Sure looks like a gunpowder flask to me, tho' I've no firm guess as to what it represents. For a hunter or gamekeeper, you'd expect to see his gun and/or a dog, too. Maybe you should try asking this guy...note the similar name and the fact that he lives just a few miles from that cemetery.:

4. Rotenberger; Trumbauersville -- In keeping with the engraved dates on this headstone, that is a WWI-era symbol. A 'helmet of Hermes within a spoked wheel' represented our U.S. Army's Motor Transport Corp. See...

Hope this helps!

Mobile Phones Fan said...

Whoops! Meant to add this before posting...

Here's a handy reference for the names and acronyms of (mostly) long-forgotten fraternal orders, helpfully collated in state-by-state format.: