Three years ago, this “Penniman Project” started when David Spriggs, Mark Hardin and I tried to figure out the origins of 17 little bungalows on Ethel Avenue in Norfolk, Virginia. In my last blog, I talked about the fact that we now have some answers.
We learned that the “Ethels” (plus another two dozen houses on Major Avenue and Glenroie Avenue) came from Penniman, DuPont’s 37th munitions plant, built on the shores of the York River, east of Williamsburg.
Finding information about Penniman in contemporary literature has been difficult. In fact, most of our information has come from two sources: The Virginia Gazette (a weekly Williamsburg paper) and the Hagley Museum and Library (in Wilmington, Delaware).
At its peak, the village of Penniman had a population of 15,000. In 1918, the War to End All Wars ended, and Penniman became Virginia’s very own ghost town.
The newly built houses at Penniman were sold off whole (and some were shipped by barge to Norfolk) and they were also sold in pieces, as salvage. A hotel from Penniman ended up on the William and Mary campus, along with several houses.
Thanks to Terry Meyer’s wonderful article, “Silence of the Graves,” I learned about Bucktrout Cemetery in Williamsburg, populated predominantly with Penniman’s influenza victims. During the height of the influenza epidemic (Fall 1918), the deaths were so numerous that local funeral directors quickly became overwhelmed. (To read Terry’s full article from the June 1998 Virginia Gazette, click here.)
Because of the Spanish Flu, public gatherings became illegal, schools were closed to children and re-opened as hospitals, and public funerals were outlawed.
On October 8, 1918, The Daily Press reported 5,000 cases of influenza in Newport News.
“To show the terrific pressure under which a handful of doctors here are working, one physician yesterday is said to have had 500 calls,” reports The Daily Press (October 8, 1918).
On October 9, 1918, children were told to go to their school and pick up all their belongings so that the schools could be converted into hospitals. And it was also on the 9th of October that a large headline announced, “No More Public Funerals Allowed” (The Daily Press). In the same story, people were advised to wear a gauze mask over the face when they ventured outside.
The next day, another article reported that “nearly every home [in Newport News has been] affected by the disease” (The Daily Press, October 10, 1918).
It was unlike anything we can imagine today.
In the midst of this, a small graveyard was opened up on Horatio Bucktrout’s farm for the paupers of Penniman. Its location is, as Terry Meyers described, “South of present-day Newport Avenue and east of Griffin Avenue,” or about three blocks from William and Mary College.
November 6th, I drove out to Williamsburg determined to see the Bucktrout Cemetery with my own eyes. And I was successful.
There are no markers, and there are no remnants of markers and there are no depressions in the ground suggesting an old grave site. In fact, there is no evidence that two dozen people were laid to rest in Bucktrout Cemetery. A local resident was kind enough to show me a place in his backyard where three graves were known to exist.
In 1979, a new housing development was built on Counselor’s Way, and it’s possible that the new development was built over the unmarked and forgotten Bucktrout Cemetery. But according to Mr. Meyer’s article, no graves were discovered during the construction process.
And yet, I wonder: Would a heavy equipment operator, sitting high in the saddle, with sun glaring in his eyes and sweat dripping from his brow, really notice a small piece of an old marker, or would they assume that it was just a bit of concrete, a remnant from an old outbuilding or an abandoned cistern or septic tank? What are the odds that a backhoe operator, ripping through hundreds of pounds of topsoil, is going to notice dirt-stained, dark-brown skeletal remains? (Speaking as someone who witnessed an exhumation, I can tell you, those old bones look a lot more like small sticks than anything human.)
The funeral records from Bucktrout Funeral Home show that 25 bodies were laid to rest at Bucktrout Cemetery. In “Silence of the Graves,” Terry points out that there are another 13 Penniman influenza victims who may have landed in that cemetery, which would bring the total number of bodies to 38.
There were five babies laid to rest at Bucktrout. John Steinruck’s baby was 10 months old. The other four babies were less than five days old. “Peachy” Cooke’s son James was only nine years old.
As a historian, I understand that there are lots of unmarked and forgotten graves in our historic Commonwealth, but somehow, Bucktrout feels different to me. For one, the location may be lost, but there is a written record that 25+ bodies were placed into coffins and lowered into the ground, having been lovingly and tenderly prepared for burial by a local funeral home. With few exceptions, each burial record gives a row and grave number within the newly created cemetery plot.
Secondly, from my reading of these burial records, these were the poor people of Penniman. While most burial permits record the closest of kin, birth dates, place of birth and more, the burial records for the men and women of Bucktrout Cemetery were hauntingly sparse. One burial record shows only a first name (Roger), with an “estimated age” of 25.
Third, I’m both enchanted and captivated by the story of Penniman, and this is part of Penniman’s story, and part of Virginia’s history and a keyhole peek at an international pandemic. Just as the country was ready to breathe a collective sigh of relief because The Great War was ending, The Spanish Flu blew through, killing 60 million people (about 5% of the world’s population).
In life, the people laid to rest in Bucktrout Cemetery were forgotten, unattached, and desperately poor. They were outside of all the important circles of community and church and family and privilege and wealth. And now, in death, there is nothing to remember them by. Not even so much as a memorial plaque to mark the spot.
My focus and goal for today is to finish writing the book, and share what I’ve learned about Penniman, but I hope and pray that at some point, when the manuscript is complete, we can put our heads and hearts together and figure out a respectful, proper way to memorialize Bucktrout Cemetery, a pauper’s cemetery, and a piece of history right in the heart of prestigious Williamsburg.
Many thanks to Bucktrout Funeral Home (Williamsburg) for donating the old ledgers to Swem Library (W&M), and thanks to Swem Library for making them available to researchers.
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In closing, here’s a list of the people buried in Bucktrout Cemetery. It’d be interesting to sketch out the plots, and figure out who’s buried where.
1) May 1918 George Worley DuPont employee, no age, grave 3, first row
2) June 1918 Gaspare Farola Dupont employee, no age, grave 4, first row
3) Sept 1918 James Cooke, child of Dupont employee, age 9, no grave number given
4) October 1918 Dalton Winkles, age 19, grave 7, first row
5) October 1918, James Arthur, Dupont employee, grave 8, first row.
6) October 1918, Mrs. Sadie Stanley, grave 1, second row
7) October 1918, B. P. Humphrey, no age, grave 2, second row
8 ) October 1918, John Steinruck’s baby, 10 months old, grave 1, third row
9) October 1918, G. W. Robbins, age unknown, grave 2, third row
10) October 1918, E. R. Commbs, age uknown, grave 3, second row
11) October 1918, W. W. Cole, age unknown, grave 5, second row
12) October 1918, John D. Saunders, age unknown, grave 3, third row
13) October 1918, N. J. West, age unknown, grave 4, second row
14) October 1918, C. M. Coffey, grave 6, first row
15) October 1918, Earl Farris, grave 6, second row
16) October 1918, W. F. Winkie, age 33, grave 9, first row
17) October 1918, George W. Hicks, age 29, grave 4, third row
18) October 1918, U. T. Thomas, age uknown, grave 7, second row
19) October 1918, Levereta Moss Bosnell, age 23, no grave number given (c)
20) Jan 1919, Louis Filler’s baby, age 3 days, grave one, first row
21) April 1919, Robert, no age, no last name, no nothing, no grave number (c)
22) July 1920, G. Thorton Carpenter, age 3 days, no grave number
23) Dec 1921, Joe Pleasant, age 78, no grave number
24) Mar 1928, John M. Williams, age 5 days, no grave number
25) July 29, 1930, Catharina Elizabeth Taylor, age one month, five days, no grave number
To contact Rose, please leave a comment below.
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