Searching for the Mysterious Tomb of Our Vice President
It was a quiet summer afternoon in late August when I stepped onto the grounds of the Lombard Street Cemetery at St. Peter's, one block from the old southern border of the City. As I walked along the old brick path I mused that, as a computer literate genealogist with two degrees in history, I had successfully tracked down many people, their genealogies, and had learned some family secrets that the famous may have wanted buried forever. I was searching…searching and researching. A retired history teacher, and my research, had me wandering around a graveyard!
My journey began when my genealogical research at the Pennsylvania Historical Society uncovered an unexpected connection among three historical figures. One was Edgar Allen Poe. The others were Philadelphia Mayor John Swift and Philadelphia politician George M. Dallas. All three men wrote poetry and were admirers of the elevated Romantic style of Lord Byron. Poe and Swift were friends. George Dallas claimed to be related to Lord Byron. It was Dallas’ grave-site I was searching for. Poe would claim that he went to fight in Greece in the revolution. (He didn’t!)
Dallas was buried at the cemetery at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church on December 31, 1864. At his death George Dallas was serving as ambassador to the Court of St. James under President Lincoln. Dallas had been Vice President of the United States during the Polk administration from 1844-1848. Fellow Pennsylvanian James Buchanan was Secretary of State. Dallas and Buchanan did not see eye to eye as Dallas considered the western Pennsylvania Democrats to be too closely aligned with the southern states on slavery. Buchanan would become President in 1857. Buchanan kept his political enemy in the Ambassadorship away from the U.S. Though Dallas was never a candidate for the Presidency he had an illustrious career as a diplomat. Locally, he had served as Philadelphia mayor, Pennsylvania state senator, and Attorney General for Eastern Pennsylvania where he worked with his friend John Swift, a Judge who was a former Mayor himself.
Dallas, Swift and Poe all had strong ties to Philadelphia. While conducting genealogical research on Poe and his life and times in Philadelphia I accidentally came across two items: one about Poe having just published the short story The Gold Bug, a mystery about buried treasure, and the other about Dallas campaigning to become the candidate of the Democratic Party for President. He wasn’t selected and was instead chosen to be the Vice President. Both items appeared in the same 1844 newspaper. It was the interesting though accidental connection that intrigued me.
In 1844 the east and west boundaries of Philadelphia were the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers while the north and south boundaries were Vine and South Streets. The city was small with its two square miles. Significantly the city was beset by race riots, with anti-immigrant, and anti-Catholic overtones. Outside the small city were 20 or so boroughs and townships which had their own self rule. During the riots, about a dozen people, white and black were killed, and scores injured. Properties were destroyed and businesses were burned, including St. Michael's and St. Augustine's Catholic churches. A virtual crime wave existed. Criminals could easily escape the law and did so simply by crossing the nearby boundaries. Each township of the County of Philadelphia had its own government and inadequate police force. There was little cooperation among the boroughs and townships; the Philadelphia County Sheriff only had authority to “request help from the militias, which was seldom given.
George M. Dallas was the person who recognized and addressed this problem. The 1844, a Philadelphia Inquirer article reported that local lawyer and former mayor and attorney general George M. Dallas, had suggested that Philadelphia city government petition the commonwealth to create a police force for the whole county. This idea was unheard of until Dallas spoke of this proposal in a speech for his vice presidential candidacy.
While George Dallas was the Attorney General for eastern Pennsylvania and running for national office, the author of The Gold Bug was pursuing an appointment to the job of Postmaster at the port of Philadelphia. Poe sincerely believed this appointment would relieve his financial woes, and allow him to pursue his literary interests. Sadly, this was not the case. Ironically, Poe describes a municipal police and detective in his short story “Murder in the Rue Morgue”. At this time Edgar Allen Poe lived on 7th street near Fairmount, outside the city, six blocks from the home of George M. Dallas at 3th and Walnut Streets.
Dallas moved from the city when he was elected to the vice presidency. Poe moved to NYC when he failed to get the Postmaster appointment. Edgar Allen Poe would ultimately find his resting place in Baltimore, Maryland. George M. Dallas was buried in Philadelphia at St. Peter's Church, a few blocks from his birthplace.
So I searched the green lawns of the sun-drenched cemetery of St. Peter’s wondering what I might find of George Dallas here. A breeze was blowing across the graves in quick gusts, blowing and tumbling grass cuttings over my shoes as I walked about looking on the field of stones protruding out of the earth. To systematize my search I envisioned a grid over the whole cemetery and carefully moved across them and examined all the marker stones for the name “DALLAS.”
Some workmen on the grounds finished up and left me quite alone to haunt the cemetery by myself. I began to doubt whether George Dallas was even there to be found. Then, I saw another visitor, a woman wearing a broad straw hat with flowers attached to one side of the top. She was in a summer dress and carrying a large straw bag. I smelled the fragrance of the flowery perfume she was wearing. She was looking down also apparently searching for something. I paid her little attention at first, as my interest was drawn to a legend on a signpost. It read: Six Indian Chiefs who came to Philadelphia to confer with President Washington. (Philadelphia was the Capital of the U.S. 1790-1800. Presidents Washington and Adams governed from here.) All the Indian Chiefs were infected with smallpox before they actually got to talk with Washington or the Congress, and died within six days in January 1793. (The U.S. Congress had them buried them here.) I wondered about the medical and unexplained details of this tragedy. I contemplated this for a time then resolved to return to my original purpose.
There were many interesting distractions at this run-down Episcopal church that had once been the Anglican Church of England. I saw a commercial sign announcing that the walls of the church were to be “restored” soon. Another notice said the church ground was a gift from Sir William Penn and that the church itself was built in 1758. William Penn and his sons had given up Quakerism and returned to the Anglican church, and then in turn donated this property to the Bishop of Philadelphia.
Then I found another wooden painted sign on another path. On the sign was a grid filled in with famous names (about a dozen). It located the grave of George M. Dallas. The sign indicated the grave’s location. I quickened my steps to the side of the graveyard fronting 3rd Street and found the George Mifflin Dallas gravesite in plain view.
I examined the surrounding area to see how this illustrious man had been commemorated. I wanted to know how his accomplishments had been recognized. I wanted to find out if he was buried with any honors. I looked about, glanced at the building, the street curb and the gate to the church yard. I found nothing. There was not even an historical marker for passing tourists to note. The lid is at ground level and located very close to the wall of the front of the church.
Looking down at the flat marble covering I saw his name chiseled. It was at the top of a list of 7 names, including his wife and her relatives. Looking at his gravestone no one would suspect that he had been a Mayor, a Senator, Ambassador to the Court of St. James, or Vice President of the United States.
I drew a quick sketch of the area, the church building and the vault lid, and then pulled out my camera to take a photo. Only then could I turn away with a shrug, thinking perhaps this is typical of Philadelphia to simply ignore one of its own favorite sons and to forget him forever. I would bet that if I were to ask anyone on the streets of Philadelphia, “Who was George M. Dallas?” no one would know who I was talking about.
I turned to retrace my steps and to leave the cemetery. Then I saw that woman again, now appearing confused...like a lost tourist. I like to help tourists when I can, so I approached her. “I live nearby, perhaps I could help you!”
“Oh yes,” she said, “I am looking for the grave of my great great grandfather, George M. Dallas. I am from Dallas, Texas, and I only have a half hour to find him and then get to the airport for my flight back home.” I was astounded by the coincidence, but fortunately not too dumbstruck to reply. I liked the flowery perfume hovering around her.
“Sure,” I beckoned with my finger and said, “Follow me! I was just there.” She continued talking as we walked toward the gravesite.
“The family charged me with finding and photographing his grave. I'd like to go inside to look at the crypt in the basement, but the church doors are bolted shut, and I can't.”
I exclaimed: “There's a crypt door in the basement to the Dallas family vault? I didn't know that!” So there was something more to the story underground.
My quest took on a tone of a search for buried treasure, like the mystery of The Gold Bug. Yet nothing I might find would be more remarkable than this chance encounter with a descendent of the Vice President whose tomb I was investigating that very day. This was as mysteriously strange as any tale that Poe had written.
We walked together to the other side of the church yard I led her to the Dallas family vault, a slab on the ground. She walked around it, took a couple photos.
“You know that Dallas, Texas is named after him?” she said. I had read about this theory and the dubiousness of it, but I didn't say anything to challenge her on the matter of fact. She seemed so certain, and that certainty might be important to her. Who was I to disillusion her?
“Really!” I said.
We agreed on the injustice of the fact that neither the City nor the Church had marked the grave in any special way. She explained that the rich and powerful in Philadelphia didn't like George Dallas.
“Especially the Biddle family!”
“George Dallas helped Andrew Jackson kill the 2nd Bank of the United States here in Philadelphia.” I knew a Nicholas Biddle was a Director of that Bank.
“Nicholas Biddle is buried somewhere here at St. Peter's, too,” she added and nodded her head disapprovingly in another direction. “I have to go now,” she said. “But I have to say I'm glad that I've met one Philadelphian who cared enough to come here and help me find him.”
We shook hands. I waved good-bye as she jumped into a waiting taxi that I hadn't noticed by the gate. She turned, and as she removed her straw hat, jumped into the cab.
I lingered long enough to find Nicholas Biddle, buried not 25 feet away from George M. Dallas. It was just another irony to cap off a remarkable experience.
The discovery of the old gravesite of George M. Dallas and of a living descendent on the same afternoon was uncanny and nearly incredible. But it is absolutely true. I can attest to it. As for the notion that Dallas, Texas is named for the former mayor of Philadelphia George M. Dallas, I leave you to draw your own conclusion.
By Ricardo Ben-Safed