The Secret of the Hooded Graves

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One of the caged graves – The grave of Asenath Thomas

A while back I received an email from Eric who asked: What do you know about the Vampire Graves near Bloomsburg? I’ve always heard that the cages placed over the graves are because they were victims of vampire attacks. Another story says the cages were to keep the vampires from coming out of their graves and attacking locals.

My immediate thought was – “I never knew that there were vampire graves in Pennsylvania.” I have read about the vampire cases that plagued New England and even visited the grave of Mercy Brown (the last case of a supposed vampire in New England) while in Rhode Island years ago, but vampires in Pennsylvania was new to me.

An internet search at the time provided pictures of the graves and looking at them, an idea immediately came to mind about the origins of the iron cages and their purpose. I wanted to get a better look at them to see if my theory was correct, so early one morning I set out to visit the Hooded Grave Cemetery and the strange graves located in the hills south of Catawissa.

The cemetery has a large sign that welcomes visitors to the Hooded Grave Cemetery. The peaceful spot rests atop a hill overlooking farm fields, but provides little parking for the curious visitor. The official name of this field of stone is Mt. Zion Cemetery, but most know its adopted name of Hooded Grave Cemetery, the name that is on the sign at the entrance to the sacred grounds. This name comes from the strange structures that stand amid the stones of the small cemetery.

The parking for the cemetery is almost non-existent and the driveway on the side towards a house is posted private. I parked along the edge of the country road, pulling as far off as possible to allow vehicles to safely pass. I scanned the cemetery and immediately spotted the graves I sought. Originally there were three of these cages, but one was taken down in the 1930s due to its poor condition.

The first grave I came to was Asenath (Campbell) Thomas, consort (wife) of John Thomas. The stone is broken and lay at the head of the cage, but the words are still legible. She had died June 26, 1852 at the age of twenty. I cannot find a cause of death, but I believe she died in childbirth; a nearby stone belongs to her daughter, Asenath, who would join her in the afterlife in November of that same year.

I could merely stare at the strange structure in front of me. Though I had seen many pictures of these graves before, seeing them first hand caught and kept my attention. In all of my wanderings, I had never come across such structures before and have yet to see something similar in my journeys. Standing about four feet tall, roughly three feet wide, and six feet long, the cages stick out amid the handful of old stones that are scattered about the hilltop. The sides of the cages are made of a stiff, criss-crossing wire mesh. The roofs are curved iron bars that obviously took time to construct. As far as I could tell, the structures are merely placed on top of the graves and are not concreted into place and I was unable to determine how deep the cages were driven into the ground.

I crossed the cemetery to the edge of it to visit the second of the cages which is identical to the one standing guard over Asenath’s grave. The stone was in great condition. It was the grave of Sarah Ann (Thomas) Boone, the wife of Ransloe and sister of John. Sarah had died on June 18, 1852, only a couple days before her sister-in-law Asenath.

A grave near Sarah’s caught my attention due to the death date: Rebecca Clayton had died only a couple of weeks before Sarah and Asenath on May 12, 1852. After returning home, a check of the name showed that she was Sarah’s cousin. Could the third cage have been located above her grave? Or was it standing guard over the grave of the infant Asenath? Either of these graves could be a possibility. All of the information I found about the graves did not provide an answer to whose grave the third cage once stood over.

The official origin of the cages is not known. The reason for the erection of the cages atop the graves in this cemetery was never recorded anywhere – at least nowhere I have been able to discover. I also have not discovered any similar cages erected in nearby cemeteries – these cages are unique to this sacred plot of land. Many different theories, from the wild and bizarre to the possible have been put forth.

Among the strange origins for the cages include that the women were vampires (and in some versions werewolves or witches) and the cages were to keep them in the grave. If that were the case, I don’t think iron would stop a vampire (or a werewolf or a witch for that matter). While there were still cases of supposed vampires going on in New England, I have not encountered any cases of vampires in Pennsylvania during this time period. With that in mind, I immediately tossed those strange theories away and looked for more plausible ones.

The first theory is that they were used for decoration. The Thomas family was known in the region as iron workers and it could be possible that they had the cages made in memory of the deceased. The graceful curves on the roof of each cage shows master craftsmanship and they would have only wanted their best when they placed the cages on the graves of their loved ones. I think this is a good theory, but then why aren’t there cages on the rest of the family members buried here?

A second theory is the cages were designed to keep out animals. The newspapers of the 1850s often tell of “wolves” digging up the graves of the dead. Unfortunately, what the newspapers do not say is that most of these “wolves” were dogs running wild. By the 1850s wolves had been almost completely exterminated in Pennsylvania. While this is another good theory, why wouldn’t they cage all of the graves?

So what were the cages supposed to be used for?

The third theory (and the one that immediately came to my mind) is that they were used to deter body snatching; that is to prevent grave robbing. More common in England and Scotland, mortsafes were iron cages placed atop graves to prevent bodysnatching. Only a handful of them still exist around the world and if these cages are indeed mortsafes, then they are the only ones in America, or at least they are the only ones in America that people are aware that exist.

By the 1850s the demand for bodies to dissect in the medical schools ran high. Most often the medical schools used the bodies of executed murderers, but those bodies were few. The medical schools often turned to purchasing bodies from men who would go and dig up recent burials. These bodies were often used, abused and then tossed aside with no dignity when they were done being used.

The 1840s had a number of very violent incidents involving people attacking medical schools that had stolen the bodies of loved ones. February of 1852 saw a violent riot in Cleveland, when a mob attacked and burned a medical school building when the remains of a stolen body were discovered there. While riots at medical colleges were common at campuses that dissected cadavers, this riot was one of the last of the anatomy riots in America.

It may be possible that these fears were strong among the family members so these cages were a result of those fears. Or maybe the family knew of a plot by local doctors and placed these cages as a means of deterring them from stealing the bodies of their loved ones. The bodies of women to be dissected were in a higher demand by medical schools than those of men.

As I stood there I could not help but wonder if this is the truth behind the cages. While we may never know exactly why they were placed here, I personally believe the reason may involve the grave robbing going on at that time. For some reason, members of the Thomas family had a reason to fear for the remains of their lost loved ones and as a result placed these iron cages over their graves to protect their remains.

After paying my respects to those buried there I left the mystery of the Hooded Graves on the hilltop, not finding definite answers, but leaving with my personal conclusions. The truth may never be known about the origins of the hooded graves, but I can say I did not encounter anything out of the ordinary during my visit.

If you visit the Hooded Grave Cemetery, please use caution and respect. Parking is very limited. The structures are interesting and should not be messed around with so others can come, investigate and make their own conclusion to the origins of the cages.

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