Rich Wilhelm

Pinwheels and Tombstones

In Uncategorized on September 16, 2014 at 1:57 am
The Lapsley family tombstone, now featuring pinwheels.

The Lapsley family tombstone, now featuring pinwheels.

I have been a lifelong cemetery tourist, seeking out grand historic resting places, as well as obscure little graveyards, in which to wander. In 2012, I took this curious avocation to its next logical step, becoming a certified volunteer tour guide at Laurel Hill Cemetery, a National Historic Landmark in the East Falls neighborhood of Philadelphia.

I visit cemeteries in search of history, art and, yes, a bit of haunted atmosphere. But I have never been a ghost hunter. I remain, more or less, a skeptic on the paranormal. The skepticism exists despite the fact that, back when my wife Donna and I used to watch Robert Stack on Unsolved Mysteries, I would loudly state my preference for tales of ghosts and Sasquatches. Meanwhile, Donna would roll her eyes and wait patiently for Stack to finish rattling on about the Loch Ness Monster so he could get on with a juicy true crime story. To this day, Donna and I agree to disagree on our Unsolved Mysteries preferences.

With all of that in mind, let me tell you about the spirit I may or may not have encountered on a lunchtime visit to Laurel Hill in late July. And, more importantly, the living, breathing person who was communicating with that spirit.

I was sitting on an ornate bench at the family plot of General George Gordon Meade, who led the Union forces to victory at the Battle of Gettsyburg. This bench is located underneath a large and ancient tree that bore silent witness to Meade’s 1872 burial, which President Ulysses S. Grant attended.

As I finished my lunch, I noticed two men standing above a flat tombstone, not far from me. These men had brought, and were using, a contraption: a tall tripod, on top of which rested a rooster figurine and a pinwheel. They were speaking to each other, and probably knew I was watching them, but did not seem concerned. After awhile, the men moved on and I finished my lunch.

Heading back to my car, I walked past the men at another gravesite. This time, my curiosity insisted that it be satisfied, so I approached. One of the men was considerably older than me, the other probably a bit younger than I am. Both were dressed casually, but the older man also appeared to be attired for a ritual, with a green cap, some beads and shells around his neck and a shirt that had a loose and flowing feel to it.

I said hello and asked what they were doing. I tried to sound casual, and the men seemed comfortable letting me in on their activity. The old man did not speak much English, but with the young man translating from Spanish, I was told that they had come to Laurel Hill to communicate with the spirits of some of the cemetery’s permanent residents.

The tripod pinwheel setup was the mechanism for doing so. They would set it up at certain spots of the old man’s choosing and the spinning pinwheel would help to translate the “good winds” being generated by the spirit of someone buried nearby. The pinwheel was indeed spinning as this was explained to me.

That is when I encountered Anna Welsh Lapsley. Born January 23, 1796. Died June 23, 1879. Made a brief reappearance July 30, 2014.

Anna is one of several people buried in the Lapsley family plot at Laurel Hill. The Lapsleys were prominent Philadelphia merchants, with international connections, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. David Lapsley, Sr., was the father of four sons, one of which was David Jr., who was married to Anna.

According to the old man, of all the Lapsley family members, it was Anna’s spirit that was most prominent. There was a strong implication that the men of the Lapsley family weren’t to be taken seriously as spirits, regardless of whatever business acumen they had possessed in real life. The old man described Anna as a very sophisticated woman who traveled extensively and knew about fine silks and such things. He also noted that if I was feeling troubled, I could come to visit Anna and that she might communicate something to me that could comfort me and in some other way help me.

I also learned that the spirit that had been visiting the men when I first observed them from the bench was a woman who was friends with Anna in real life. Her name was Rachel R. Simmons and she and Anna apparently they knew each other well and traveled together.

I talked awhile more with the men as the pinwheel’s activity ebbed and flowed. The old man advised me that if I set up a pinwheel in front of and just behind my house, they would work together to direct the good winds through our home in order to help us with any hard times or problems we are encountering.

By then it was time for me to leave, and, apparently them too. We shook hands and went our separate ways. Even at that moment, I knew I did not want to get contact information or ask them to further demonstrate the good winds. We had experienced that moment, the three of us—and, perhaps, Anna–and it was over.

Time to move on, but on my way back to work I thought about how unlikely it seemed that these two men were in their own car, cackling about how they pulled a fast one on me, or speculating on how they could turn their pinwheel-and-rooster-on-a-tripod shtick into a reality show for the History Network. Whatever it was they were doing at Laurel Hill that day, I believe they were sincere about it.

Do I believe that the three of us encountered the real disembodied spirit of Anna Welsh Lapsley that day? I seriously doubt it. At the same time though, I’ve come to believe that certain things are simply unknowable. While the old man might not have been necessarily receiving communiqués from a specific woman who died more than a century ago, maybe there are people among us who have a profound intuition that flows like a deep, quiet river beneath the foundation of science and/or religion that most of us turn to for quick and easy answers.

As a postscript, later in the evening on the day of my lunch visit, I walked into our local Dollar Tree and found a display of pinwheels, front and center in the store. I bought two and set them up in our yard. Just in case, you know? Eventually I bought two more and they could be spinning away at the Lapsley gravesite at Laurel Hill at this very moment, capturing the spirit of Anna Welsh Lapsley—or something—in the good winds.

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Patrick F. O'Donnell

writer, editor, general wordsmith and scribe

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