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The potter's field, a forgotten piece of local history

05/16/2018 11:02AM ● Published by J. Chambless

Clarence Murray found the potter's field to be a place of piece, and he spent a lot of time mowing the field and planting flowers.

Gallery: A potter's field [3 Images] Click any image to expand.

By Steven Hoffman
Staff Writer

When Chadds Ford resident Helen Sipala was a small child, her parents, Arlice and Gertrude Murray, settled into their new home on land that was owned by the county and was the site of the Embreeville State Hospital.

“We moved into the house when I was 2 years old,” Sipala explained during an interview in April. “I am 83 now, so it was a long time ago.”

It was, in fact, 1936. Arlice and Gertrude had moved from the Sparta, N.C., area to Pennsylvania in search of work, which was difficult to find at that time – and more difficult down south where the Murray family was from. Arlice and Gertrude had been small farmers in North Carolina, and Arlice took a job with Chester County, which operated the Embreeville State Hospital and the Chester County Home on the same property where the new Murray home was located. Arlice would oversee the farming operations on the property at a time – the 1930s, 1940s, and early 1950s – when the hospital property was largely self-sufficient.

There was a farm on the property, and the fruits and vegetables were grown there in a garden. There were even cows for milking and hogs for meat. The food that was grown and produced on the farm was sufficient for all the facilities on the property. Patients in the hospital did the laundry, handled the sewing, and worked the land, tending to the crops and contributing to their own well-being in a variety of ways.

“The patients worked all around our house,” Sipala recalled, “and we became very familiar with the patients. We knew so many by name because we grew up with them. When they would die, we knew they were going to potter's field.”

A potter's field, or paupers' grave, is an American expression for the burial of unknown or indigent people. The origin of potter's fields can be traced back to the Bible. There is a reference to Akeldama, which was purchased by the high priests of Jerusalem for the burial of strangers, criminals, and the poor. It was paid for with the coins that had been paid to Judas Iscariot for his identification of Jesus. The term “potter’s field” comes from Matthew 27:3-27:8 in the New Testament, in which Jewish priests take 30 pieces of silver returned by a remorseful Judas after he betrayed Jesus:


Then Judas, who betrayed him, seeing that he was condemned, repenting himself, brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and ancients, saying: “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.” But they said: “What is that to us? Look thou to it.” And casting down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed, and went and hanged himself with a halter. But the chief priests, having taken the pieces of silver, said: “It is not lawful to put them into the corbona, because it is the price of blood.” And after they had consulted together, they bought with them the potter's field, to be a burying place for strangers. For this the field was called Haceldama, that is, the field of blood, even to this day.

The potter’s field was about an acre in size, and was also situated, by the time the Murray family moved there, on property owned by the Embreeville State Hospital. The origins of the small cemetery can actually be traced to 1798, when the cemetery was started for a poorhouse that was located nearby. That poorhouse expanded over the years, eventually included an asylum, and then became the Embreeville State Mental Hospital.

By the time the Murray family moved into the house because Arlice had gotten his job with the county, there were two neighboring houses back then. Today the only house of the three left standing is the one that the Murrays lived in.

In 2004, Sipala and her five siblings compiled some stories and photos into a book, The Murray Family 1936-1955. The book documented their personal experiences growing up in the small community. It talked about the delights of growing up in such a small community. One illustration: Mr. Eikeldinger, the baker for the Embreeville State Hospital, would share delicious gingerbread cookies and sugared doughnuts with the children. The Murray family would have to take the bus to West Chester or Coatesville if they wanted to do something really special, like go to the movies, but there was plenty of fun to be had in the neighborhood.

“It’s a family story of our life there,” she said, explaining that the work is not just a family history focusing on the family itself, but focusing more on what their experiences were.

Sipala said that when she was growing up, she and her siblings had everything that they could ever want right there outside their home – the Brandywine Creek, a railroad, and a bridge were all nearby to keep them entertained for endless hours. They spent a lot of time fishing or swimming in the Brandywine Creek.

“It was a playground,” Sipala said. “It was anything a kid could ever want.”

Arlice and Gertrude made sure that the children understood that the hospital was not a place to play or fool around in.

In the book, the Murray siblings recalled that, “We were only allowed to go near the buildings on the immediate hospital grounds with permission and for a purpose. However, many activities occurred in the farm buildings and fields near our home. We never missed a chance to watch from a respectful distance.”

Sipala said that growing up around the patients taught the Murray children to be understanding and respectful to them.

“It was a very interesting life and it humbled us,” she said. “We never thought negatively about the patients.”

In the decades in the middle of the last century, Embreeville was treating people with a wide range of ailments―sometimes they could be very minor ailments or disorders, but at the time there weren’t other support systems or resources available to help people who suffered from disadvantages. The Chester County Home provided a safe shelter for people who couldn't secure a home of their own.

Sometimes, the Murray children would see horse-drawn wagons hauling caskets to the potter’s field. Chester County had the need to provide a grave for those people who had no family to claim the body when they died.

This scene is described in The Murray Family 1936-1955: “If we happened to be playing outside, our mother would have us stand still and face the road in silence as a matter of respect as the casket was drawn past the front of our house.”

Sipala explained, “Our parents were southerners, and in the south, you show respect.”

The Murray family lived so close to the potter’s field that they could see it from their front porch.

Growing up so close to the Embreeville State Hospital and to the potter's field made an impact on the Murray children. In the book, they wrote, “The area, neighbors, friends, school, hospital, and even some of the patients helped mold us into who we became later … you can't put a price on that and you can't take it away.”

Arlice and Gertrude built their own home about a mile away from the one where Sipala and her siblings grew up in during 1955. By that time, four of the six children were old enough to have already moved out of the house.

The Embreeville State Hospital continued to evolve through the decades, as the state changed how it operated its hospitals, but eventually closed its doors.

The potter’s field is still there and is being maintained. There are about 200 markers in the field. They are not grave markers. When people were buried there, it was often in haphazard fashion, and sometimes people were buried on top of each other. Indian Hannah Freeman, who is believed to be the last of the Lenni-Lenape indians in Chester County, is said to have been buried in this potter’s field, but other sites have also been suggested as her final resting place.

Sipala said that in later years, her brother, Clarence, found the potter’s field a place of peace.

“He would walk up there every single Sunday unless it was raining hard or snowing,” she explained. He would take his own lawn mower there and mow the grass to keep the field looking neat. Clarence would even plant bulbs in the field, using the end of his cane to clear a spot for the bulbs. Today, the potter’s field is part of the ChesLen Preserve, which is the largest privately owned preserve in the county and is managed by Natural Lands.

Sipala said that she is glad that she kept scrapbooks of pictures and information about her childhood home and the surrounding area. She’s particularly glad that she and the siblings took so many pictures, documenting a somewhat forgotten piece of local history.


To contact Staff Writer Steven Hoffman, email editor@chestercounty.com.

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