Jennie Benford knows dead people.
She is the director of programming for Homewood Cemetery, creating tours based on her extensive knowledge of the cemetery’s history and archival research. Every Wednesday and Saturday from 1 to 2:30 p.m. through the first weekend in November, she’s walking groups through the cemetery grounds, telling stories of what lies beneath.
Homewood Cemetery was founded in 1878. One hundred and seventy acres of land in Pittsburgh’s East End was purchased right next door to “Millionaire’s Row” on Fifth Avenue. Because Homewood Cemetery touted a nondenominational and nondiscriminatory mission, not only were wealthy families welcome, but the families who worked for them were, too.
The tour I attended, the one Benford will run for the rest of the fall, is titled “Audacious Pioneers: the Women of Section 14.” Section 14 is where the wealthiest of Pittsburgh’s dead were laid to rest. But, this tour wasn’t rife with stories of Andrew Mellon and the boys club you would expect. Benford tailored her stories to feature the women of Section 14.
Benford — who carried no notes — walked us by all the usual suspects: the Mellons, the Fricks and the Heinz family, whose mausoleum goes so far down into the ground it can accommodate even more than the 27 bodies already in there.
But Benford wanted us to notice something else.
“I am going to tell you about this marker, and then I am going to stop talking about Dr. Woods because we are not interested in him today, “she said.
The slab was a giant headstone. Dr. Robert Woods died in 1953. He designed his own marker and wrote his own epitaph.
“The beauty of his epitaph is, it’s entirely in the negative. He was the last of his family. He leaves no posterity. He is the member of no hospital staff. Belonged to no church. Belonged to no charitable organizations … and on and on and on. And if you think about what section he’s in, he’s making a statement about everyone over there.”
Dr. Woods didn’t feel the need to keep up with the neighbors.
His will was even more curious, and the real reason Benford was telling us his story. After his death, he had his house torn down and the foundations destroyed. He had the oil paintings of his parents burned. Lastly, he paid for the funerals of two women who worked for him. However, the will stipulated that, should the women choose to be buried in his lot in Section 14, they could not have a headstone.
“One of the ladies said, ‘no thank you,’ and the other is here,” said Benford.
She pointed under my feet.
Next to Dr. Woods’ bizarre tomb lies Agnes Taylor in her unmarked grave. She is the only Black woman buried in Section 14.
Taylor was born in Pittsburgh. Homewood Cemetery hasn’t been able to find out when she worked for Woods, or even an image of her, but they do know she ran what is called a Tourist Home.
“In the 1930s, 40s, 50s, even into the 60s … if you were Black and traveling in America, you couldn’t just pull into a Howard Johnson’s. So you would have a Green Book — a traveler’s guide — and it would list where you could stay in Pittsburgh.”
In the Green Book, Benford found Agnes’ business, The Agnes Taylor Tourist Home on Centre Avenue in The Hill District. “This must have been a very nice place because one of the people we know went there multiple times was Nat King Cole.”
Benford also introduced us to a woman named Christine Miller, whose body resides “in this extremely pleasant but boring mausoleum,” she said, but has “a good story.”
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Miller started out as a shop girl working in Downtown Pittsburgh. She also sang in the Third Presbyterian Choir. One day, her pastor informed her that a fellow parishioner wanted to pay for her schooling at a conservatory in Boston. However, this benefactor wished to remain anonymous. Miller took the money, went to school, then later became the world’s top mezzo-soprano.
After traveling the world and singing for kings and queens, she returned to Pittsburgh after her pastor offered her a position as soloist. The salary was less than half of what Miller was making, but she was now 40 years old and liked the idea of stability and a homecoming.
Miller also felt “a debt to this congregation for helping her,” said Benford.
After returning to Pittsburgh, Miller was soon courted by a wealthy widower named Daniel Clemson, who was 20 years her senior. They eloped. This was his second marriage and Miller’s first.
“Upon marrying Christine, he confessed that he had paid for her schooling and the salary that brought her back home.”
At the end of the tour, she told us that learning about these women has become easier due to digital archiving, and she is still digging.
“There are 78,000 stories here,” Benford said, “ … and digitized primary resources means that finding information about women — you can do it in a way you’ve never been able to do before. It’s leveling the playing field, it’s leveling the gender playing field and its leveling the class playing field. Now we can find out stories about people who were not famous in life, or who were not wealthy.”
There’s an intimacy to the Homewood Cemetery tour. You get a sense that Benford is walking you through a neighborhood she knows well. It’s a history lesson that takes place while its characters lay under your feet or behind sculpted granite and stained glass, which makes it better than any ghost story. You know what Benford is telling you is the truth. It feels important, somehow, to hear these stories, especially of those buried without the esteem or fame of their wealthy husbands or employers.
If you’d like to hear about the other women of Section 14, call 412-421-1822 to reserve a spot for $10. The Homewood Cemetery also offers a tour called “Angels and Obelisks,” which “explores the symbolism found in American memorial art and landscapes.” You can also make reservations by messaging them through their Facebook page or website.