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The Creepiest Playground in Pennsylvania

Playground at Starr Garden Park

At first glance, Philadelphia's Starr Garden Park seems like an oasis in the heart of a bustling metropolis. This park, encompassing an entire city block between 6th and 7th Streets, flanked by Lombard Street, is home to a playground, basketball courts, a baseball field and a colorfully-painted rec center surrounded by ancient trees which predate the invention of the cheesesteak. Starr Garden Park has been an idyllic wonderland to children of all ages, races and backgrounds since its creation 1895.

Yet, this park has a dark history most people don't know about.

In the spring of 1895, when the plot of land occupying the park was being excavated, workers uncovered a secret tunnel dating back to a time in the city's history when the locality was known as Murderer's Row. It was this tunnel that a 19th century gang of killers and bandits who called themselves "The Forty Thieves" made their headquarters and kept hidden their plunder.

The tunnel was found in the basement of a house at 612 Lombard Street, one of the dozens of homes demolished for the construction of the park. The tunnel terminated below Ram Cat Alley off St. Mary Street, where workmen discovered that the tunnel had been filled in by the Forty Thieves. The foreman called the workers to return to their tasks, and to this day the filled-in portion of the secret passageway remains forgotten and unexplored.

Undated photo of the wading pool  (with rec center in background) at Starr Garden Park

It was then an elderly resident of the neighborhood informed the workers about a long-forgotten legend in which the Forty Thieves kidnapped, robbed and murdered four victims whose bodies were said to have been placed in crudely-made coffins and buried in an abandoned well behind 616 Lombard Street. The workers explored the well  a few days later and, much to their astonishment, they did find a crudely-made coffin at the bottom. However, its contents proved to be more disturbing than originally thought.

From the May 28, 1895 edition of the Philadelphia Times:


While excavating on the site of Starr Garden Park yesterday a gang of workmen unearthed a coffin in the rear of 616 Lombard street. It was discovered while cleaning out a well, and when it was brought to the surface and opened a number of decayed bones were disclosed. From the appearance of the bones they were those of very young children. 

The coffin was inspected by the health authorities and afterwards removed to the morgue. It was built of boards and covered with tin, which had almost rusted away.

While the mystery of the Starr Garden Park coffin remains unsolved, there are several theories as to how dozens of children's bones ended up inside the well. Since the neighborhood was known as one of the most lawless in the city, home to numerous brothels, gambling dens and saloons, it could have been the work of an illegal abortionist who operated in the vicinity (read An Abortionist's Graveyard for an explanation of how doctors disposed of fetuses in the 19th century). Or, just as the old resident had said to the construction workers, the coffin really could have contained victims of the Forty Thieves.

But the most plausible explanation stems from the fact that the park (and the baseball field in particular) was built on the former site of the Colored Presbyterian Church, which eventually relocated to Lombard and Ninth. In the mid to late 19th century, it was customary for poor families to pay the church sexton a nominal fee to bury infants in unmarked pauper's graves. Rather than giving these infants a proper Christian burial, some unscrupulous sextons pocketed the money and disposed of the corpses illegally. This is what appears to have happened in 1898 at the Mount Zion Christian Church on Christian Street in Philadelphia, when workers discovered the remains of several infants hastily buried in the church's basement and in a nearby well.

Undated photo of Starr Garden Park playground

A less plausible but intriguing theory centers around a man who lived in the rear of 616 Lombard Street, just feet away from where  the mysterious coffin was found. Five years earlier, the address had belonged to a man by the name of George P. Fontaine, who was a prime suspect in the drowning death of a teenage girl named Maggie Maguire, whose body was found in the Delaware River. The police believed the woman was choked to death and thrown overboard, though Fontaine was never charged with the crime. At various times during its existence, the tenement at the rear of 616 Lombard Street has been a halfway house for convicts, a boardinghouse for prostitutes, and even served as the home and business headquarters for Henry Pharazyn, the quack behind the short-lived "Indian Queen" patent medicine empire.

Newspaper clipping from the Philadelphia Times, May 19, 1895

It is strangely coincidental, however, that the playground at Starr Garden Park sits on a patch of land where the bones of unknown children were discovered at the bottom of a well when the park was being built in 1895. This, coupled with the site's checkered and mysterious past, along with a long history of reputed ghost sightings, makes Starr Garden Park the creepiest playground in Pennsylvania, if not the creepiest playground in all of America.

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