I visited Joe Biden’s grandparents and great-grandparents at Baltimore’s Loudon Park Cemetery yesterday.
I learned last year they were in Loudon Park, and when I visited again I decided I’d look for them. Ironically, it was at the point where I’d decided to give up that I found them. Is that how it goes?
Biden speaks often of his Scranton roots and his Irish ancestry, but it turns out his father’s roots are in Baltimore — and I might have known this five years ago if I’d followed up on something I found in one of my early visits to the cemetery. Instead, it took a fallen tree to prod me into looking into Biden’s ancestry.
Last summer, a dozen or so trees collapsed at Loudon Park, all apparantly about the same time. They were old, probably choked to death by the rampant vines, they were rotting from the inside, and they collapsed under the weight. One of those trees was a hundred yards from my great-grandfather, and that tree was cleaned rather quickly and tidily; when I drove through the cemetery that day I could sense something was missing but I wasn’t sure what. And was that stump always ragged…?
In the older section of the cemetery, the fallen trees were not cleaned up. There was one by the old entrance near Mary Pickersgill (who made the Fort McHenry flag). There was one by Babe Ruth’s father. And there were several uphill of my great-great-grandmother, especially at the top of what I call Whatcoat Hill. (She’s buried in the cemetery’s Whatcoat section at the base of a hill.) The graves there are old, many of them relocated from Baltimore’s Whatcoat Methodist Episcopal Church in the 1870s when they closed their cemetery. There was a large tree there, looming over those old graves, but it seemed to over the years to be mostly dead, held up by the vines that covered every inch of its trunk and branches. The branches gave way. Another tree was uphill of my great-great-grandmother Susan. When it fell, it seemed to collapse in on itself, and its wide and heavy branches tossed aside headstones as though they were nothing.
I walked around and took photos of the wreckage, especially of one massive tree that probably shook the ground when it fell.
Among the branches, I saw this granite stone. I vaguely remembered it but I had never looked at it closely. I still couldn’t read it — I could get close to it — so I didn’t know who it commemorated.
I went back in November, before I attended the Maryland Irish Festival in Timonium. When I was there that Saturday, a work crew had clearly been at work in the previous few days. Much of the tree had been cut up and hauled away, but there was much still still to do. The dirt road up the hill was torn up with heavy equipment tracks. There were discarded water bottles and Gatorade bottles here and there, sometimes on the ground, sometimes atop a headstone. I saw a cut wood chip from the tree, and I took it.
With the branches cut away, I could see at last who the broken granite monument I’d seen in August belonged to.
“Biden,” I thought. “That’s interesting. I wonder…”
This has been reset now, by the way. The Biden monument is repaired, though the decorative jar that had topped it can’t be reattached and it lays beside it on the ground.
I began doing research that weekend — are these Bidens any relation to Joe Biden? — and I discovered that they were. Joe Biden’s father was born in Baltimore, and his Biden ancestors came to Baltimore from West Sussex about 1800. (This BBC article by Joshua Nevett, about Biden’s English fifth cousin and his family back in England, is delightfully charming.) In fact, I’d taken some photos of Biden’s great-great-great-grandfather’s grave at Loudon Park in 2018 and not realized there was a connection.
That tall one center, topped by an angel (that might be missing a wing — I can’t tell), that says Biden on one side of the base and Linthicum on the other? That’s William Biden, Joe’s great-great-great-grandfather. I probably saw it, had the thought, “Biden? That’s interesting…,” and then never gave it a second thought.
It inhabits a very interesting and dense area, filled with obelisks, the domed mausoleum, a number of very tall monuments (like the Biden monument) topped with angels, and the Wiessner Monument, which stands three stories tall, for a family of prominent 19th-century brewers. The photograph below predates the one above by almost a year, and the Biden monument is dead-center, with the Wiessner monument behind it, but I didn’t explore any of this area closely.
The William Biden monument appears on the cover of the Loudon Park cemetery map I picked up on the office in 2017, too.
Once I knew that Joe Biden had family in Loudon Park, I resolved that I would locate them. And since I was in Catonsville yesterday — Carbon Leaf played there last night — Biden hunting it would be!
His grandparents are in the Belmont section, not too far from my great-grandparents. I’d some some exploration of that section when I decided to recreate a century-old photograph of the trolley in the cemetery last year. I had an idea of what I was looking for — there’s a photograph of the headstone on Find-a-Grave — but that didn’t help me as I walked up and down the hill, looking at everything I could, trying to take it all in. And at the point where I felt certain I’d looked at everything, when I was standing by a really remarkable monument that resembled a tree trunk hewn from stone, I turned around and saw first the name Robinette and then, a little behind it and to the right, the smaller stone that said Biden, the one I was looking for.
Let’s look again at the photo up top.
The Robinettes, front left, are Biden’s grandmother’s family, hence his father’s — and his, as a Junior — middle name of Robinette.
Were it not for a fallen tree, were it not for John L. Biden and his broken monument last August and November, I might not have known any of this. I had no reason to look… until I did.
There are other Bidens at Loudon Park as well; yesterday I found at least two Biden graves on the hill above Henry Hardy, the man who might be my great-grandfather’s brother. (I can make a circumstantial case. I can make a better circumstantial case than I did when I wrote that blog post almost four years ago. But it’s still a circumstantial case.) The intervening generations between William Biden and Joseph H. Biden, Biden’s grandfather, though, are buried in Baltimore’s Mount Olivet Cemetery, about a mile east of Loudon Park. I may visit in the future, and not just for the Bidens; early Methodist bishop Francis Asbury is buried there as well, and I grew up in a church named for him.
I went through old photos today, and I picked out two more that show the tree that fell when it was still alive and the Biden monument, the one the tree shattered, when it was unbroken.
In this photograph, I am not parked next to my great-great-grandmother. She’s near the left edge. And though I had not yet, at this point, found my great-grandfather’s brother Arthur, he would be a little beyond the right edge, roughly halfway up the hill beyond the road.
The changes five years have wrought. The tree at center is no more; I think it was cut down. The tree front right, to the right of the vulture, did fall. You can see what I mean by saying a dead tree is covered completely by vines. That’s what happened here. And the tree that collapsed last August? It’s at the back. You can see its powerful trunk, its branches heavy with leaves. And you can see a granite monument topped by a jar. That is not the Biden monument I saw shattered in August and November. It stood just uphill of that one. And they were identical.
There they are, center. Biden is on the left, its companion on the right. Shaded from the June sun by the canopy of leaves. Not knowing that four years later, in one horrifying moment, the branches above them would casually toss them aside as though they were nothing.
I wonder what killed the tree. So alive in 2017, so dead that it would rot and fall in 2021. I wonder if the flooding that part of the cemetery was prone to may be the cause. The dead bodies, saturated with water — might that have poisoned the ground and caused the foliage, trees included, to draw in water through their roots and kill it? I used to call that area “the dead zone,” because for a long time there was no grass there. I thought the grass might have choked and died from being underwater, but maybe it killed the trees as well, even ones far uphill, away from the “shoreline.”
For what it’s worth, I worry about the tree across the road from my great-great-grandmother. It’s fine now, but who can say what next year will bring? Or five years. Or ten.
Enough musing on that.
I had a good outing yesterday. I visited the family grave sites, I found Joe Biden’s ancestors, and I even found someone I need to ask a friend about. Unfortunately, my feet hurt.
It’s hard to believe it’s September already. Where did 2022 go?