Parched corn and beef jerky could go but so far for members of the Strawberry Hill Cannoneers of Terre Haute, Ind.
The patriotic group promised to send volunteers to Carlisle to keep watch over Molly Pitcher’s grave in the Old Graveyard. Fifty years ago, rumors were rampant concerning a plot by some New Jersey businessmen to steal the mortal remains of the local heroine and tourism draw.
Calling themselves “The Friendly Sons of Molly Pitcher,” they began a campaign to Molly’s body exhumed for reburial in Monmouth County, N.J., where, as legend has it, Molly gained her fame during the Revolutionary War. On April Fools’ Day 1963, The Evening Sentinel reported how the cannoneers had pledged to preserve the sanctity of her grave in a letter written by Lenhardt E. Bauer, the so-called “generalissimo” of the Indiana group.
“Sirs, this Battery is prepared to put the dastardly poltroons of New Shrewsbury, N.J., to such rout as would make Teddy Roosevelt’s charge up San Juan Hill appear as a tortoise race,” Bauer wrote.
His only condition for the defense of Molly Pitcher was that Carlisle residents voluntarily supply the necessary “victuals and provender” to his troops upon their arrival in Cumberland County.
Otherwise, Bauer said, they may have to forage the land for food and drink. “Carlisle is a far place and there’s a limit to the parched corn and jerky we can carry.”
The reason for their interest was that the mayor of Terre Haute had recently designated a “Molly Pitcher Day” for the city highlighted by a formal dance called the “First Cannon Ball.”
For much of March and early April 1963, the fate of Molly Pitcher’s body was front-page news and the subject of several editorials in Carlisle. By the time this story had run its course, Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. Raymond Shafer had issued a statement in support of keeping Molly’s remains in Carlisle.
On April 2, The Sentinel reported how the statement made Shafer an official member of a local group calling itself the “Loyal Fraternal Brotherhood for the Preservation of the Final Resting Place of Carlisle’s Glorious Patriotic Heroine, Molly Pitcher.” The newspaper named Kurt Suter “chief proclaimer” and Richard Suter “commander in chief” of what was actually a loose band of friends who organized a publicity stunt in response to the threat from New Jersey.
The Sentinel explained how the Suter brothers the morning of April 2 tried to visit Gov. William Scranton in Harrisburg, but were turned away by the press secretary. Scranton was busy in a budget committee meeting.
The newspaper reported how state Sen. George Wade also issued a statement in support of the brotherhood that read as follows: “All Pennsylvanians are indeed moved by your sterling performances and I am sure Molly herself would be most appreciative.”
Apparently, only brotherhood members knew the truth about the brotherhood. “We were not really guarding the grave site,” said Bud Long, now 69 of Carlisle. “It was pretty much a spoof.”
Fifty years ago, Long was pursuing an associates degree at the Penn State York campus. A Carlisle native, he would visit home on the weekends. He recalled reading stories about Molly’s body, but thought nothing of the controversy until he got a phone call in late March from Kurt Suter who announced in a radio interview that the brotherhood was guarding the body.
During the phone call, Kurt Suter asked Long to be at the Old Graveyard on the morning of March 23. He didn’t really explain why. When Long showed up, a Sentinel photographer asked him to pose in front of the Molly Pitcher statue. Their photograph appeared on the front page that evening.
Molly supporting Molly
“We were just there to back up the story Kurt gave to the radio station,” Long recalled. Indeed, a lot of people were chiming in against the notion of Molly making a move to New Jersey.
DelRoy Wurster, secretary of the Carlisle Chamber of Commerce, vowed that any attempt by the Sons to remove the body would be opposed by the Chamber and local tourism council. The borough council on March 14 voted against any bid to move the remains. But the most interesting twist was a feature story that appeared in the March 29 edition of The Sentinel.
The newspaper reported how a 10-year-old girl named Molly Pitcher was born in Carlisle in 1952 and was living in Wellsville, York County, at the time of the controversy. Her mother told The Sentinel that Molly as well as the Pitcher family would be very disappointed should Carlisle lose the distinction of being the “Molly Pitcher town.”
Meanwhile The Sentinel, in a March 12 editorial, had speculated that the Friendly Sons were inspired to launch their campaign by action taken some years prior by Patricia Thorpe, widow of Carlisle Indian School sports legend Jim Thorpe. She had made a deal with the leaders of the Pennsylvania towns of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk to have her husband buried there and the newly united towns renamed in his honor.
“Though Jim actually belonged here, there was nothing that could be done legally to halt the transfer of his grave,” The Sentinel editorial reads. “In the Molly Pitcher case, there are historical, sentimental and legal aspects which give evidence this is the rightful burial place of Molly Pitcher.”
Carlisle officials took the New Jersey threat seriously. On March 21, The Sentinel reported that Police Chief Edward Still had ordered marked units to periodically check the Molly Pitcher burial plot just in case the Friendly Sons made good on their promise to raid the Old Graveyard armed with picks and shovels.
But even as Carlisle rallied behind Molly, there were signs the whole affair was nothing more than a giant publicity stunt hatched by the Friendly Sons. Joseph Graham, group founder, admitted in a WHYL radio interview that his group adopted the Molly Pitcher cause out of “sheer boredom.”
The Sentinel quoted the radio interview as saying that the Sons wanted to ask permission from Carlisle Borough to lend New Jersey the body of Molly Pitcher as part of that’s state 300th anniversary. In a March 20 article, Graham said the Friendly Sons met at a bar one night and decided to write the governors of New Jersey and Pennsylvania about exhuming Molly.
“We were having such a good time, we never got around to writing,” Graham said. A week later, on March 28, The Sentinel reported that the Friendly Sons was a group of about 50 advertising and public relations men who commuted daily to work on the same railroad car. Their alleged campaign to move Molly Pitcher even inspired a song sung to the tune of “Hey Look Me Over.” It went something like this:
“Hail to Molly Pitcher, proudly we cheer,
Come back to Monmouth, your friendly sons are here.
You’ve earned your fame, you passed the cup,
Your Friendly sons are on the march, now we’re going to dig you up.”
As their true motives became clear, The Sentinel published an editorial on April 2 thanking the Friendly Sons for all the nationwide publicity their stunt generated for Carlisle.
“Whether you started this as a joke or as a serious venture, the community owes you a debt it can never repay,” the newspaper said.