On research, rediscovery and reconnecting with the past
But for a few brief sojourns in Lindenwold, Sicklerville and Ventnor totaling four years, I have lived in Hammonton for my entire life.
Even after a total of 38 years living here, I am amazed by how much I don’t know about the town’s history.
As I’ve mentioned before, and as many of you know, I am one of the caretakers—and my wife Robyn is the administrator—of Oak Grove Cemetery. We got the gig, actually, because of her passion for history and her desire to learn more about her adopted town.
Recently, we came upon a mystery.
At least two stones—there may be more—are marked with the inscription “S.D.M.S.B. HAM. N.J.,” those of Pamfilo Santilli and that of A.N. Capelli.
We were utterly vexed. After exhausting what we believed were all available resources, we took to Facebook to throw it into the ether, and see what the ether threw back at us.
Nobody knew what it stood for.
One individual, Vincent LaMonaca, suggested that it could have been indicative of Societa di Mutuo Soccorso, an Italian Mutual Benefit Association of the time. After scouring Google—and issues of The South Jersey Republican—I learned that Hammonton once had what was known by the non-Italians as the Italian Benevolent Society.
Invigored, I decided to read through my copy of The Story of Hammonton by William McMahon.
I should have started there.
Right there, on page 22, McMahon solved the mystery.
“The Italians also formed a beneficial society for their own financial aid and protection in case of sickness or death. This was called the ‘Society Italiana Di Mutuo Soccorose e Beneficenz,’” he wrote in 1966.
According to McMahon, the headquarters was originally on the White Horse Pike opposite Basin Road, and the founding members were Placido L. Capelli, Pasquale Petrecca, Domenico Giordano, Nicholas Juliano, Rosario Miglino, Domenico Campanella, Pasquale Gazzara, Domenico Tomasco, Giuseppe Speranzo and John C. Rizzotte.
Many of those family names figure prominently in Hammonton history and are still existent in abundance in town to this day, but the society is all but forgotten, literally consigned to the pages of a history book.
It made me wonder how many other institutions and individuals, their lives and their motivations, have been lost over the years.
Recently, Robyn and I took a trip to Colestown Cemetery, just outside of Cherry Hill. (What? We like visiting cemeteries for fun.) Among its residents are names that are instantly recognizable to any Hammontonian: William Coffin, who founded Hammonton, as well as his sons, Edward Winslow Coffin—after whom Winslow Twp. is named—and John Hammond Coffin, after whom our town derives its name.
It’s something of a mystery why they were buried so far from the towns that bore their name. William Coffin died in 1844, and the only cemetery in town at the time was a small churchyard on what is now Plymouth Road—Oak Grove Cemetery, the next oldest, wouldn’t be founded until 1860—so it makes sense as to why the Coffin family didn’t purchase plots in their settlement, but Colestown is a bit of a hike from here, especially by horse and buggy.
If any of you reading this know the answer, please email me and let me know.
We love mysteries like that. We love exploring cemeteries and learning about the people, and why they did the things they did—particularly when they figure so prominently in local lore. We love poring over old newspapers, burying our noses in books and sitting for hours in front of a microfilm machine, looking for answers that have fallen out of living memory and have remained hidden for decades.
When we find the answers—and we (and by “we” I mean “usually Robyn”) do—the feeling of satisfaction that comes with it is hard to describe. We love doing research, and we love learning about the past, especially that of the town—even though, sometimes, Robyn will sheepishly grin and say, “I know, I’m a nerd.” It’s at those times I remind her that I am right next to her, researching the same things, combing through the same cemeteries, and am every bit as excited to discover what a mysterious acronym on a tombstone from a century ago stood for.
We’ve been conditioned to learn that history is dates and events, but it is also about people and their culture. Making sure that we remember that—and remember them—is when everything old becomes new again.
Joseph F. Berenato began as a mild-mannered reporter for The Hammonton Gazette in 1997, and returned to that position in 2019 after an 18-year sabbatical, during which he farmed, taught, became a grandfather, dug graves and wrote, but never so prolifically as he has since his return. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on social media at @JFBerenato and at www.jfberenato.com.