Saturday, November 25, 2017

Let's Go Rob a Pyramid!

by Jerome

(Photographs supplied by AW, BK, CG and DB with thanks)

The Pyramids of Egypt were all looted in antiquity, and no doubt originally contained treasures that made the risk appear worthwhile. This article is about a far more prosaic event, the breaking into and robbing an approximately seven feet high pyramid-shaped memorial in United Cemeteries, Ross Township, Pittsburgh.

In early 1921 the United Cemeteries pyramid was completed. It was in the center of four sections of the cemetery reserved for Bible Students who had worked along with Charles Taze Russell. He was buried there in 1916, slightly uphill from the pyramid which was designed as a memorial for all those on site. As people died their names were to be inscribed on the four sides of the pyramid on carved pages of open books. However, only nine names were ever recorded on the monument before the idea was abandoned.

This pyramid was hollow. It was constructed from four triangular shaped sides that were angled together with a capstone holding it all in place. Cement grouting ensured it was designed to last. And it did, for a little over 70 years.

What attracted attention, which ultimately proved most unwelcome, was the news that the hollow interior contained “treasure.” This was mentioned in the 1919 IBSA convention report, while the pyramid was being constructed.  The relevant paragraph was a statement of intent: “Within the structure, incased (sic) in a block of granite, will be a sealed metal box in which is a complete set of Karatol Scripture Studies, the Memorial Tower, and one of every tract, photographs of Pastor Russell, a copy of the Society’s charter, and many other things to interest the people who at some future date may open the pyramid and find them.”

When the monument was completed and the event covered in the New Era Enterprise for February 10, 1920, the plan had not changed. The Enterprise reported:  “Within the monument is a hollowed stone which contains a copy of all the Society’s literature, photographs of the Pastor, a copy of the Society’s charter and other data which some day in the not far distant future may perchance come to light, now effectually sealed up.”

Years later, when George Swetnam wrote the article A Man and His Monument for the Pittsburgh Press in its Family Magazine section for June 25, 1967, page 7, he wrote about this cache of material, “hermetically sealed to await the end of time.”

Well, it didn’t quite wait until the end of time, but it as noted above, it did survive a little over 70 years.

The photograph below dates from November 1991. The visitor who took the photograph found the pyramid still intact, although noted that the grouting was failing in places and water was seeping in. No doubt its integrity was increasingly compromised, and the structural weaknesses may have given the thief or thieves their incentive.

By the fall of 1993 or 1994 the deed was done. The pyramid was opened and its contents disappeared.

The photograph below dates from that period and purports to show the break-in taking place.

In fairness to the subjects, this was a photograph taken by young tourists visiting the site, who found the damaged artefact and posed beside it. As you do. Their faces have been obscured in this picture, because no doubt they are now middle aged highly respectable individuals. There would have to be at least three of them, because someone took the photograph. Unsurprisingly, they found the pyramid empty.

What stands out for me is how heavy the sides were. It would have taken some effort to move the one section, but once moved there was a real danger to life had it toppled over. The damage would obviously need to be repaired as soon as possible.

We travel forward to the second known break-in.  This was around the year 2000. Again, and no doubt for reasons of safety as much as anything, the pyramid was repaired very quickly. But this time someone took photographs of the interior.

Obviously there wasn’t any casket of publications there, just a few granite shards that may have come from it. The person who took these photographs searched near the site in case someone had discarded parts of the “hollowed stone” the historic documents had been in. Nothing was found. He wasn’t to know that the cupboard had been bare for several years.

So we are left with the question – who vandalized the pyramid originally and stole its contents and where are they now?

I obviously have no idea, but as commented in earlier articles, the contents were unlikely to have been unique.  They could only put inside the pyramid what was available in 1920, and the Society’s own library at that time was incomplete. Whatever was inside was probably available elsewhere. The only thing that made it special was that it came from inside the pyramid. But whoever stole the contents could hardly advertise this on eBay. Can you imagine the wording?

I cannot believe any active JW or Bible Student would do such a thing. We are left with perhaps a rogue collector of some sort.

So someone somewhere out there may have a cache of materials; however, nothing that could not have been obtained from elsewhere. But as I write, there may be some sad individual out there still gloating over their hoard. If perchance they are reading this, all I can suggest is that they might consider seeking medical help.


Andrew Martin said...

I suppose it could even have been a juvenile prank?

Or do you suppose some nut case was thinking Russell's remains were actually INSIDE the pyramid, a la Pharaoh Cheops?

Totally unnecessary, whatever the reason.

Thanks for expanding the background on the pyramid, Jerome.

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

"Unique Watchtower Item: Documents from Russell's pyramid, stolen in the 1990s and now in my possession. I want tonnes of money and anonymity. Bid high so I can royally rip you off. No returns. Satisfaction not guaranteed." Something like that?

jerome said...

What shall I start the bidding at?

Bernhard Brabenec said...

Interesting were a look inside without the whole frontplate. Gives there such a photo?

Chris G. said...

I've been fascinated by the pyramid and it's history from the first time I heard about it. Thanks for the research and more specific timeline here.
Chris G

T. W.-K. said...

The date of the ‘graverobber’ photo was April 3, 1994. Arriving too late, we only found broken concrete left from the time capsule. One larger piece had some letters on it, so we brought it home. After cleaning it up and wetting it, we could read most of the letters, “California Tomatoes”- spelled backwards. Apparently, a tomato crate must have been used as a concrete form for the time capsule. It remains inconspicuously in a backyard in WNY. I did have the sense to pick up a few shards of broken granite out of the mud from when the side was slid off the foundation. I have gifted a few pieces to some serious collectors upon visiting them and their collections. (Never should such objects be sold or traded for as it would only encourage further vandalism.)

jerome said...

To T.W.-K

Thank you so much for completing the story behind the photograph I was sent. If you ever want to discuss this little piece of history further I can always be contacted back-channel.

Leonardo Cuéllar said...

Awesome story! I took the liberty of translating much of this material for an entry in my own Spanish blog, giving as always proper credit for the images and to Jerome for the research. If anyone is interested in reading the Spanish article, it is here:

I have two questions about the contents of the time capsule. I couldn't find precise information about The "Karatol binding" edition of the Studies, I suppose it is the material used for most of the winged globe editions that are not cloth bound like previous editions, if anyone can confirm that material is the one called Karatol that would be great.

My other question is about the "Memorial Tower", Does this refer to the Jan or Apr 1912 color issues of the ZWT? or does it refer to the black leather reprints?

T.W.-K, thanks for sharing the story behind the picture, do you have pictures of the larger piece of concrete with the stamped letters?
¿Did you take pictures of the inside of the pyramid? How heavy was the stone? did you really move it or just posed for the picture?

It feels so great to know that history is being written in this blog, so many details that otherwise would have been lost in time.
Thanks to all contributing to this and thanks to Rachel and Bruce for keeping this place alive.

Leonardo Cuéllar said...

I found this about the "karatol" editions:

By the word "Karatol" we indicate an edition of the STUDIES on thin Bible paper, with round corners, red burnished edges, flexible cloth covers, to take the place of the India paper edition with those who cannot afford the best, but who yet desire something convenient for carrying in the pocket for reading on journeys. These do not contain the Berean Index because they are kept in as small a size as possible. The entire set of six volumes, in cloth carton, $2, cloth-bound editions.
-Wt February 1, 1915

Also I found out that a Karatol edition of the 7 volumes was made in 1918, this is the one probably included in the time capsule.

T. W.-K. said...

Leonardo: No photos of concrete nor from inside the Pyramid. The side was too heavy to move- we just posed. The “Memorial Tower” must be referring to the special edition Watch Tower that covered the funeral of Brother Russell- one of the December issues of 1916. Later editions of this issue had an article about the new President, JF Rutherford on the last page.

JimSpace said...

So T. W.-K. is in that ‘graverobber’ photo of April 3, 1994, but it was already opened upon his arrival? This means it was broken into and robbed before that date, but after the 1991 photo. I wonder if the cemetery would have records of when the pyramid was broken into and repaired?

T. W.-K. said...

To JimSpace’s comment: It didn’t look like it had been that long- but everything was kinda wet and looked fresh from melting snow though. I think due to liability’s sake, they wouldn’t want to leave it too long. I was telling a brother how I reached up and was able to move the Pyramid cap- he said that it’s been replaced about 4 or 5 times because of theft. From my understanding, there has been a caretaker brother that keeps an eye on it- I don’t know if it falls under some LDC arrangement today.

JimSpace said...

Thank you T. W.-K. for your very interesting elaborations. This topic is very fascinating to me and always has been. Thanks again my brother.

jerome said...

In response to Jim Space's query - I have tried to find out about the original repair, but so far without success. According to internet information, the present owner of United Cemeteries only took over somewhat later, and my contact who gave me information about the 2000 break-in (including photographs of the pyramid interior) did not know about the earlier (and we assume original) one.

Chris G. said...

of note also,
when i visited the Pyramid in 2005 I noted that the "sealant" appeared fresh (less than a year) and "redone" on one or more sides of the pyramid, you can see in my photos (provided to Jerome) that the sealant is quite new. It could simply be the "caretaker" regularly "reseals" it but at the time I had imagined it had been repaired recently, but there is no evidence to substantiate that thought.