Gravestones damaged in Aberdeen cemetery include those of late Sen. James and his wife

One of Aberdeen's oldest cemeteries has been hit by vandalism in recent months, but its caretaker says damage there is nothing new.

A total of 28 gravestones have been knocked over in Grove Presbyterian Church Cemetery at 95 Post Road, apparently over a period of time, according to an Aberdeen Police Department news release sent Tuesday afternoon.

The cemetery dates to the 1870s and includes many founding Aberdeen families. One of the gravestones knocked over is that of the late state senator and state treasurer William S. James. The stone of his late wife, Margaret Higinbothom James, was also toppled from its base.

Their daughter, Harford Del. Mary-Dulany James, brought the vandalism to the attention of police and the church. Sen. James had a distinguished career as a state official and lawyer. A school in Abingdon is named for him, as is one of the State Senate buildings in Annapolis.

James said Wednesday she is working with Sheriff Jesse Bane to find a better security plan for the cemetery, not just on behalf of her family, but for all those who are "the blood and treasure of Harford County."

"We are working together to come up with a very positive outcome," she said. "I think we can put the 21st century technology to work."

"We're hoping to put together a plan of action," she said.

Lambert Rickey, who has overseen the cemetery off Post Road in East Aberdeen for about eight years, said he was not especially surprised by the damage.

"It's nothing new that hasn't gone on for the past 50 years," Rickey said. "It's the neighborhood. It's always been an ongoing problem. There was a fence along the back, and they continually cut holes in that fence."

Rickey said he has tried to address the issue by removing the whole woodline, installing new lighting and putting in a new fence. He also left the gate open, since people walk through anyway.

He has talked with neighbors and young people in the area, but did not sound especially hopeful about stopping the vandalism.

"These kids have no respect. For them, it's just something fun to do," he said.

The vandalism had stopped for about three years, Rickey said, but it seems to have picked up again beginning last October.

Despite the prominence of those like the James family, Aberdeen Police Cpl. Will Reiber said specific gravestones did not appear to be targeted.

"It just seems like it was random," he said.

He also agreed the damage has been a systemic problem, noting many people cut through the cemetery from Swan Meadows.

"There is a high volume of foot traffic there at certain hours," Reiber said.

Rickey said his mother and grandmother are buried at Grove, and he had to restore their gravestones as well.

Another man was also helping set the tombstones for him, but Rickey said he has apparently died.

"Sometimes it gets to the point where it's tough to keep up with," he said about the cemetery and the damage that goes on there. "It's pretty much kids that do it, and what happens is, if you catch them in the act, you can prosecute it."

Rickey said he has even sat in the cemetery at night with a baseball bat hoping to catch them. He said he has talked with a couple of police officers but they are rotated in and out of the area very frequently.

Former caretaker Henry "Lou" Barnhart wrote a history of the three-acre cemetery, which has more than 2,000 graves, in 2002.

"Vandalism and the knocking over of gravestones has been a problem at the cemetery," he wrote. "In an attempt to curb this discouraging problem, a 7-foot high chain link fence was installed in 1974 along the rear and two sides of the cemetery. For a while there was some lessening of vandalism, but in time, fences were cut and the problem continues."

The cemetery is a significant one in Aberdeen, as is Grove Presbyterian Church, now on East Bel Air Avenue.

Reiber said it is the oldest cemetery in the city and is linked historically to the city's founders.

"The lineage of Aberdeen is well-represented there," he said.

The graveyard also contains at least 80 unidentified people buried there, Rickey said.

"There's a lot of unmarked graves," he said.

Grove Presbyterian Church dates itself to 1854, according to C. Milton Wright's "Our Harford Heritage."

Anyone with information on the crime may be eligible for a reward of up to $2,000 by contacting the Aberdeen police, 410-272-2121.

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