Public Burial Ground, Flushing

A 1910 view of the Flushing public burial ground

In 1839, an act of the New York State legislature authorized the town of Flushing, Queens, to tax its inhabitants for the “purpose of purchasing a suitable piece of land for a public burial ground.”  The sum of $500 was to be collected to purchase property for the cemetery, which was to be deeded to the supervisor of the town of Flushing and “used as a public burial ground for said town.”  A roughly triangular area of farmland in the southeastern part of Flushing was acquired for this purpose and was used as a public cemetery until 1898, when Flushing consolidated into the City of New York and the site became city property.

Part of the town cemetery is shown on this 1873 map of Flushing, identified as “Poor House Burying Ground.” Also shown is the privately-owned Flushing Cemetery, which opened opposite the town burial ground in 1853

Located north of present-day 46th Avenue between 164th and 165th Streets, Flushing’s three-acre public cemetery served as a burial ground for the indigent and unknown and for those dying of contagious diseases. When first established, it likely also served as a general community cemetery where any local resident without a private family burial ground or church plot could be buried; this use was superseded in 1853 by the opening of the large, privately-owned Flushing Cemetery immediately opposite the public burial ground, on the south side of 46th Avenue. By the late 19th century, Flushing’s town cemetery was used primarily as a potter’s field and as a burial ground for the local African American community.

A sunken grave in the Flushing public burial ground in 1910

At a meeting of the Town of Flushing’s board of trustees in May 1895, a committee described their visit to the town cemetery, where they found it “sadly in need of attention.” Fences were down, the grounds were overgrown with weeds, and graves were dug haphazardly “wherever the gravedigger happened to first strike his spade.” Coffins were found two or three in a grave and sometimes no more than three feet beneath the surface.  A year later, the Long Island Democrat reported that conditions in the town cemetery had “by no means improved…Bodies are indiscriminately buried only 6 to 12 inches below the ground just as in previous years.”  In 1914, the abandoned cemetery site was acquired by the Parks Department and later converted into a public park and playground known as Martin’s Field.

A 1919 survey of the cemetery identified its boundaries and located four headstones just north of 46th Ave

Though an estimated 1,000 individuals were interred in Flushing’s town cemetery between 1840 and 1898, only four gravemarkers were found at the site in 1919 when it was surveyed by the Queens Topographical Bureau. Identifying the site as the “Colored Cemetery” the Topographical Bureau recorded the inscriptions on the marble tombstones of Willie Curry (d. 1874), Alfred Bunn (d. 1876), George Bunn (d. 1887), and James Bunn (d. 1890). The Bunns were of Native American ancestry and were members of Macedonia A.M.E. Church, a hub for Flushing’s nineteenth-century African American community.

A death notice for Eliza Thompson, who was interred in the Flushing town cemetery in 1884

There is no evidence that the burials in the Flushing town cemetery were removed when the site was converted into a public park, but human remains have been disturbed during the process of building facilities there. In 1936, “bones galore” were uncovered during excavations for a children’s wading pool, when neighbors “saw workmen pulling bones out of the ground.”  In addition to human remains, the workers found pennies placed on the eyes of the dead—a burial practice also observed in excavations of the African Burial Ground in lower Manhattan. 

Rediscovery of the Flushing town cemetery began in the 1990s during planned renovations at Martin’s Field, when local activist Mandingo Tshaka drew attention to its previous history. Documentary research confirmed the park was a former public burial ground and that human remains likely were still present at the site. The Parks Department, spurred by community involvement, took steps to protect and recognize the former cemetery. Renovations completed in 2006 included a paved area with a central stone inscribed with the site’s history, and a recreated historic wall engraved with the names from the four headstones remaining here in 1919. The park was officially renamed “The Olde Town of Flushing Burial Ground” in 2010, and has since been listed on the New York State and National Register of Historic Places. In October 2018, city officials unveiled a $1.6 million plan to reconstruct the commemorative plaza and other features of the site, to better honor those laid to rest here.

Aerial view of the The Olde Towne of Flushing Burial Ground in 2018 (nyc.gov)
A recreated historic wall engraved with the names from the four headstones found here in 1919 was part of the 2006 renovations at the site

Sources: Beers 1873 Atlas of Long Island, Pl 78; Laws of the State of New York, 62nd Session (1839), Chap. 205; Description of Private and Family Cemeteries in the Borough of Queens (Powell & Meigs 1932), 46-47; Report on Phase 1A Archaeological Documentary Research in Advance of the Reconstruction of the Martins Field Playground, Flushing, Queens, New York (Stone 1996); “Not a Pauper,” Newtown Register, Feb 7, 1884, 7; “A Public Disgrace: The Town Cemetery Shamefully Neglected,” Flushing Journal, May 24, 1895; Long Island Democrat, Sep 1896, 3; “Flushing Residents Object to Local Potter’s Field,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 4, 1910; “Coins from Dead Men’s Eyes Are Sold by WPA Workers,” Long Island Daily Press, Jun 19, 1936, 1; “Old Burial Grounds Now Used as Modern Play Area,” North Shore Daily Journal, Jul 15, 1936, 3; “Forgotten Cemetery to Be Restored,” New York Times, Jun 22, 1997; “Above, an Old Playground; Below, Graves for the Poor,” New York Times, Apr 2, 2000; “At Last, Justice,” Whitestone Times, Jun 3, 2010; “Mayor Wants Flushing Burial Ground Revamped,” QNS.com, Nov 30, 2017; “Mayor de Blasio Visits The Olde Towne of Flushing Burial Ground,” Office of the Mayor—News, Oct 26, 2018; The Olde Towne of Flushing Burial Ground (NYC Parks); Olde Towne of Flushing Burial Ground Conservancy

Macedonia A.M.E. Church Cemetery

An 1873 map shows the Macedonia A.M.E. (Zion Church) and its churchyard, which was used as a burial ground. This was the heart of Flushing’s 19th century African American enclave; the Colored School can be seen across the street from the church, on the south side of Liberty St

In 1811, the African Methodist Society in Flushing acquired land on the north side of Liberty Street (later 38th Avenue) just west of Union Street, to establish a church. Erected in 1837, the Macedonia African Methodist Episcopal Church became the nucleus of a historic African American enclave that flourished in downtown Flushing into the mid-20th century. 

Part of the Macedonia A.M.E. Church property was used as a burial ground that served the local black community throughout much of the 19th century. By the early 1900s, the small graveyard had fallen into disuse and burials were disturbed during church construction work on at least two occasions. When an extension was added to the church in 1903, burials were uncovered to the east of the existing building; these were reinterred in a corner of the churchyard.

A view of Macedonia A.M.E. Church in 1927 (QBPL)

In 1931, church officials removed some 200 bodies from the burial ground at the rear of the church when a new wing was added for a social hall and gym; at the same time, unsuspected burials were encountered during foundation work underneath the church. Church officials planned to transfer the remains from the church property to a plot at Flushing Cemetery; however, the transfer was not permitted because the church did not have proper documentation for the deceased. The remains from the burial ground were subsequently reinterred below the church building.

Macedonia A.M.E. officials with human remains disinterred during construction at the church property in the early 1930s (HPI 1988)

Little is known about specific individuals who were laid to rest in the Macedonia A.M.E. cemetery since church burial records were lost in the early 20th century. One newspaper, reporting on the 1931 disinterments at the site, said many were “the remains of prominent figures in the history of Flushing’s colored population of the past century.” Still in the collective memory in 1931 was the grave of Jesse Major, whose tombstone, carved in the shape of an open bible, once stood next to the graveyard’s front entrance. “Violets and buttercups grew on Jesse’s grave when they grew on none other,” said members of the congregation who recalled seeing the grave and its flowers around the turn of the century, when “no boy would dare tread on the grave overshadowed by the ‘Good Book.’”

Rev. Edward C. Africanus (National Portrait Gallery)

Among the prominent figures likely interred in the Macedonia A.M.E. Cemetery was Rev. Edward C. Africanus, a pastor at Macedonia and a teacher at Flushing’s Colored School. As noted in the Cyclopedia of African Methodism, many considered Africanus “the most talented minister in the New York conference” of the A.M.E. Church. When he died in Flushing in 1853 at age 33, Africanus was described as as one who “towered high as scholar and pulpit orator.”

When the city decided in the 1950s to create a large municipal parking facility in the area surrounding Macedonia A.M.E., the church was allowed to stay at its site largely because its demolition would have further disturbed the human remains interred at the site. Though the church was spared, it became an island in a sea of cars—much of the black community that had surrounded Macedonia since the early 19th century was displaced to make way for the parking field that encircled the church. Still standing at its original location, today Macedonia A.M.E. is the third oldest church in Flushing. The parking facilities surrounding the church are currently being redeveloped into Flushing Commons and Macedonia Plaza.

Aerial views of Macedonia A.M.E. in 2001 (left), showing the parking facility that was built around the church in the 1950s, and today (right), as the area undergoes redevelopment (NYCityMap)
A view of Macedonia A.M.E. Church today (Google)

Sources: Beers 1873 Atlas of Long Island, Pl 70; “Civil Rights of the Dead,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jun 15, 1866; “200 Skeletons Unearthed: Remnants of Bodies Buried in Flushing Exhumed to Make Way for Church Building,” North Shore Daily Journal, Sep 12 1931, 1, 5; “Graveyard Under Flushing Church Revealed As Reason for Fight on Parking Lot Project,” Long Island Star-Journal, July 13, 1949, 13; Phase 1A Archaeological Assessment Report for the Flushing Center Project, Queens, New York (Historical Perspectives, Inc., 1988); Cyclopedia of African Methodism (Wayman 1882), 13; History of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (Payne 1891), 303-304; City of Gods: Religious Freedom, Immigration, and Pluralism in Flushing, Queens (Hanson 2016), 55-56, 167-169

Friends Cemetery, Prospect Park

A view of the modest tombstones in the Friends Cemetery in Prospect Park, ca 1935 (BHS)

The first Quakers arrived in New Amsterdam in 1657, where they were swiftly driven out by Governor Peter Stuyvesant’s religious intolerance. Some found refuge in English settlements in the countryside of Long Island and held meetings in a number of villages there. In the city, however, Quakers were not welcome until after British conquest in 1664. The earliest Quaker group to worship in Manhattan built their meetinghouse in 1696 on Green Street (now Liberty Place).

By the early 19th century the New York City Friends were a powerful minority among the state’s Quakers. They were generally wealthier than their country counterparts, and urban influences caused a shift in doctrinal beliefs that put them at odds with the traditional Quaker principles practiced by the rural Friends on Long Island. In 1828, a split arose out of these ideological and socioeconomic tensions. Elias Hicks led the traditionalists of Long Island and elsewhere, who became known as Hicksites. The more urban, wealthier Friends became known as Orthodox Quakers. Members of both branches established meetinghouses in Manhattan and in the city of Brooklyn.

An 1852 map depicts the Friends Cemetery situated on the Coney Island Plank Road, on the Brooklyn-Flatbush border, before Prospect Park was built around it in 1866

Manhattan’s pioneer Quakers buried their deceased members in a graveyard attached to their meetinghouse on Green Street; in 1796 the Society of Friends established a new Quaker burial ground on Houston Street where they transferred remains from their original graveyard. In the city of Brooklyn, where Friends held meetings beginning in the 1830s, the Quaker dead were interred at Wallabout, a public cemetery near Fort Greene that had allotments for the different religious denominations. The Friends Cemetery located in today’s Prospect Park, Brooklyn, is a continuation of these earlier Quaker burial grounds.

Around 1840, the Friends of New York and Brooklyn purchased nine acres of undeveloped farmland on the Coney Island Plank Road in Brooklyn for a new Quaker cemetery. Remains from the Friends cemeteries on Houston Street and at Wallabout were transferred here and by 1846 it was open for new interments. The burial ground was divided into two unequal sections—a smaller area for Orthodox Friends and the larger remaining section for the Hicksites—and free plots were assigned to member families.

Hyde 1903 Atlas of the Borough of Brooklyn Vol 1 Pl 19 Quaker
The Quaker Cemetery is shown within the boundaries of Prospect Park on this 1906 map

In the early 1860s, Brooklyn’s civic leaders moved to create an urban park comparable to the newly-created Central Park in Manhattan. Commissioners acquired 585 acres of forest and farmland that were transformed into Prospect Park, which opened in 1867. The preexisting Friends Cemetery was located within the boundaries of the land laid out for Prospect Park and was retained as a private property of the Society of Friends to be used as their burial ground in perpetuity. In the 1950s the two branches of Quakers—Orthodox and Hicksite—reunited and today the New York Quarterly Meeting (NYQM) is the organizational body of the Friends of Manhattan and Brooklyn. The NYQM owns the  Friends Cemetery in Prospect Park, the only active Quaker burial ground in New York City. Rarely open to the public, the cemetery is enclosed by a fence and protected by a locked gate just off the park’s Center Drive. 

The Friends Cemetery in Prospect Park on a recent fall day (Getty)

Though some 3,500 individuals may be buried here, there are far fewer tombstones marking the site—early Quakers didn’t allow tombstones, their unmarked graves in keeping with the faith’s principle of humility. When markers began to be used, they were simple and modest. The earliest gravestones in the  Prospect Park cemetery date to the 1820s, and likely represent individuals transferred from earlier burial grounds. Among those buried in the cemetery are Brooklyn Borough President Raymond Ingersoll, who died in 1940, and Mary McDowell, a Brooklyn public school teacher who was fired by the Board of Education when she refused to sign a loyalty oath in support of World War I because it conflicted with her Quaker principles. The most well-known grave in the Friends Cemetery is that of Hollywood actor Montgomery Clift, who died in New York City in 1966 at age 45; he was interred here because his mother was a Quaker.

Montgomery Clift’s grave at the Friends Cemetery in Prospect Park (FindaGrave)
Entrance to the Friends Cemetery, May 2016 (Mary French)
A 2012 aerial view showing the boundaries of the Friends Cemetery within Prospect Park (NYCityMap)

Sources: Dripps 1852 Map of Kings and Part of Queens Counties, Long Island N.Y.; Hyde 1903 Atlas of the Borough of Brooklyn, Vol 1, Pl 19; Copy of the Original Register of Interments in the Friends’ Cemetery in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, New York, to May 1906 (NYHS 1906); Inscriptions in the Friends’ Cemetery Prospect Park, Brooklyn, New York, Hicksite & Orthodox Branches (Haviland 1906); Fairchild Cemetery Manual (1910), 57; Encyclopedia of New York City, 2nd ed. (Jackson et al 2010), 1062; “Here They Rest in Peace,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jun 3 17, 1894; “The Cemetery in the Park,” New York Tribune, Sep 6, 1896; “Secluded Field in Park Is Friends’ Burial Plot,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec 25, 1910; “Simple Rites Held in Park for Ingersoll,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Feb 26, 1940; “Neighborhood Report: Prospect Park/Park Slope. He’s Here for Eternity, but Don’t Ask Where,” New York Times, Sep 27, 1998; “Brooklyn Quakers to Perform Play in Prospect Park Cemetery,” New York Daily News, Jun 26, 2008; NYQM Cemetery (New York Quarterly Meeting); History of Brooklyn Monthly Meeting (Brooklyn Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends)

West Farms Soldier Cemetery

A view of the West Farms Cemetery and the Presbyterian church building, ca. 1885 (MCNY)

A keen-eyed observer passing by one of the buildings of the Lambert Houses, a massive, low-income residential complex near the Bronx Zoo, will find an odd detail. Bolted to the 1970s-era, orange-brick structure at the corner of Boston Road and East 180th Street is a mangled metal sign, its faded hand-painted lettering offering guidance to “West Farms Soldier Cemetery, Bronx Landmark, 1 Block West.”  How and why this marker was placed on one of the megastructures at this troubled complex is a mystery—and one that will be lost as the Lambert Houses are currently being demolished and redeveloped. In any case, this curious public notice offers a delightful link between the modern, urban Bronx neighborhood of West Farms and the old rural village that is its namesake.

Located at the corner of East 180th Street and Bryant Avenue, the burial ground known today as West Farms Soldier Cemetery is an oasis of calm near the edge of the Lambert Houses. Although 40 veterans of four wars—the War of 1812, the Civil War, the Spanish American War, and World War I—are interred here, the soldiers are only a part of a long a varied history of this cemetery, which served as a churchyard and a community cemetery beginning in the early 19th century.  

In 1814, the trustees of the First Presbyterian Church of West Farms—then a “flourishing little village” of about 300 inhabitants, located 12 miles from New York City at the head of the Bronx River—acquired two parcels of land on Samuel Street (now 180th Street) to establish a church. The church, surrounded by a graveyard, was built in 1815 atop a hill on the north side of Samuel Street, about 200 feet west of the old Boston Post Road. The trustees designated part of the second parcel of land, located on the south side of Samuel Street, “a graveyard for strangers and black slaves.”

Detail from an 1868 map showing properties on Samuel Street (today’s 180th Street) owned by the West Farms Presbyterian Church

As West Farms began to grow in the 1820s, John Butler acquired a parcel on the east side of the Presbyterian churchyard to establish a larger cemetery to serve the West Farms community. Butler subdivided this parcel into burial lots that he sold directly to buyers. Though originally two separate burial grounds, over time Butler’s cemetery and the adjoining Presbyterian graveyard came to be seen as one site. By the early 20th century, some 200 individuals had been buried in the West Farms Cemetery, including 35 Civil War veterans. Most distinguished of these is Captain William J. Rasberry, who led his men into the Battle of Cedar Creek, Virginia, and died there, in 1864. The Rasberry family lived along what is today East 178th Street in West Farms.

West Farms Presbyterian Church and the adjoining cemetery are depicted in this 1901 map

The area surrounding West Farms Cemetery had developed into a bustling urban community by the early 1900s. With the changing times, the West Farms Presbyterian Church abandoned its hilltop sanctuary and moved to a new building constructed on the church-owned lot on the opposite side of 180th Street. This building, Beck Memorial Presbyterian Church, still stands today.  The original church building was used as a gymnasium and recreation hall until it was destroyed by fire in 1948. 

Grading and widening of streets in West Farms during the first decade of the 20th century disturbed graves in the cemetery next to the old Presbyterian church building as well as in the forgotten paupers’ burial ground on the south side of East 180th Street. When the public learned that soldiers graves were being neglected and desecrated in the West Farms Cemetery, a committee was founded to protect the site. The committee re-dedicated the cemetery as the West Farms Soldier Cemetery in 1910, and raised funds to improve the property, erect a Civil War monument, and have soldiers’ remains transferred to West Farms from burial grounds at Fort Schuyler and from the Potter’s Field at Hart Island. The final interment at the West Farms Cemetery, of World War I veteran Valeriano J. Tolosa, took place in 1929. The city assumed possession of the cemetery in 1954 and designated it a historic landmark in 1967.  Today the roughly one-acre site, surrounded by an eight-foot-high iron fence, is under the care of the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation.

West Farms Cemetery after the Civil War soldier’s monument was dedicated in 1910; the tombstone of William Rasberry can be seen to the right and below the soldier monument (NYPL)
A view of the Civil War monument at West Farms Cemetery, June 2014. The bronze statue that stood atop the monument was stolen in 1976 (Mary French)
Stones marking veterans’ graves at the West Farms Cemetery, June 2014 (Mary French)
The Sun Apr 27 1882 p1 copy
West Farms Cemetery was a churchyard and community cemetery as well as a burial place for veterans. “Queer Old Miss Hullin” was interred here in 1882 (The Sun, Apr 27, 1882)
2018 Aerial
A 2018 aerial view of the West Farms cemetery. Part of the Lambert Houses complex is located just to the east; Beck Memorial Presbyterian Church is opposite the cemetery on 180th St

View more photos of West Farms Soldier Cemetery

Sources: Beers’ 1868 Atlas of New York and Vicinity, Pl. 13; Hyde’s 1901 Atlas of the borough of the Bronx, Vol. 2, Pl. 8; The Story of The Bronx (Jenkins 1912), 281, 392; The Borough of the Bronx…(Cook 1913), 143-145; “Description of West-Farms,” Daily National Intelligencer, Apr 28, 1813;“Workmen Unearth Skeletons,” New York Times, Jun 19, 1900; “Harlem and the Bronx,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jun 26, 1900; “Dug Up Human Bones,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Aug 16, 1900; “Harlem and the Bronx,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sep 14, 1900; “Cutting Through a Cemetery,” New York Times, Sep 16, 1900; “Robbed of His Grave,” New York Times, Mar 5, 1909; “Veterans at Unveiling,” New York Tribune, May 30, 1910; “Take Soldier Dead from Pauper Field,” New York Times, May 29, 1916; “134 Year Old Building of Bronx Church Burns,” New York Times, Jan 11, 1948; “City Will Acquire Soldier Cemetery,” New York Times, May 6, 1954; Old West Farms Soldier Cemetery Designation Report (Landmarks Preservation Commission 1967); Archaeological Monitoring at the Old West Farms Soldier Cemetery (Parsons Engineering 2000); “What Lies Beneath: Cemeteries of the Bronx,” Bronx County Historical Society exhibit, Oct 2017; Cemeteries of the Bronx (Raftery 2016), 267-280

Public Burial Ground, East 50th Street

An 1836 map showing the public burial ground at 50th St and Fourth Ave

When New York City authorities decided to close the public burial ground at Washington Square in 1825, they selected a property “situate between the Third and Fourth Avenues, and between the 48th & 50th Streets” as the location for the new potter’s field. The site was considered well-suited for a public burial ground, since it was outside the populated city but only about a mile-and-a-half from both the state prison on the Hudson River and the almshouse at Bellevue. The grounds had recently been improved by the Commissioners of the Almshouse (who may have already been using it as burial ground), were enclosed by a “strong stone wall,” and required “no preparation for its immediate occupancy than that of a small tenement as a residence for the Keeper.” The site was quickly put into operation—the following year, 1,659 of the 4,973 people who died in the city were interred in the new potter’s field.

Located between today’s 50th and 48th streets and extending from Park to Lexington avenues, the remains of more than 60,000 people were laid to rest in the potter’s field over the next two decades, including approximately 600 cholera victims interred there during an outbreak in the summer of 1832. By the 1840s, the city was regularly receiving complaints about conditions at the 50th Street potter’s field. The New York Mirror called the site “disgraceful to the city of New-York—revolting to every proper feeling of the human heart, and unworthy of a Christian country.” In an 1845 report to the Board of Aldermen, the City Health Inspector described the situation at the site, where “bodies have not been regularly or decently interred in graves, but great pits have been dug in which a large number of bodies have been deposited; and when filled, have been covered over slightly with earth, allowing the most offensive and pernicious exhalations to fill the atmosphere, to such an extent as to endanger the health of the whole neighborhood.” Though a site on Randall’s Island was selected for a new potter’s field in 1843, many of the city’s indigent and unknown continued to be buried at the 50th Street site until the late 1840s.

Excerpt from a New York Times report on the extension of 49th street through the cemetery in 1853

During the 1850s, the defunct public burial ground at 50th Street was continually disturbed by the city’s northward expansion. A section of the grounds at Fourth Avenue (today’s Park Avenue) and 48th Street transferred to a private owner, necessitating the removal of some 2,000 bodies to another part of the field. Property owners in the vicinity petitioned the city to convert the site into a public park, as it had done with the previous public burial ground at Washington Square, but the request was refused by the city council, who voted to open 49th Street through the site. The city cut the street through in 1853, leaving “the bones of its unfortunate citizens” scattered about, according to the Evening Post.

A view of the “desecrated” burial ground in April 1857, from Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper

Thousands of bodies were again disinterred and moved to another area of the grounds in 1857, when Fourth Avenue and 50th Street were graded along the site’s western and northern boundaries. This work left the old potter’s field in shambles—the Herald described stacks of coffins lining the sidewalks and a rough fence erected on the southwest corner of Fourth Avenue and 50th Street to “prevent the pile of coffins tumbling from their somewhat higher position to the level of the newly made sidewalk.”  Exposed coffins were visible in the soil banks along the graded streets, “with the hairless skulls of the poor pauper occupants staring the passerby full in the face.”

Another sketch from Leslie’s Illustrated, depicting conditions at the site in April 1857

In April 1857, the City Health Inspector recommended removal of remains from the 50th Street Potter’s Field, noting that the “general appearance of the ground was disgusting,” with hundreds of human bones exposed and “many people gathered there on Sundays and amused themselves by poking out the skulls and bones.” In 1858-59, the remains were disinterred and transferred to the potter’s field then in operation on Ward’s Island. The 50th Street potter’s field is notable as the last potter’s field  established on Manhattan Island; much of the site is occupied today by the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, built in 1929-31.

The Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and other buildings are shown on the site of the former burial ground in this 1955 map
A 2016 aerial view; red lines indicate approximate boundaries of the 50th Street public burial ground site

Sources: Colton’s 1836 Map Of The City and County Of New-York; Bromley’s 1955 Manhattan Land Book of the City of New York, Pl 78; Minutes of the Common Council of the City of New York, 1784-1831 (City of New York 1917), 14:306-308; “Proceedings of the Common Council,” New York Spectator, Mar 6, 1827; [City Inspector’s Report of Deaths], New York Evening Post Jul 17, 1832; “Board of Health,” New York Spectator, Jul 26, 1832; “Potter’s Field,” New York Mirror May 30 1840; Documents of the Board of Aldermen of the City of New York Vol 11, 1845, 681-682; “Burials in Cities,” New York Daily Tribune May 30, 1848; “Twelfth Ward Street Opening,” New York Herald, Mar 26, 1850; “Old Potter’s Field,” New York Evening Post, May 30, 1853; “The Old Potter’s Field,” New York Times, May 31, 1853; “The Old Potter’s Field,” New York Herald, Mar 15, 1857; “Public Health—Potter’s Field Again,” New York Daily Tribune, Apr 7, 1857; “Exhumation of Bodies at the Potter’s Field,” New York Evening Post, Jun 8, 1858; “Potter’s Field,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, Jun 19, 1858; “The News,” New York Herald, Jun 7, 1859

Public Burial Ground, Bryant Park

An 1828 map showing the public cemetery site

On March 31, 1823, New York City’s Common Council passed the first of a series of laws banning interments in lower Manhattan, an action that was part of a movement in American cities that sought to promote public health by prohibiting burial of the dead in dense population centers. Though the ban was supported by those who regarded the numerous churchyards scattered throughout lower Manhattan as foul-smelling, unattractive eyesores that spread diseases, it was opposed by congregations and by families who had invested in purchasing lots and vaults in their churchyards. The opposition, who viewed the ban as an attack on private property and the rights of churches, was so strong that the Common Council reconsidered the measure twice over the next two years, both times reaffirming its original prohibition. However, the controversy demonstrated that the city needed to offer an alternative to those that had been deprived of a burial place as a result of the new interment law.

The Evening Post reports the laying of the cornerstone of the wall that would enclose the new burial ground, Oct 1823

At the same March 1823 meeting where they passed the interment law, the Common Council appointed a special committee to select a “Suitable Site for a public Burial Place to be called the City Burying ground.” This committee soon presented reports on the development of the new city burial ground, which would accommodate the “different religious congregations of the City,” as well as individuals “who may choose to select particular Spots for their families;” ground in the cemetery would also be reserved for the interment needs of the city’s “numerous poor.” The site selected for the municipal burial ground was part of common lands belonging to the city, located a little over three miles from City Hall, about 10 acres bounded by Fifth and Sixth avenues and 40th and 42nd streets. The city spent approximately $10,000 preparing the new cemetery, building 10 public burial vaults in the grounds, planting rows of weeping willows and elms, and enclosing the site with a four-foot-high stone wall that was topped with a “strong mortised fence, five feet high, made of Locust posts and the best Georgia pine.”

An 1825 call for proposals to construct vaults in the new burial ground

Despite the city’s efforts to provide a handsome municipal burial ground that could be used by all its citizens, the project never attracted middle- or upper-class New Yorkers and there is no evidence that congregations or families ever acquired lots or vaults in the city cemetery. The project was abandoned by the late 1820s; although the land is said to have been used as a potter’s field, reports from the 1850s state that the ground had been found to be too wet to be used for burials and remained wasteland until 1837, when it was appropriated for reservoir purposes. The city subsequently constructed the Croton Distributing Reservoir on the eastern portion of the site, while the western side became a public park known as Reservoir Square. In 1884 Reservoir Square was renamed Bryant Park; in 1899 the city demolished the reservoir and replaced it with the New York Public Library.

The 1823 public cemetery site is now the location of Bryant Park and the New York Public Library (NYCityMap)

Sources: Goodrich’s 1828 Plan of the City of New York and of the Island; Minutes of the Common Council of the City of New York, 1784-1831 (City of New York 1917), 12:811-812; 13:116-118; 14:209-212; 15:245; The Iconography of Manhattan Island: 1498-1909 (Stokes 1915-1928), 3:715, 968, 975; The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History (Sloane 1991), 34-40; “Proceedings of the Common Council,” New York Spectator, Apr 4, 1823; “Proceedings of the Common Council,” New York Spectator, Jun 13, 1823; “New Burying Ground,” New York Evening Post, Oct 15, 1823; “New Burying Ground,” New York Spectator, Oct 15, 1823; “Corporation Proceedings,” New York Evening Post, Dec 22, 1824; “Proceedings of the Common Council,” New York Evening Post, Dec 27, 1824; “To Masons,” New York Evening Post, Jul 2, 1825; “The New York Crystal Palace,” New York Herald, Jun 3, 1856; “The Removal of the Crystal Palace,” New York Herald, Nov 29, 1856

Public Burial Ground, Washington Square Park

Detail of Bridges 1811 map of the city, showing Greenwich village; approximate boundaries of the potter’s field are indicated in red

In April 1797, New York City authorities decided to purchase a piece of property “bounded on the Road leading from the Bowery Lane at the two Mile Stone to Greenwich” to replace the public burial ground then in use at Madison Square Park. The property was seen by many as a good choice for the new potter’s field—it was in a rural area north of the populated city but a convenient distance to the Almshouse in City Hall Park, to the public hospital at Bellevue on the East River, and to the new state prison just west on the Hudson River. One group, however, was incensed by the plan—affluent New Yorkers who had country retreats in Greenwich village. The burial ground would not only abut the suburban homes of many of the city’s elite, but it was contiguous to the only road leading westward from the Bowery turnpike to Greenwich, so they and their fashionable visitors would have to suffer the slow-moving wagons carrying bodies to the site.

Fifty-seven owners of residences in the vicinity, including Alexander Hamilton, immediately sent a letter of protest to the Common Council, stating that the burial ground would “lie in the neighborhood of a number of Citizens who have at great expense erected dwellings on the adjacent lots for the health and accommodation of their families during the summer season, and who, if the above design be carried into execution, must either abandon their seats or submit to the disagreeable sensations arising from an unavoidable view of and close situation to a burial place of this description destined for the victims of contagion.” The petitioners offered to buy another piece of land in exchange for the planned site, but their proposal was denied. The city proceeded with preparing the new burial ground, bounded by Greenwich Lane on the north, Fourth street on the south, Wooster Street on the east, and Minetta Creek (which ran southwest from the foot of Fifth Avenue to the corner of MacDougal and Fourth streets) on the west. This property forms approximately the eastern two-thirds of today’s Washington Square Park.

An 1817 survey of the potter’s field, showing the Scotch Presbyterian burial grounds at the northeast corner (Geismar 2005)

By November 1797, the new burial public burial ground was ready—fenced with “good posts and rails” and planted with trees—and the city ordered the keeper to commence interments there instead of at the old Potter’s Field at Madison Square Park. The keeper, who lived in a house in the northeast corner of the seven-acre site, dug graves, maintained the grounds, and performed another important function—protecting the cemetery from grave robbers. During the 18th and 19th centuries, medical students and physicians were in desperate need of cadavers for their training and research; with no mechanism in place to supply them with fresh corpses, they resorted to body snatching—a crime so common that almost every prominent physician in the city confessed to having taken part. They often pilfered remains from the city’s most vulnerable graveyards—the African burial grounds and potter’s fields, where their raids were less likely to arouse public outrage.

Excerpt from the New York Evening Post report of an 1824 attempt to steal bodies from potter’s field

John McKenzie, Keeper of the Potters Field in 1808, was dismissed from the position when he confessed to “conniving at the disinterment and taking away of dead bodies” from the burial ground. One of his successors in the position, William Schureman, was a more faithful servant to the dead—at about 3 o’clock on an April morning in 1824, Schureman “suspected that some person had entered the field for the purpose of removing the dead, and after sending for two watchmen, and calling his faithful dog, he went to ascertain the fact.” His suspicions were confirmed when he arrived at a burial pit containing about 10 coffins that had been uncovered; when the person concealed in the grave refused to show himself, Schureman sent his dog into the pit. Instantly, “a tall, stout fellow made his appearance, and took to his heels across the field.” The grave robber was eventually secured by the watchmen and sentenced to six months in prison. Reporting the story, the New York Evening Post cautioned, “the young gentlemen attending the medical school of this city, will take warning by this man’s fate. They may rest assured that the keeper of Pottersfield will do his duty and public justice will be executed upon any man, whatever may be his condition in life, who is found violating the law and the decency of Christian burial.”

Headstone of James Jackson, a 1799 victim of yellow fever; the headstone was found in Washington Sq Park in 2009 (New York Times)

The potter’s field was a burial place not only of “strangers and paupers,” but citizens, rich and poor alike, who died of yellow fever. In the summer of 1798, the disease returned to the city in such proportions it became known as the Great Epidemic; of the 2,000 New Yorkers who perished, about 660 were buried in the potter’s field. The following year, and in subsequent outbreaks, churches were forbidden from burying yellow fever victims in their burial grounds; all those succumbing to it were interred in the potter’s field. In an address delivered to the New-York Historical Society in 1857, John W. Francis describes the potter’s field at Washington Square as “our Golgotha during the dreadful visitations of the Yellow Fever in 1797, 1798, 1801, and 1803…many a victim of the pestilence, of prominent celebrity, was consigned to that final resting-place on earth, regardless of his massive gains, or his public services.”

In addition to serving as burial ground for the indigent, the unknown, and those dying of contagious diseases, the potter’s field was the location of a number of church plots, which lined the burial ground’s eastern edge. Among these church plots were several at the northeastern corner of the potter’s field belonging to congregations of the Scotch Presbyterian Church, and two 50-foot-square plots set aside for the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and Asbury African Church.

By the 1820s, some 20,000 bodies had been laid to rest in the potter’s field and the area surrounding the burial ground—once farm fields and country estates—had transformed into a thriving suburb of the city. Houses and shops lined the blocks immediately south of the burial ground; wells were dug, pumps installed, and streets regulated. “The present Pottersfield is nearly filled, and by Spring it will be necessary to remove it to some other place,” the city council reported in December 1824; a month later, they announced, “the time has arrived when interments should be interdicted in a part of Our City so rapidly improving as that in the vicinity of the present Pottersfield.” In 1825, the burial ground was closed and ordered filled and leveled. The city acquired additional land on the west side of the potter’s field to give the property a uniform shape, and in 1828 the site was described as “a beautiful public square, called Washington Square, which is also used as a military parade ground.” By 1878 it was a public park.

Map showing location of burial vault found at the northeastern corner of the park in 1965; believed to be part of the Scotch Presbyterian burial grounds

When the city was in the process of creating a public square from the burial ground, the Common Council declared “it is not the intention of this Board to disturb any of the graves within these grounds nor will there be any absolute necessity for such a measure.” They acknowledged that among those buried there were “many connected with our most respectable families” and said they would not think of  “disturbing the numerous remains deposited there.” Despite these noble intentions, remains of those resting under Washington Square Park have been disturbed a number of times over the years.

Workmen digging the foundation for the park’s iconic Washington Memorial Arch at the Fifth Avenue entrance in 1890 unearthed coffins, skeletons, and headstones, two bearing the date 1803. In 1941, the New York Times reported more “grim human relics of the eighteenth and nineteenth century” were encountered by WPA laborers who found human remains during excavations for a sewer on the north side of the park. During utility excavations at the northeastern corner of the park in 1965, Con Edison workmen broke through the domed roof of an underground burial vault containing several coffins and “at least 25 skeletons;” this likely was part of the burial grounds of the Scotch Presbyterian Church.

An intact burial uncovered in the park in 2008 (Geismar 2009)

And remains representing at least 31 individuals, including 16 intact graves, were discovered during archaeological work connected with renovations at the park between 2009 and 2013. Also discovered during these excavations was a beautifully-engraved brownstone marker found in the southwest quadrant of the park. “Here lies the body of James Jackson,” the inscription on the three-foot-tall headstone says, “who departed this life the 22nd day of September 1799 aged 28 years native of the county of Kildare Ireland.” Though no human remains were found associated with the headstone, research confirmed that Jackson was a victim of yellow fever and that’s how he—and his finely-made headstone—came to rest in the potter’s field.

A 2016 aerial view of Washington Square Park (NYCityMap)

Sources: Bridges 1811 Map of the city of New York and island of Manhattan, as laid out by the commissioners appointed by the legislature, April 3d, 1807; Minutes of the Common Council of the City of New York, 1784-1831 (City of New York 1917), 2:336, 339, 348, 351, 403-404, 512; 4:525; 5:59, 383, 390; 11:575; 14:22, 306-308;15:160, 234, 748; 16:48-50; The Iconography of Manhattan Island: 1498-1909 (Stokes 1915-1928), 5:1340, 1673; An Account of the Malignant Fever, Lately Prevalent in New York (Hardie 1799); Old New York; or Reminiscences of the Past Sixty Years (Francis 1858), 24-25; Historic New York (Goodwin et al 1899), 232, 316; It Happened on Washington Square (Folpe 2002), 55-69; Around Washington Square (Harris 2003), 5-11; Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital (Oshinsky 2016), 29-32; “Resurrectionists,” New York Evening Post, May 20, 1824; “Skeletons in the Way” New York Times, May 13, 1890; “Unearth a Potter’s Field,” New York Times, Mar 13, 1941; “Skeletons Found in Washington Sq.,” New York Times, Aug 2 1965, “Bones to be Left in Washington Sq.” New York Times, Aug 3 1965; “Gravestone from 1799 is Found in Washington Square Park,” New York Times, Oct 28, 2009; Washington Square Park: Phase 1A Archaeological Assessment (Geismar 2005); Washington Square Park: Phase 1 Construction Field Testing Report (Geismar 2009); Washington Square Park: Phase 2 Construction Field Testing Report (Geismar 2012); Washington Square Park: Phase 3 Construction Field Testing Report (Geismar 2013)

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