Cypress Hills National Cemetery

Decoration of soldiers graves at Cypress Hills National Cemetery, May 1929 (Getty Images)

National cemeteries evoke a particular emotional response in visitors; the orderly appearance and regimented lines of uniform headstones are a tangible and powerful memorial to our veterans’ devotion to duty, honor, service, and sacrifice. Only one national cemetery is located in New York City, and this historic site was among the first group of national cemeteries created by Congress during the Civil War. In 1862, Cypress Hills National Cemetery began as military cemetery located within the boundaries of the large, private Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn. Three acres at Cypress Hills were set aside for the burial of Civil War dead; over 3,000 Union soldiers and several hundred Confederate POWs were buried in this parcel, which became known as the Union Grounds.

In 1884 the federal government purchased a separate, 15-acre tract on Jamaica Ave near the private Cypress Hills Cemetery and dedicated it the Cypress Hills National Cemetery. In addition, in 1941, a small tract within the old Cypress Hills Cemetery, known as the Mount of Victory Plot, became part of the national cemetery. This 0.6-acre plot, the smallest parcel of federally owned land in the country, is a burial ground for veterans who served in the War of 1812. Today Cypress Hills National Cemetery consists of three parcels totaling a little over 18 acres—the national cemetery on Jamaica Avenue, and the Union Grounds and Mount of Victory plot at the private Cypress Hills Cemetery. Cypress Hills National Cemetery was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997.

Sgt Wilbur Colyer (First Division Museum)

Cypress Hills National Cemetery is the final resting place for 21,000 veterans and dependents, including 24 recipients of the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest and most prestigious military decoration. Among these is Sergeant Wilbur Colyer, a 20-year-old posthumous Medal of Honor recipient who served as a member of Company A of the 1st Engineers, 1st Division, in France during World War I. Born in Brooklyn in 1898, Colyer grew up in South Ozone Park, Queens, and enlisted in 1917. His Medal of Honor was awarded in January 1919 for his actions on October 9, 1918. Volunteering with two other soldiers to locate machine gun nests, Colyer advanced on the enemy positions to a point where he was half surrounded by the nests in ambush. He killed the gunner of one nest with a grenade he had captured from a German soldier and then turned the German machine gun on the other nests, disabling them before he returned to his platoon. He was later killed in action. Originally buried in Argonne, France, in 1921 his remains were returned to the U.S. and interred at the national cemetery. Sergeant Colyer Square in South Ozone Park was dedicated to him in 1931.

Gravesite of Sgt Wilbur Colyer at Cypress Hills National Cemetery (Mary French)

 

Sgt Mgr Daniel Daly (USMC Archives)

The Medal of Honor has been awarded to 3,500 people since it was created in 1861 and just 19 of those individuals have received it twice. One man was considered for it a third time, although ultimately received other awards in his place. That man was Marine Corps legend Sergeant Major Daniel Daly (1873-1937), and this fierce warrior is interred at Cypress Hills National Cemetery. Born in Glen Cove, NY, Daly had an early career as a boxer despite being 5’6” and 132lbs. He enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1899 and soon earned his first Medal of Honor, for actions during the Boxer Rebellion, the anti-foreign, anti-Christian peasant uprising that took place in China 1899-1901. On Aug 14, 1900, during a siege on the district where foreign diplomats resided, Daly was left alone to keep rebels from storming across the wall protecting the consulate while the rest of his unit went to get supplies and reinforcements. Daly spent the night fending off attackers and legend has it that when reinforcements arrived in the morning, the bodies of 200 dead rebels littered the ground where he had held his position.

Daly earned his second medal of honor 15 years later during the U.S. Occupation of Haiti. He and his 35-man platoon were sent on a reconnaissance mission in the Haitian countryside; when crossing a river, 400 Haitian rebels ambushed them. The platoon found a position to spend the night, but the situation was grim as they were badly outnumbered and had lost their only machine gun in the river during the ambush. In the night, Daly went out to retrieve the weapon and after securing the machine gun, returned to the Marine position and then led an attack to scatter the rebels the next morning.

Gravesite of Daniel Daly at Cypress Hills National Cemetery (Mary French)

Next came World War I, and Daly, now 44 years old, was recognized with a Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Cross, and other honors for repeated acts of heroism during the Battle of Belleau Wood in June 1918, including rescuing six wounded Marines who were pinned down by heavy enemy fire, capturing 13 German soldiers entirely on his own, and capturing a machine gun nest by himself armed with just his Colt .45 and a few hand grenades. It was during the Battle of Belleau Wood that Daly said the words for which he is famous. Pinned down by the Germans at one point during the battle with his men who were beginning to lose hope, Daly rose up and rallied them by bellowing, “Come on you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?” and led them into a successful charge. Daly’s battle cry is considered one of the finest expressions of Marine esprit de corps ever uttered.

Custer’s last message, delivered by John Martin (United States Military Academy at West Point)

Among the other notable figures buried at Cypress Hills National Cemetery is John Martin, the trumpeter who delivered General George Custer’s last message before the massacre of the 7th Cavalry at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. Born Giovanni Martini in Italy in 1852, Martin came to the U.S. in 1873 and enlisted in the Army. Trained as a cavalry trooper and bugler, Martin was assigned as Custer’s orderly the day of the battle. As Custer and his company were heading into battle, he gave Martin a verbal message for Captain Benteen to bring his battalion forward with the pack train as quickly as possible. Because of Martin’s thick Italian accent, Custer’s assistant, Lieutenant William Cooke, stopped Martin and wrote the message on a piece of paper: “Benteen Come on. Big Village. Be quick. Bring packs. P.S. Bring Packs.” Carrying the message saved Martin’s life, as Custer and his troopers were annihilated during the battle. The note is now in the library at the United States Military Academy at West Point. John Martin retired from the Army in 1906 and became a ticket agent for the NYC subway.

Gravesite of John Martin at Cypress Hills National Cemetery (Mary French)

View more photos of Cypress Hills National Cemetery.

Sources: Cypress Hills National Cemetery; American Military Cemeteries (D. Holt 2009), 68-70; World War I New York (K. Fitzpatrick 2017), 143; Sergeant Colyer Square (NYC Parks); First Division Museum; “American Heroes: Sgt. Mgr Dan Daly, USMC,” US Patriot Tactical Blog, Jan 12, 2015; Custer’s Last Message (Little Bighorn National Monument); “Tunnel Vision: He Was Custer’s Bugler. Then, the Subway Called,” New York Times, Jan 29, 2003.

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Pelham Cemetery

Pelham Cemetery overlooking Long Island Sound, June 2014 (Mary French)

One of the best views in City Island, that scenic village off Pelham Bay Park in the north Bronx, is from the cemetery on the island’s east side. There’s no hint that you’re in New York City here in Pelham Cemetery, where tombstones overlook boats bobbing rhythmically in the waters of Long Island Sound. The people of City Island have always had strong ties to the water. Once home to oystermen and shipmakers, today the island is a haven for those who seek recreation and refuge in its Cape Cod-like environment.

Throughout the cemetery there are vivid reminders of the island’s past as a hub of maritime production and signs that the water is the community’s soul—numerous tombstones are marked with nautical ranks of those who made their living on the water or are decorated with images of ships, sailboats, anchors, compasses, fish and other animals, all emphasizing the aquatic connection, whether commercial or recreational. An inscription on one gravemarker perfectly captures the spirit of the place:  Rest in peace on this island where you were born and raised; home again on the shores of these waters you loved.

Pelham Cemetery in 1868 (Beers 1868)
Gravesite of Orrin Fordham at Pelham Cemetery, June 2017 (Mary French)

A fire that destroyed the cemetery’s records before 1922 obscures its early history, but it seems it was established as the village graveyard by the mid-19th century. An 1868 map depicts the cemetery at is current location along the shore, and many of the early tombstones in the graveyard date to this time period when large numbers of settlers moved to City Island. The island was isolated and sparsely populated until Connecticut shipbuilder Orrin Fordham established an oyster planting business on the island’s east side around 1830, a concept that revolutionized the American oyster industry and ushered in settlers and a period of prosperity for City Island. The oyster business thrived here through the 1890s and oystermen became some of the island’s wealthiest residents. Many of these early settlers and their descendants are represented in family plots at Pelham Cemetery.

In 1881, the three-acre cemetery was officially incorporated as Pelham Cemetery Association, so named because City Island was within the boundaries of the town of Pelham in Westchester County until New York City annexed it in 1895. According to City Island legend, remains from an early burial ground on Fordham Street were transferred to Pelham Cemetery when Public School 17 was built  on the old burial site at 190 Fordham Street in 1897-98.

Also buried in Pelham Cemetery are men and women who worked in the shipyards and sailmaking lofts that opened on the island in the 1860s and flourished until the mid-20th century. Among the shipbuilding pioneers interred at the cemetery is Augustus B. Wood (1831-1902), a lawyer, yachtsman, and boatbuilder whose City Island shipyard developed a national reputation for building very durable, light boats, including oyster skiffs and the famed Hell Gate pilot boat.

Nautical themes are common on tombstones in Pelham Cemetery, illustrating the maritime connections of its inhabitants (Mary French)

The Hell Gate Pilots Association had their headquarters at City Island and in the 19th and early 20th centuries many of the island’s men made their living piloting vessels through the East River’s treacherous Hell Gate passage. A number of Hell Gate pilots are buried at Pelham Cemetery, including “Dynamite” Johnny O’Brien (1837-1917), a daredevil sea captain and gunrunner revered as a hero of the Cuban people for his expeditions supporting their revolution. Capt. Edward Sadler, a City Island icon who died in 2011 at age 95, is here at Pelham Cemetery, too. Sadler, a Hell Gate pilot and FDNY fireboat captain, was a lifelong islander and community activist; he died in the same home he where he was born in 1916.

Gravesite of Pietro Vaini at Pelham Cemetery, June 2017 (Mary French)

Pelham Cemetery is a nondenominational burial ground and more than 2,000 people are buried here; most spent their lives on the mile-and-a-half-long island or have strong connections here. One exception is Italian artist Pietro Vaini, whose life on City Island was a brief and tragic one. Vaini came to New York City from Rome in 1872 and had a studio in Manhattan, where his talents attracted attention and he was considered to have great promise. On August 31st, 1875, Vaini came to City Island to attend a picnic at a gathering of local politicians and Hell Gate pilots. At one point during the afternoon, Vaini rose to recite a poem in Italian; his intense and earnest delivery riveted his audience, although most didn’t understand his words. At the close of his recitation, he announced, “Dio è il giudice di tutti i giudici, ed è il giudice di questo, mio atto,” (“God is the judge of all judges, and is the judge of this, my act”); he then drew a small revolver from his pocket and fired into his right temple. The spectators, imagining his act was simply the denouement of a dramatic performance, broke into applause before realizing what had happened. Vaini died without regaining consciousness; subsequent inquiries determined that friends were worried about his mental state for some time before the incident. The story of Pietro Vaini’s suicide became part of City Island lore, with many variations and embellishments over the years. Two weathered wooden crosses just inside the cemetery’s main gate mark his grave.

Depiction of Pietro Vaini’s suicide at City Island, engraving from L’Illustrazione Italiana, Nov 7, 1875 (Scala Archives)

Today, City Island’s days of oystering, boatbuilding, and sailmaking are long gone. Gone too are the Hell Gate pilots, who were absorbed by the Sandy Hook Pilots Association in 1967. But the island is still alive with nautical pleasures and a walk through Pelham Cemetery tells the story of its rich maritime heritage, and of those who are still lured to the island and its waters.

View of Pelham Cemetery from Long Island Sound, July 1928 (NYPL)
Old wooden arch and fence at the entrance to Pelham Cemetery in 1923, later replaced by a wrought iron arch and fence (NYPL)
Location of Pelham Cemetery on King Ave between Ditmars and Tier streets, City Island (NYCityMap)

View more photos of Pelham Cemetery

Sources: Beers’ 1868 Atlas of New York and Vicinity, Pl 35; City Island:Tales of the Clam Diggers (A. Payne 1969); City Island and Orchard Beach (C. Scott 2004); The Other Islands of New York City (Seltz & Miller 2011), 106-128; The Bronx, in Bits and Pieces (B. Twomey 2007), 92-94; A Strange Suicide,” New-York Tribune, Sep 2, 1875, 1; “Causes of Pietro Vaini’s Suicide,” New-York Tribune, Sep 3, 1875, 8; “Funeral of Pietro Vaini,” New-York Tribune, Sep 4, 1875, 12; “’Dynamite Johnny’ O’Brien to be Buried Wednesday,” New-York Tribune, Jun 25, 1917, 7; “Shaft to Rise from Lonely Grave of ‘Dynamite Johnny,’ Liberator,” New York Herald, Jun 27, 1924, 17; “City Island Mourns the Loss of Captain Ed Sadler,” Bronx Times, Nov 23, 2011; NYCityMap; Barbara Harrison Kaye & Darrell Smith, personal communication, July 3, 2017

Mount Zion Cemetery

Aerial view of Mt Zion Cemetery, 2015. Long Island Expressway at left, Dept of Sanitation complex at right, Calvary Cemetery and Manhattan skyline in background (G.Tushev)

There is a remarkable sight just north of the elevated Long Island Expressway as it travels through Maspeth, Queens—a vast expanse of tall, thickly crowded stone monuments sprawls before two massive, blackened smokestacks that arise from a strange nest of metal and tubes. The towering smokestacks are part of a defunct New York City Department of Sanitation incinerator, and they loom over Mount Zion Cemetery, one of the city’s most fascinating graveyards.

Mount Zion Cemetery began in the early 1890s when a small group of Jewish land developers purchased about 130 acres in rural Queens to accommodate the burial needs of the burgeoning Jewish immigrant populations of urban Manhattan and Brooklyn. Of the original acres, only 73 were approved for burial use and most of the rest of the land was sold for other purposes. By the 1920s, about 250 Jewish burial societies had purchased all the approved acreage. In the 1950s, five more acres were approved for burial use and made available for private and family lots. The original association that managed the cemetery was a religious one, Chevra B’Nai Sholom; in 1929 it became Elmwier Cemetery Association, a not-for-profit corporation that still oversees the cemetery today.

Location of Mount Zion Cemetery (OpenStreetMap)
Tombstones in Mt Zion Cemetery, May 2016 (Mary French)

The first burial at Mount Zion was in 1893 and by the 1920s the cemetery interred more than 3,000 individuals per year. Now there are 210,000 graves in the 78-acre cemetery, making it one of the city’s densest graveyards. Most of the graves are organized into gated areas owned by various burial societies founded by Jewish immigrants, usually those from the same town or region in Europe. Because most of these immigrants were poor and their burial societies could not afford to reserve land for landscaping or ornamental features, they would use every inch of space for graves that sold for a few dollars each. Society burial grounds often lack walkways and space between monuments or headstones, and the graves, designed for small, Orthodox-sized caskets, are so closely placed that digging of new graves must be done by hand. This spatial practice and the sense of claustrophobia it creates is often mystifying to modern cemetery visitors but was a familiar environment for those buried here. Most Jewish immigrants of the turn of the 20th century came to the crowded neighborhoods of New York City from compact Jewish ghettos in their European homelands, where the governments restricted both living space and cemetery land. Jewish immigrants had already developed practices for maximizing burial space under these conditions and the burial grounds at Mount Zion mirror a tradition of closeness and communalism that testifies to this history.

Visitors at Mt Zion Cemetery during the Jewish holidays, ca 1940 (Mt Zion Cemetery)
Mt Zion’s original main gate and office building on 54th Avenue, seen here ca.1940, was torn down about 1960 (Mt Zion Cemetery)

A number of celebrated individuals are buried at Mount Zion, including Pulitzer prize-winning composer Marvin Hamlisch, Broadway lyricist Lorenz Hart, novelist Nathanael West, and several prominent Orthodox rabbis. Notorious figures are also interred here, including brothers Morris and Joseph Diamond, who the State of New York executed at Sing Sing prison in 1925 for the robbery-murder of two Brooklyn bank messengers. “Stay away from bad company and love your mother,” was Morris Diamond’s last statement before execution. “She is your dearest friend. If you search all the treasure of the world you will not find a treasure like your mother.”

Morris Diamond’s Sing Sing Prison Admission Record, 1924 (Ancestry)

Mount Zion Cemetery is the final resting place of 44 victims who died in the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York City. The Triangle fire, which claimed the lives of 146 young immigrant workers, is one of the most infamous workplace accidents in American history, a tragedy that brought widespread attention to dangerous factory conditions and set a in motion an era of labor reforms to better protect the safety of workers. In the Workmen’s Circle section at Mount Zion, several monuments honor the fire victims. One early monument surrounds 14 graves with victims’ names inscribed on individual pillars, and carries the message, “In Memory of the young men and women who perished in the fire at the Triangle Waist Company’s shop, Asch building, N.Y. March 25th 1911. Erected November 1911 by their sisters and brothers, members of the Ladies Waist and Dressmakers Union Local Number 25.” Rose Rosenfeld Freedman, the last survivor of the Triangle fire, is also buried at Mount Zion; a lifelong crusader for worker safety, she died in 2001 at 107 years old.

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A 1912 photo of the marble monument surrounding graves of 14 victims of the Triangle Fire that are interred at Mt Zion Cemetery (Kheel Center)

Secluded off Path C in the southwestern part of Mount Zion is another noteworthy feature—a family burial ground dating to Queens’ colonial period. In 1656, Capt. Richard Betts established a homestead and family graveyard at the northeast corner of 54th Avenue and 58th Street, a site now part of Mount Zion. The burial ground holds the remains of Capt. Betts and his descendants, and Mount Zion maintains it for the Queens Historical Society.

The urban features surrounding Mount Zion add to its unique character today and the area has had a distinctive atmosphere since the cemetery’s early days. During the first half the 20th century, the locale was a known desolate spot that was popular for criminal misdeeds; murder victims were frequently found next to Mount Zion’s fences along 58th Street and Maurice Avenue. Also part of the cemetery environs during this time period was a famed shantytown of Ludar Romanian gypsies that stood immediately south of Mount Zion on 54th Avenue from 1922 to 1939.

Gypsy shantytown at Maspeth, located opposite Mt Zion Cemetery, 1937. The cemetery’s 54th Avenue entrance gate/office building can be seen in the background (QBPL)
View of Mt Zion Cemetery, Betts Avenue Incinerator in background, June 2017 (Mary French)

View more photos of Mount Zion Cemetery

Sources: Mount Zion Cemetery; “Trip to Mount Zion Cemetery,” Jewish Genealogical Society Newsletter 2(1) Sept 1980; Mount Zion: Sepulchral Portraits (Yang 2001); “American Jewish Cemeteries,” (Halporn 1993), Ethnicity and the American Cemetery, p131-155; “Sallie Diamond Faints at Brothers’ Burial in Maspeth,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 2, 1925 p24; The 1911 Triangle Factory Fire; Woodside: A Historical Perspective, 1652-1994 (Gregory 1994) p6; “Man Found Shot to Death,” New York Times, June 12, 1926 p21; “D’Olier’s…Murder,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sept 4 1928 p1-2; “Can’t Oust Gypsy Camp,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 8, 1923 p26; “Colorful Maspeth Gypsy Camp Now Just a Memory,” Long Island Star-Journal, Mar 30, 1939 p5; Mt. Zion Cemetery & Queens Garbage Incinerator (aerial video); OpenStreetMap; Sing Sing Prison Admission Registers, 1865-1939 (Ancestry)

Rossville A.M.E. Zion Church Cemetery

A view of A.M.E. Zion Church Cemetery at Sandy Ground, May 2017 (Mary French)

Amid rows of modern tract houses on a quiet street in Staten Island is a graveyard that is regarded as one of the country’s most significant African American burial grounds. Rossville A.M.E. Zion Church Cemetery memorializes the history of Sandy Ground, one of the oldest continuously inhabited free black settlements in the United States. This African American enclave was founded near the towns of Rossville and Woodrow on the South Shore of Staten Island. Its history begins in 1828 when Capt. John Jackson bought land here shortly after slavery was abolished in New York in 1827. Capt. Jackson, an African-American ferryboat owner-operator, was the first black landowner on Staten Island. Other freedmen followed him to Sandy Ground, including oystermen from New Jersey, Delaware, Virginia, and Snow Hill, Maryland, who were attracted by the rich oyster beds in the area.

The A.M.E. Zion Church and Cemetery in 1874 (Beers 1874)

The settlement was centered at the junction of present-day Woodrow and Bloomingdale Roads and acquired its name from the sandy soil of the area. Sandy Ground grew and prospered through the early 20th century and at its peak in the 1880s-1890s encompassed almost two square miles and had about 200 residents and over 50 homes. After oystering in the waters off Staten Island was banned in 1916 due to pollution, the Sandy Ground community gradually declined. The community suffered a further blow in 1963 when about half Sandy Ground’s remaining 25 homes were razed in a brush fire that destroyed a large portion of Staten Island’s South Shore. Today, 10 families who trace their roots to the original settlers still live in Sandy Ground.

Location of Rossville A.M.E. Zion Church Cemetery (NYCityMap)

The Zion African Methodist Episcopal congregation at Sandy Ground was incorporated in 1850, and in 1852 they purchased land on Crabtree Avenue where they built their church and established a cemetery. By 1890 the congregation had outgrown its original church and constructed a new building on Bloomingdale Road where descendants of Sandy Ground settlers still worship today. The cemetery on Crabtree Avenue has continued as the church and community burial ground.

A view of the Rossville A.M.E. Zion Cemetery, ca. 1980 (LPC)

Rossville A.M.E. Zion Church Cemetery occupies 1.6 acres on the south side of Crabtree Avenue, west of Bloomingdale Road. About 100 modest tombstones can be found in the graveyard and a recent ground-penetrating radar survey located more than 500 unmarked graves here. Dates on the tombstones range from 1860 to the present and represent over 40 families. Capt. John Jackson’s tombstone is here, as are markers for members of other early Sandy Ground families such as Bishop, Harris, Henry, Landin, Purnell, and Stevens.

Distinguished Sandy Ground resident George H. Hunter (1869-1967) also has a marker in the cemetery. Hunter was the son of a Virginia slave who escaped to her freedom in New York State just before the Civil War and who brought young George to Sandy Ground around 1880. Hunter went on to establish a successful cesspool building and cleaning business and was a longtime steward of the A.M.E. Zion Church and caretaker of its cemetery. In a classic New Yorker article published in 1956, legendary writer Joseph Mitchell profiled Hunter and chronicled the history of Sandy Ground and its residents.

George H. Hunter ca. 1940, with the “Honey Wagon,” the name Sandy Grounders gave to the truck he used for cleaning cesspools (SI Advance)

Visiting the A.M.E. Zion Church Cemetery with Mitchell, Hunter remarked, “Most of the people lying in here were related to each other, some by blood, some by marriage, some close, some distant. If you started in at the gate and ran an imaginary line all the way through, showing who was related to who, the line would zigzag all over the cemetery.” Hunter’s “imaginary line” symbolizes the cemetery’s significance in representing Sandy Ground’s history. The family plots and markers offer a visible record of the network of relationships that constituted the community of Sandy Ground and provide a tangible and visible link to Sandy Ground’s long and continuous existence that has shaped and molded the lives of the people who lived there, and their descendants, in many powerful ways.

Gravestone of Dawson Landin (1826-1899), an oysterman who moved to Sandy Ground from Maryland in the mid-1800s. He owned a forty-foot sloop named the Pacific and was the “richest man in the settlement,” according to George Hunter (Mary French)

View more photos of Rossville A.M.E. Zion Church Cemetery.

Sources: “Mr. Hunter’s Grave,” (J. Mitchell), New Yorker, Sept 22, 1956; LPC Rossville A.M.E. Zion Church Cemetery Designation Report, 1985; LPC AME Zion Church Designation Report, 2011; Sandy Ground Memories (Mosley 2003); “Sandy Ground: Archaeological Sampling in a Black Community in Metropolitan New York,” (R. Schuyler 1974), The Conference on Historic Site Archaeology Papers 1972, Vol. 7, pp.13-52; “Early Black Settlement Struggles to Preserve Heritage,” Los Angeles Times, Dec 15, 1991; “Repairs Start After Vandalism In Historic Black Cemetery,” New York Times, July 8, 1998; “On Visionary Soil, the Dream Turns Real, New York Times, Nov 7, 2008; Vintage Photos of Sandy Ground (SI Advance); Beers’ 1874 Atlas of Staten Island Sec 23; NYCityMap

Sailors’ Snug Harbor Cemetery

SSH April 2017
A view of Sailors’ Snug Harbor Cemetery, April 2017 (Mary French)

They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters, lead a life of peril, hardship and excitement . . . When the storms have been weathered, and the harbors reached they are usually ready for whatever good things the land has to offer, and when old age overtakes them to settle down about a quiet fireside . . . among them none holds so high a place as Sailors’ Snug Harbor . . . unquestionably the most famous sailors’ retreat in the world . . . One thousand old men, gathered from all quarters of the world under a single roof, make a curious and sometimes querulous collection . . . They may walk on the lawn, sit in the sunshine, dream under the trees, and there is nothing to disturb. When they become weary and are laid to rest, a little cemetery whose white tombstones may be seen back of this pastoral abode receives their bodies and then they are left serene. (Theodore Dreiser 1904)

Founded by Robert Richard Randall’s 1801 bequest to create a retirement home for “aged, decrepit, and worn-out sailors,” Sailors Snug Harbor opened in 1831 on Staten Island’s north shore overlooking the Kill Van Kull. The 150-acre facility was a self-sustaining community that included dormitories, a working farm, dairy, bakery, chapel, hospital, and cemetery. At its peak in the early 1900s, there were over 1,000 residents, called “Snugs,” who were admitted without regard to nationality, race, age, or religion. By the mid-20th century, the population at Snug Harbor had significantly dwindled and in the 1970s the retirement home was moved to Sea Level, North Carolina, where it is still in operation today. Most of the Snug Harbor property was transferred to the City of New York for a cultural center.

SSH Butler 1853
Sailors’ Snug Harbor in 1853, and the cemetery located south of facility’s main grounds. (Butler 1853)
Location of Sailors’ Snug Harbor Cemetery (NYCityMap)

Sailor’s Snug Harbor Cemetery is located just beyond the facility’s old south gate on Henderson Avenue.  Funeral processions went down a tree-lined road that led to the back of Snug Harbor grounds and passed through the south gate on their way to the graveyard, which is situated today near the corner of Devon Place and Prospect Avenue, adjacent to Allison Pond Park.  The six-acre site contains the graves of 7,000 mariners who died at the retirement home between 1833 and 1975. The L-shaped graveyard, dubbed “Monkey Hill” by the Snugs, comprises a flat open field and a small hill and is enclosed by a red brick wall.

Gravestones from the Sailors’ Snug Harbor Cemetery on display at the Noble Maritime Collection, May 12, 2017 (Mary French)

At one time in the cemetery’s history, each burial was identified with a gravestone stamped with the four-digit identification number issued when a resident was admitted to the retirement home. As the cemetery became too crowded for stone grave markers, the gravestones were replaced with metal plates, which deteriorated over time and disappeared. Old marble tombstones were also removed from the cemetery to save them from vandals; hundreds of gravestones from the cemetery are now in storage at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center.

Gravemarkers in the Sailors’ Snug Harbor Cemetery, 1919 (SSH Archives)

While most of the Snug Harbor property became part of the Cultural Center or was sold for development, ownership of the cemetery was retained by the Trustees of Sailors’ Snug Harbor. The graveyard has been neglected and vandalized since the retirement facility relocated to Sea Level in the 1970s and the few headstones found sprinkled around the site today are the only evidence of the thousands of men who are buried here.

James Martin a.k.a Edward Leiter, photographed at Snug Harbor, ca. 1900 (SSH Archives)

Most of the tombstones still standing in the cemetery are for residents who died in the early 1900s; one of these is enigmatically inscribed “Edward Leiter Alias James Martin, 1840 – 1914.” Why this mariner used an alias is unknown; his registration shows that he was a native of Hoboken, New Jersey, and was admitted to Snug Harbor in 1899 after serving 36 years at sea.

The men at Snug Harbor were veterans of hard and dangerous lives at sea and even the modern residents had astonishing tales to tell. One of the most recent markers at the cemetery is for Rudolf Ozol, who died in 1975 at the age of 87. On November 8, 1959, Ozol was a boatswain on the tanker Amoco Virginia that exploded and caught fire while docked at Hess Terminal in the Houston Ship Channel. The accident, which caused the death of a fireman and seven crewmen, was reported in newspapers around the country. Ozol, who was described as 71-year-old bearded Latvian, said he went to sea at age 12 but had never learned to swim until that day when he jumped in the channel to escape the blaze. “It was sink or swim and I learned fast,” he said. “I paddled just like a dog the 50 feet to shore. That’s a long way for a man my age but a man will do many things under pressure.”

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Rudolf Ozol’s gravemarker at Sailors Snug Harbor Cemetery, April 2017 (Mary French)

View more photos of Sailors’ Snug Harbor Cemetery.

Sources: Butler’s 1853 Map of Staten Island; “Sailors’ Snug Harbor: Home for Aged Skippers,” (T. Dreiser), New-York Tribune Sunday Magazine, May 22, 1904, p3; Sailors Snug Harbor, 1801-1979 (B. Shepherd 1979), p62; “By Will of a Sea Captain: Sailors’ Snug Harbor Cemetery,” (D. Lane), FACSI Newsletter, 15(3) Fall 1998; The Sailors’ Snug Harbor: A History, 1801-2001 (G. Barry 2000); Realms of History: The Cemeteries of Staten Island (P. Salmon 2006), p145-148; Gravestones from Monkey Hill, the Sailors’ Snug Harbor Cemetery (Noble Maritime Collection display); “8 Dead in Tanker Blaze as Blasts Rock Houston,” Pittsburgh Press, Nov 9, 1959 p14; “Clues Hunted in Blasted Hulk of Tanker…,” The News Journal (Wilmington, Delaware), Nov 9, 1959 pp1-2; NYCityMap.

Burroughs Family Cemetery

View of the Burroughs Family Cemetery, ca. 1922 (NYHS)
A view of the Burroughs Family Cemetery, ca. 1922 (New-York Historical Society)

NYC officials proved to have short memories in the 1950s and 1960s when they repeatedly sold and then had to buy back a piece of land in Corona, Queens, after title searches revealed the property was an old cemetery. The plot in question, located near 94th Street and Alstyne and Corona avenues, was earmarked as a private cemetery under a last will and testament admitted to probate on January 3, 1821. It was once part of the estate belonging to the Burroughs family who settled in the area in the 17th century. By the late 1800s, the family had sold off most of their old farm land and retained only the ancestral burial ground. The Queens Topographical Bureau surveyed the cemetery in 1919, identifying 16 graves with headstones dating from 1793 to 1871 for members of the Burroughs, Vandervoort, and Waters families.

Location of the Burroughs burial ground in 1919 (Queens Topographical Bureau)
Location of the Burroughs burial ground in 1919 (Queens Topographical Bureau)

As the descendants of those interred there moved out of the area, the cemetery was abandoned, neglected, and became a dumping ground for neighborhood refuse. In 1954, the city seized the property in a delinquent tax action—erroneously it turned out, since private burial grounds, like all cemeteries, are tax exempt. The site was then mistakenly sold at public auction at least twice, in 1956 and 1960. In each case, the city refunded the buyers when they discovered they could not develop the property unless the cemetery was removed, a long and expensive process that would require tracing descendants to obtain permission to move the bodies. It is not known if the remains were ever removed from the Burroughs cemetery site, which is now covered with residential buildings and asphalt.

Another view of the Burroughs Cemetery, ca. 1922. The former Durkee factory (now Elmhurst Education Campus) is in the background (NYHS)
Another view of the Burroughs Cemetery, ca. 1922. The former Durkee factory (now Elmhurst Educational Campus) is in the background (New-York Historical Society)
Approximate location of the former Burroughs Cemetery site.
Approximate location of the former Burroughs Cemetery site today (NYCityMap)

Sources: History of Queens County, New York (Munsell 1882), 344; Description of Private and Family Cemeteries in the Borough of Queens, 12-13; “City Stuck with Two Cemeteries,” Sunday News March 4, 1956; “Oops! City Discovers it Sold a Cemetery!” Long Island Daily Press, Jan 24, 1957; “City Digs Up Info on Lost Cemetery,” Long Island Star Journal, April 22, 1957, 3; “He Buys a Cemetery, Gets His 2Gs Back,” Long Island Star Journal, March 23, 1962, 3; NYCityMap.

St. John’s Cemetery

A view of St. John's Cemetery in Middle Village, Queens, April 2016
A view of St. John’s Cemetery, April 2016 (Mary French)

There is a graveyard in Middle Village, Queens, where the Mafia goes to rest in peace. It is a bucolic haven where the rolling swards are tended by uniformed gardeners and the marble crypts are reminiscent of a grander age . . . It is a landscape of silent stone and quiet grass and bird song, and its utter peacefulness holds no sign of the violent deeds of those interred within its grounds . . . (New York Times, July 21, 2001)

St. John's Cemetery in 1891
St. John’s Cemetery in 1891 (Wolverton 1891)

St. John’s Cemetery was established by the Brooklyn Diocese in 1879 to meet the burial needs of Catholic families of Queens and Brooklyn. Located just west of Woodhaven Boulevard in the Middle Village neighborhood of Queens, the 190-acre cemetery is divided into two sections that straddle Metropolitan Avenue. Officially consecrated in 1881, the area north of Metropolitan Avenue was the first to receive interments and by 1895 there were already 32,000 burials here. The land on the southern side was developed and made available for burials in 1933.

Over the years, many prominent Mafia figures chose St. John’s as their final resting place and the cemetery has gradually become a “who’s who” of organized crime families that dominated the New York City underworld since the 1930s. Charles “Lucky” Luciano, credited with creating the structure of the modern American Mafia, was interred in the family mausoleum at St. John’s in 1962. In addition to Luciano, more than 20 infamous crime figures are laid to rest here, including some of the most notorious mob bosses in recent history. Among them are Joe Profaci, Vito Genovese, Carlo Gambino, Carmine Galante, Joe Colombo, and celebrity mobster John Gotti, widely considered the last of the classic Mafia chiefs.

A pine box containing the coffin of Charles "Lucky" Luciano is wheeled toward the family mausoleum, Feb. 1962. The crypt is inscribed, "Luciana," his real surname.
A pine box containing the coffin of Charles “Lucky” Luciano is wheeled toward the family mausoleum, Feb. 1962. The crypt is inscribed, “Luciana,” his real surname (Getty Images)
StJohns_Cuomo_
Mario Cuomo’s tomb at St. John’s Cloister (Mary French)

Although St. John’s Cemetery is distinctive for its assemblage of deceased mafiosi, it is perhaps most significant as the burial place for two dedicated public servants and icons of contemporary American politics. Geraldine Ferraro, the former Queens congresswoman who was the first woman nominated for U.S. vice president by a major political party, was buried here in 2011. Ferraro ran with Walter Mondale on the Democratic party ticket in the 1984 presidential election, becoming a symbol for women’s equality. Also interred at St. John’s is Queens native and three-term New York governor Mario Cuomo. Cuomo, a powerful and eloquent speaker whose keynote address at the 1984 Democratic convention made him a national political star, was entombed in St. John’s Cloister mausoleum in January 2015.

Geraldine Ferraro's gravesite at St. John's Cemetery.
Geraldine Ferraro’s gravesite at St. John’s Cemetery (Mary French).
Location of St. John's Cemetery in Middle Village, Queens
Location of St. John’s Cemetery in Middle Village, Queens (OpenStreetMap)

View more photos of St. John’s Cemetery.

Sources: “St. John’s Cemetery,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Nov 21, 1881, 4; Wolverton’s 1891 Atlas of Queens County, Long Island, Pl 30; “Our Cities of the Dead,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Apr 28, 1895, 28; “Middle Village Journal – Sleeping with the Giants of the Mob,” New York Times, July 22, 2001; St. John Cemetery (Catholic Cemeteries, Diocese of Brooklyn); “Cemetery has a Mob of Mafiosi,” Daily News, Feb 26, 2008; “St. John Cemetery in Queens,” The Velvet Rocket, Jan 18, 2012.

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