In October 1888, a Brooklyn Daily Eagle reporter visited an apartment on the fourth floor of a tenement building near the Brooklyn riverfront. “In a corner sat a young woman with an old face,” writes the reporter, “not an unusual sight to be seen in the more thickly-settled or poorer parts of Brooklyn.” The woman’s daughter, a girl a little over a year old, had died the night before and was lying on a bed nearby, where her body was tended by a group of neighbor women. The mother’s “grief was not of the distressing kind, yet she stared into vacancy and was apparently oblivious of what was passing around her.” Her husband was in prison serving a sentence for assaulting a man while drunk; she had been supporting herself and her daughter by taking in washing. When her child died she was destitute, so she applied to the Commissioner of Charities for a permit to have her daughter buried by Kings County. Soon the county undertaker came with a little pine box and the mother was asked to take leave of her child, which she did in an undemonstrative way. The neighbors went home and the mother was left alone in her apartment as the coffin was carried off for burial at the Kings County potter’s field in Flatbush. “It was nothing new, this scene,” our witness remarks. “Such episodes are of daily occurrence in a great city like Brooklyn.”
Until 1824, individual towns within New York State were required to care for their residents who did not have the means to support themselves financially. In 1824, this changed when the legislature passed an act requiring the care of the indigent poor be addressed at the county level. In 1830, the Kings County Board of Supervisors purchased land at Flatbush for erecting a poorhouse, or almshouse, for the indigent of Kings County. By the mid-19th century, this property—known as the County Farm—included the almshouse, as well as a hospital, nursery, and lunatic asylum. The buildings stood along Clarkson Avenue, facing toward Canarsie Bay. At the east end of the County Farm was the potter’s field. This was the burial place for those dying in the county’s public institutions, as well as those brought from the city of Brooklyn for burial by order of the of Charities Commissioner.
The Kings County cemetery, originally a few acres at the far eastern end of the 67-acre tract, expanded over time, progressing westward so that the cemetery eventually took up the entire eastern section of the County Farm from about East 45th Street to the property boundary near Utica Avenue. In the 1860s there were over 500 annual interments and the original three-acre burial ground was so overcrowded that the Board of Health was called in to investigate complaints that it posed a danger to the health of the community. Their examination “revealed a condition of things which is disgraceful to Kings County and should not and would not have been tolerated up to this time, had it been generally known.” The manner of burial within the cemetery was “of itself sufficiently revolting to necessitate a reform.” Large pits were dug, each about 12 feet square and 12 feet deep, in which coffins were stacked one on top of another, averaging 250 bodies to each pit. Gravediggers—inmates from the almshouse that were assigned to this duty—sprinkled a thin layer of dirt over the coffins as they stacked them, leaving the pit open until it was full—usually taking four to five months—when it was finally covered with about four feet of earth. The only record kept of those buried in each pit was a numbered ticket corresponding with a number on each coffin for all persons 13 years of age and older. No record was kept of children, whose coffins were unnumbered and their remains unidentified.
Conditions at the potter’s field were no better in 1874, when a committee of the Kings County Board of Supervisors testified, “Nothing occurred in the course of our investigation which more surprised and disgusted us than to learn of the manner in which, for many years past, the dead have been buried at the public burial ground. It is hard to conceive how the minds of public officials could have become so deadened to all sense of decency as to permit the bodies of human beings to be disposed of in the manner which the evidence taken by your Committee proves to have been the case at Flatbush … To say that they are buried like dogs would fall far short of a correct use of language; for, with however little respect these animals are usually buried, they are but rarely consigned in large numbers to the same common pit.”
By October 1888, when the above-mentioned Daily Eagle correspondent accompanied the young girl’s body to the King’s County potter’s field to observe her interment, the situation had improved. Pits were no longer used; bodies were buried in graves, each containing three or four bodies, with the top body five feet below the surface. Pine boards were placed above each grave, marked with the numbers of the coffins beneath; each body, including children, had a number to correspond to the burial books kept in the almshouse. In some areas of the graveyard plain white crosses identified the names of those beneath. A single marble headstone stood in the cemetery, marking the grave of a child.
The Kings County cemetery was used until about 1914 when the state acquired the County Farm and its buildings from the city and the complex became known as Long Island State Hospital. In 1917, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that the remains of the estimated 50,000 individuals interred in the potter’s field were disinterred and removed to a burial ground on North Brother Island; hospital buildings and other structures were built over the site, which is now the Kingsboro Psychiatric Center. In August 2017, construction workers repairing sewers near the grounds of the psychiatric center found human remains about 13 feet underground. The skull, arm and leg bones, unearthed at Clarkson Avenue by East 48th Street, are believed to be from the long-forgotten potter’s field.
Sources: Robinson’s 1890 Atlas of Kings County Pl 29; Fairchild Cemetery Manual (1910), 77; “Kings County Board of Supervisors,” New York Times, Aug 6, 1862; “Our County Institutions,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Mar 12, 1868; “How Our Paupers are Buried,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jun 11, 1869; “Sick Paupers,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sep 19, 1874; “Our Poor,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec 16, 1874; “Paupers,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sept 16, 1880; “The Burial of a Pauper,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Oct 21, 1888; “Metz Wants Pauper Bodies Cremated,” Brooklyn Standard Union, May 13, 1906; “Potters Field Burials In a Growing Section,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jun 9, 1912; “New Street Invades Paupers’ Graveyard,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Aug 22, 1913; “State Owns Hospital Now,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Aug 14, 1914; “Keeper of God’s Acre Soon to Lose Place, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jul 1, 1917; “Human Remains Found During Sewer Repairs Near Brooklyn Psychiatric Hospital,” Brooklyn Daily Aug 21 2017; “Human Bones Found by Construction Workers in Brooklyn,” amNewYork Aug 23 2017; Phase IA Archaeological Documentary Study, CAMBA Gardens, 560 Winthrop Street, Brooklyn, New York (Historical Perspectives, Inc., 2013)