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 properfeeling 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.
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.
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.”
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.
Sources: Colton’s 1836Map 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
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
New York City’s municipal Almshouse was under siege in the 1790s. The city was in a growth spurt that would double its population to 60,000 by the end of the decade; at the same time, it was ravaged by annual outbreaks of yellow fever. Though yellow fever endangered all New Yorkers (750 fell to it in 1795), the city’s poor were most susceptible to the disease. The rising number of indigent residents and ailing poor placed a strain on the crumbling, sixty-year-old Almshouse, which housed close to 800 people by 1795.
In response to this situation, the city opened a new, larger almshouse just north of the first Almshouse in City Hall Park and established a yellow fever hospital at Bellevue, along the East River north of the settled city. The city also found a new burial place for the poor, interred in grounds adjacent to the Almshouse since the 1750s. In August 1794, the Common Council ordered that the “Triangular Piece of Ground at the junction of the Post & Bloomingdale Roads be appropriated to the use of the Alms House for a Burying Ground.” A month later, the council directed that the hospital at Bellevue be permitted to bury their dead at this same site. The site became a graveyard for interment of paupers, the unknown, and those dying of contagious diseases.
The public burial ground at Post and Bloomingdale roads—the vicinity of present-day 26th Street between Fifth and Madison avenues—was used for just three years. Opposition to transporting the dead on the busy roads leading to the potter’s field compelled the city to discontinue its use in May 1797 and open a new public burial ground at what is now Washington Square Park. The abandoned potter’s field at Post and Bloomingdale roads transferred to the United States government for an arsenal in 1806; later it was the location of the House of Refuge for juvenile delinquents. In 1847, the site was leveled, sodded, and enclosed to create Madison Square Park.
Though the burial ground was used only for a short period, hundreds of people likely were interred there during this calamitous time. Some burials were disinterred when the U.S. government built a powder-and-shot magazine at the site; in 1808, L’Oracle (one of the city’s early 19th century newspapers)reported that “persons employed in digging the foundation of the Magazine in the Old Potter’s Field daily dig up coffins and dead bodies which are disposed of in the most indecent and disrespectful manner.” On several occasions in the early 20th century, construction workers uncovered human remains at the north end of the park during excavations for sewer lines and water pipes. Burials may still be present beneath the park.
Sources: Randel’s 1820 Farm Maps, No. 14; Minutes of the Common Council of the City of New York, 1784-1831 (City of New York 1917), 2:92, 102, 351, 365; Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York (Valentine 1856), 465; The Iconography of Manhattan Island: 1498-1909 (Stokes 1915-1928), 5:1313, 1474, 1494; Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital (Oshinsky 2016), 11-28; “Twenty Dollars Reward” [Notice], New York Evening Post, Apr 8 1809; “Park Once Potter’s Field, New York Times, July 11, 1908; “Unearth Skeleton in Park,” New York Times, Sep 11, 1930.
In the early 1730s, the growing city of New York—then about 9,000 people clustered at the south end of Manhattan—was grappling with the problem of poverty. The “Number and Continual Increase of the Poor within this City is very great and Exceeding burthensome to the Inhabitants thereof,” the Common Council reported in 1734, necessitating construction of a municipal poorhouse, or almshouse. The Almshouse opened in 1736 on the Commons, a triangular piece of communal pastureland at what was then the northern edge of the city. The Almshouse served as a shelter for the poor who were unable to work due to old age or illness and a workhouse/house of corrections for impoverished people considered able to work but “living Idly and unimployed,” as well as “all disorderly persons, parents of Bastard Children, Beggars, Servants running away or otherwise misbehaving themselves, Trespassers, Rogues, [and] Vagabonds.”
Along with housing the sick, impoverished widows, and orphans, the Almshouse put the idle back to work and incarcerated criminals. Inmates (the term used to refer to residents of all public institutions during this time period) received clothing and followed strict daily schedules consisting of meals, prayer, and work (carding wool, making buttons, shredding old rope for reuse, or raising garden crops). In 1785, the Almshouse had 301 inmates—63 men, 133 women, 50 boys, 49 girls, and “2 Black Men & 4 Black Women.” Stays ranged from a day up to the death of an inmate.
Over the course of the 18th century, the Commons became the site of a number of other public buildings including the Gaol, or Jail, completed in 1759, east of the Almshouse; the Bridewell, a prison built in 1775 west of the Almshouse; and the Barracks, four structures constructed at the north end of the Commons beginning in 1757 to house soldiers. Areas surrounding these buildings were used as institutional burial grounds. A fenced burial place for deceased Almshouse inmates was established in 1757 “to the Eastward of and adjoining to the fence of the said Work House, of the Length of two Boards.” Apparently this graveyard was filled by 1785, when the Keeper of the Almshouse requested new grounds for this purpose and the city ordered that vacant ground “in the rear of the Barracks” be used for interment of those dying in the Almshouse and the Bridewell.
In 1797, the city built a new almshouse just north of the first almshouse, which was demolished at that time. In 1803, City Hall was erected on the site the first Almshouse, and the Commons began to transform into today’s City Hall Park, located just south of Chambers Street, between Broadway and Centre streets. In 1816, the poor were relocated to a complex at Bellevue and the second Almshouse building was used a cultural center until it was demolished in 1857; it is now the site of Tweed Courthouse. As the Commons changed from an area of social welfare, penal institutions, and military housing to the seat of local government, the Almshouse burial grounds vanished beneath City Hall Park. Long thought to have been obliterated by two centuries of construction activity, the forgotten burial grounds reappeared during archaeological work connected with recent renovation projects.
More than 50 graves, and disturbed human remains representing at least 200 more individuals, have been found in the north section of City Hall Park since the late 1990s and are believed to be associated with the first Almshouse and the Commons’ other 18th-century institutions. Intact burials were left in place during the excavations, protected to prevent disturbance and covered over again; they rest under the lawns and paved areas near City Hall and Tweed Courthouse. Disturbed burials and fragmentary human remains were collected, analyzed, and eventually reburied in the northeastern corner of the park near Chambers and Centre streets.
Analysis of the skeletal remains suggests people consistent with the Almshouse population—most appear to be of European ancestry; males and females, young and old adults, infants and children are all represented; and many show the traces of lives spent in hard work, poorly healed fractures, and pathologies caused by illness or poor nutrition. These discoveries provide a view of an overlooked segment of society—those unfortunate and unruly early New Yorkers laid to rest in the Almshouse burial grounds, souls no longer forgotten.
Several cemeteries in Queens have intriguing features hidden within them—small burial grounds that predate the cemeteries in which they are nestled. These earlier graveyards were on family estates acquired by religious and non-denominational corporations that assembled swathes of land to form new, large-scale cemeteries in the second half of the 19th century.
Estate owners tried to protect their family burial grounds with covenants in wills and deeds that exempted them from property transfers and directed that they be preserved intact. Three of these early burial grounds are located within the boundaries of Calvary and Mount Zion cemeteries in western Queens, and hold the remains of some of the pioneer settlers of Newtown, the historic township that comprised much of the area. These are the burial places of the Alsops, Cumbersons, and Betts, families of English origin who had neighboring farms in Newtown and were prominent in local events and public life during the colonial period and later, but disappeared from the area as their estates were broken up and sold off.
Alsop Family Burial Ground
In 1691, Richard Alsop inherited a sizeable estate along Newtown Creek upon the death of his uncle, Thomas Wandell. Wandell created the estate through acquisition of a 100-acre plantation originally granted to Richard Brutnell in 1643, and adding to it 50 acres patented in 1652 to Richard Colfax. Succeeding his uncle, Richard Alsop resided on what became known as the Alsop farm until his death in 1718, living in the home his uncle had built on the north shore of Newtown Creek. Alsop was buried on the crown of a hill near the house—the same spot where his uncle had been laid to rest in 1691, and a site where Alsop’s descendants would be buried for over 170 years.
Richard Alsop’s offspring became distinguished in the legal profession and mercantile life; his son Richard (1695-1764), a justice of the peace, took over the paternal farm at Newtown. One of Richard Alsop II’s sons, also Richard (1730-1790), a highly respected and influential citizen of Newtown who served in the magistracy for many years, inherited the estate next. Richard III’s son, John Alsop (1779-1837), succeeded as owner of the Alsop farm; in 1845, his widow sold the property—then consisting of about 115 acres—to the Trustees of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The Trustees secured the land to establish a new cemetery for Manhattan’s Roman Catholic population. The Alsop farm became the original section of Calvary Cemetery, known as Old Calvary, bounded today by the Long Island Expressway, Laurel Hill Boulevard, Review Avenue, and Greenpoint Avenue. When Mrs. Ann Alsop sold the farm to the Trustees, the agreement provided that the Alsop family burial ground would remain inviolate and the Trustees have maintained it to this day.
The Alsop Family Burial Ground is situated in the southeastern part of Old Calvary where it is enclosed—and separated from the consecrated grounds that surround it—by a metal fence. Some two dozen gravemarkers still stand in the 75×54 foot plot, including several brownstone monuments with the winged death’s head motif common on colonial gravestones. The oldest headstone in the plot marks the grave of the first Richard Alsop (d. 1718), the progenitor of the Newtown Alsops; his wife Hannah, who survived him by 39 years, rests beside him. A large granite obelisk commemorates the final family members interred here: William Alsop (d. 1883), the last known direct descendant, and his wife Sarah Leaird Alsop, who died in 1889. The old Alsop mansion, built by Thomas Wandell ca. 1651, stood within the boundaries of Old Calvary until 1880, when it was demolished as Calvary laid out the grounds for gravesites.
Cumberson Family Burial Ground
By the 1870s, much of Old Calvary Cemetery was full and church authorities began purchasing large parcels of land east of the original cemetery to accommodate more burials; these tracts would come to form New Calvary Cemetery, which stretches from Queens Boulevard to 55th Avenue in three divisions. Among the land that became part of the north end of New Calvary is a portion of an estate established by Thomas Cumberson in 1761 on the west side of the Road to English Kills (58th Street), near present-day Queens Boulevard. The Cumberson farm is the scene of a vivid account in Riker’s 1852 Annals of Newtown, which details an attempted robbery of Thomas Cumberson’s home by deserting British soldiers during the military occupation of Newtown from 1776 to 1783. The episode ends with Cumberson mortally wounding one of the robbers, who soldiers buried in the woods at the north end of the farm. The Cumberson home was rebuilt after the Revolution, and stood at today’s 58th Street near 43rd Avenue until it was torn down in 1915.
Thomas Cumberson’s son and successor to the estate, the second Thomas Cumberson (1775-1849), seems to have created the small burial ground just south of the Cumberson home that was used by his family during the first half of the 1800s. In 1848, Cumberson authorized in his will that his heirs could sell his farm but not the graveyard at the southern end of the property; he devised and bequeathed the burial ground to his children and grandchildren, and to their heirs and assigns, to be kept and used by them as a burial place and for no other purpose.
An 1887 article in the Newtown Register describes a visit to the “lonely little cemetery” of the second Thomas Cumberson, who was “remembered by his neighbors as a man of cultivated mind and of singular powers of memory in treasuring up the traditions of Newtown.” The handful of tombstones included those to “Thomas Cumberson, who died March 31, 1849, aged 74,” “Hannah Cumberson, wife of Thomas Cumberson, who died November 1, 1847,” “In memory of Jane Cumberson, who died October 25, 1829, aged 16 years, 8 months, 21 days,” “Frances Jane Cumberson, daughter of Peregrine and Frances Cumberson, died July 24, 1848, aged 13 years,” and “Sacred to the memory of Peregrine Cumberson, who departed this life October 29, 1834, aged 34 years.”
Today, no tombstones remain in the Cumberson Family Burial Ground, located at the southwest corner of 58th Street and Queens Boulevard. The descendants of the first Thomas Cumberson, who established the farm in 1761, held a reunion in the late 1880s; of the 200 present, only one bore the Cumberson name. The Cumberson’s are now extinct in the area and those at rest in the tiny, unmarked preserve at the northeast corner of New Calvary Cemetery are the only link to the family’s history in old Newtown.
Betts Family Burial Ground
Just south of the Cumberson farm, on the opposite side of today’s 58th Street, was the 120-acre estate founded by Captain Richard Betts in 1656. Betts built his home on the east side of the Road to English Kills and north of the Road to Newtown (later Penny Bridge Road and then Borden Ave), at what is now the northeast corner of 58th Street and 54th Avenue. An extensive landholder active in public affairs, Capt. Betts was an influential figure in Newtown’s history. A zealous revolutionist against the Dutch, he held a number of provincial government positions under English rule, including a 1678 commission as “High Sheriff of Yorkshire upon Long Island.” He left large landed possessions to his children and his descendants occupied portions of the paternal estate into the early 20th century.
Capt. Betts was 100 years old when he died in 1713; legend has it a few days before he died he dug his own grave in the family burial ground near his home. Both the site of the old Betts house and the family graveyard are now within Mount Zion Cemetery, part of land purchased by developers in the 1890s to establish a cemetery to accommodate the burial needs of the city’s burgeoning Jewish immigrant population. The Betts house is long gone, but the burial ground lies secluded on a gently sloping hill in the southwestern part of Mount Zion.
About 30 headstones survive in the roughly 85×65 foot plot, which includes an old right-of-way (no longer used) to 54th Avenue. No headstone is here for the grave of the illustrious Capt. Betts, its absence possibly accounted for by the fact that his sons were members in the Society of Friends and early Quakers didn’t allow tombstones. Three rough stones containing only initials and dates are the oldest in the burial ground—these identify the graves of Capt. Betts’ grandson Daniel Betts (d. 1759), his wife Mary Betts (d. 1757), and their son Daniel Betts (d. 1762). Most of the graves in the plot are marked with white marble tombstones commemorating family members who occupied the estate in the 19th century, the most recent marker dating to 1885.
Sources: Riker’s 1852 Map of Newtown Long Island; Beers 1873 Atlas of Long Island, Pl 52 ;The Annals of Newtown (Riker 1852), 212-214, 334-338, 373-378; History of Queens County (Munsell 1882, 340); Description of Private and Family Cemeteries in the Borough of Queens (Powell & Meigs 1932), 66-68, 70-71 & Supplement 1975, 5-7; 300 Years of Long Island City (Seyfried 1984), 76, 179, 183; Woodside: A Historical Perspective (Gregory 1994), 5-9; “The Catholic Cemeteries of New York,” Historical Records and Studies 1 (1899), 375-377; Wills of Real Estate, Queens County, Liber, 1845-1849 (Case 1940), 65; “Personal—Alsop,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jan 26, 1880; “Relics of Long Ago,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Apr 25, 1880, 1; “The Last of the Alsops,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Mar 1, 1889, 6; “A Protestant Burial Ground Maintained by Catholics,” New York Times, Apr 12, 1950; “Walks Through Old Cemeteries in Newtown,” Newtown Register, Nov 11, 1875; “Walks Through Old Cemeteries,” Newtown Register, March 15 1877, 4; “Old Newtown and Its Confines,” Newtown Register, Jun 30, 1887, 8; “Many Points of Interest in Queens Co.,” Daily Star, Oct 3, 1917, 8.
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)