Ferris Family Burial Ground

Bronx historian John McNamara stands at the fence of the Ferris family burial ground in 1932 (BCHS)

In his 1848 history of Westchester county, Robert Bolton describes the village of Westchester, the town seat of the old Westchester township that included much of the present-day East Bronx:

The village of Westchester is situated at the head of navigation, on Westchester creek, twelve miles from the city of New York; it contains about four hundred inhabitants, fifty dwellings, an Episcopal, a Roman Catholic, a Methodist church and two Friends’ meeting houses, three taverns, a post office and four stores . . . [It] is by several years the oldest village in the county, its first settlement (by the Puritans), being coeval with Throckmorton’s purchase, in 1642.

Bolton also mentions the “Ferris burying ground,” that was located in the village near St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. The Ferris family presence in the area goes back to the 17th century, as does their old family cemetery that can be found today on the south side of Commerce Avenue, east of Westchester Avenue, in the modern Bronx neighborhood of Westchester Square. John Ferris, an Englishman who was one of the five patentees of Westchester township in 1667, reserves the burial ground by his last will in 1715: “Provided always there shall be a rod square free for all friends and friendly people to bury their dead in the place where they formerly buried without any let, hindrance, or molestation whatsoever.” Benjamin Ferris likewise reserves the family cemetery in his 1777 will, excluding “a place four rods square, where the burying place is” from the Westchester lands to be sold by his executors.

The Ferris family burial ground was located near the southern boundary line of the Ferris property shown on this 1881 map of Westchester Village (Bromley 1881)

In August 1905, members of the Underhill Society of America visited the Ferris burial ground, where they found about 30 gravestones (most dating to the 19th century) and two family vaults—the James Ferris family vault on the north side of the graveyard and that used by the Benjamin Ferris line on the east side. Remains from the James Ferris vault were removed around 1890 and transferred to Woodlawn Cemetery and Trinity Churchyard. Among those moved to Woodlawn were James Ferris (1734-1780) and his wife Charity Thomas Ferris (1734-1809), Revolutionary War patriots whose Throgg’s Neck home was occupied by British Admiral Richard Howe in October 1776. James Ferris was kept in the notorious British prison ships, and died in 1780 as a result of the hardships he endured. Legend has it that Charity Ferris, who stayed in the homestead during the British occupancy, directed one of her servants to memorize the conversations he overheard when waiting on Lord Howe and his officers, and transmitted this information to General Washington, who was with his army at White Plains.

This view across Commerce Ave shows the Ferris cemetery overgrown with weeds and tall grass in July 1928. The spire of St. Peters Episcopal Church on Westchester Ave can be seen in the background (NYPL).
The monument to Cornell Ferris, who died June 13, 1864, is one of the few gravestones left in the Ferris burial ground today (Mary French)

Various Ferris branches maintained the family burial plot for two centuries, but it was increasingly neglected after Charles Ferris, who lived near the burial ground when the Underhill Society had visited in 1905, died in 1908. The site became overgrown, gravemarkers were destroyed or taken by vandals, and even the fencing was stolen. In 1928, vandals broke into the Benjamin Ferris vault, cut open the lead caskets and desecrated the remains; subsequently, the bodies of 15 family members were removed and reinterred at Kensico Cemetery in Westchester, leaving about 16 bodies and gravestones in the Ferris burial ground. The site experienced periods of neglect and restoration throughout the 20th century (Parkchester Kiwanis Club removed 198 tons of debris from the site in 1973), but has been kept in good condition in recent years through the efforts of local Boy Scouts and other civic groups. Only a handful of gravestones still stand in the old burial ground, and its once bucolic surroundings are now a gritty industrial area.

An aerial view of the Ferris burial ground and surroundings in 1924 (NYCityMap)
An aerial view of the Ferris burial ground and surroundings in 2012 (NYCityMap)
A view of the Ferris Family Burial Ground, July 2017 (Mary French)

View more photos of the Ferris Family Burial Ground

Sources: A History of the County of Westchester (R. Bolton 1848), Vol. 2, 178-179, 227; Bromley’s 1881 Atlas of Weschester County Pl 41; Early Wills of Westchester County (W.S. Pelletreau 1898), 34-35, 360-361; Partial Geneaology of the Ferris Family (C.E. Crowell 1899); “Ferris Burying Ground 1700,” The Underhill Society of America, Sixteenth Annual Report, 1908, 24-25; May Ferris Doherty notes, 1928 & n.d., Ferris Cemetery file, Bronx County Historical Society; “To Be Exhumed from Debris Itself,” Bronx Press Review, Aug 9, 1973; History in Asphalt (J. McNamara 1978), 47, 83, 290-291; “New York, New York City Municipal Deaths, 1795-1949,” FamilySearch, Charles Coleman Ferris, 09 Apr 1908; “What Lies Beneath: Cemeteries of the Bronx,” Bronx County Historical Society exhibit, Oct 2017; NYCityMap

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B’nai Jeshurun Cemetery, 32nd Street

B’nai Jeshurun’s 32nd Street Cemetery, denoted as “Jews burial Ground” in 1854 (Perris 1854)

In 1825, a group of members of Shearith Israel—the only Jewish congregation in New York City at that time—broke off to form B’nai Jeshurun (Sons of Israel). Most of the 32 founding members of B’nai Jeshurun were immigrants from England, Holland, Germany and Poland, and they incorporated as New York’s first Ashkenazic congregation, holding services according to the German and Polish ritual rather than the Sephardic mode of worship practiced by the Spanish and Portuguese Jews of Congregation Shearith Israel. The new congregation established its synagogue at 119 Elm Street, near Canal Street, in a building previously owned by the First Coloured Presbyterian Church. Elm Street was B’nai Jeshurun’s home for 25 years; by the time they moved to a new synagogue in 1850, the congregation had grown to 150 members. Four synagogues followed Elm Street, their locations reflecting the northward move of the city’s Jewish population. The congregation’s present home is at 88th Street between Broadway and West End Avenue.

The Elm Street Synagogue, B’nai Jeshurun’s home from 1825 to 1849 (Goldstein 1930)

When B’nai Jeshurun was founded, the congregation’s property included not only its synagogue on Elm Street but also its burial ground, which was acquired in 1826, even before the house of worship had been established. This land, consisting of four lots situated on 32nd Street near 7th Avenue—then on the outskirts of the city—was purchased for the sum of $600. Soon after the acquisition of the burial ground, a metaher house, which served as a chapel and place for washing and preparing bodies, was established at the site. Some of the congregation’s founding members were buried there, including Daniel Jackson, who signed B’nai Jeshurun’s charter of incorporation and was an original trustee.

An 1836 map showing B’nai Jeshurun’s cemetery on the north side of 32nd Street, near 7th Ave (Colton 1836)

The 32nd Street Cemetery served as B’nai Jeshurun’s burial ground until 1851, when a City ordinance banned burials below 86th Street. That year, B’nai Jeshurun and Shearith Israel together purchased land along the Brooklyn/Queens border near Cypress Hills to form Beth Olom Cemetery. Once B’nai Jeshurun’s burial ground at Beth Olom was incorporated, it’s 32nd Street Cemetery gradually deteriorated. Surrounding tenements and factories made it increasingly difficult to keep the old cemetery in proper condition; The Jewish Messenger provided an account of it in 1875:

One of the few old Jewish cemeteries which are still within the limits of the City of New York is that belonging to the B’nai Jeshurun congregation. It is situated in Thirty-second Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, being within several doors of the latter avenue. It has a frontage on the street of about thirty feet, and a depth of one hundred feet, being bounded on the west by some old and rickety wooden shanties, used for stables and other purposes, and on the east and north by a large furniture manufactory. Two years ago, the writer was informed, the ground was in an orderly and nice condition, the place being slightly embellished with flowers, giving it a pretty, if not a handsome, appearance, and one thoroughly in keeping with its sanctity. Up to the period aforesaid, probably no rubbish had been allowed to accumulate . . .

At present the cemetery is in a sad state . . . Bits of glass, old and broken bottles, shavings from the furniture factory, pieces of iron wire and hoops, sticks of wood, gravel stones covered with tar, and tarred roofing material, blown from the roofs of contiguous buildings, and other rubbish unnecessary to enumerate, are strewed upon the earth in all directions. In those spots where debris has not chanced to accumulate, the ground, except in two or three instances, is in a rough and uncared for condition . . . There are about fifty tombstones still standing, most of which are in a good state of preservation . . . Here is a list of some of the persons buried in this cemetery, copied from the portion of the tombstones that is decipherable, with the date of death: Salomon Van Praag, 1829; Esther, wife of Joseph Levy, 1845; Judah, son of T. A. Meyer, 1845; Isaac Moses Cohen Peixotto; Samuel Barnett, 1845; J. M. Dyer, 1842; Benjamin F. Lewin, 1842; Moses H. Lowenstein, 1841; Leopold E. Lewin, 1837; Daniel Jackson, 1841; Michael Davis, 1841; Henry M. Lyons, 1845; Marcus Josephi, 1847; Simon Saroni, 1847; Joseph A. Michael, 1851; Rebecka Maria Jackson, 1847; Samuel Goldsmith, 1851; Hannah S., daughter of Sampson and Rebecka Levy, 1848; Henry Joseph, 1834; Levy B. Boruck; Isaac I. Salomon, 1845.

In 1887, B’nai Jeshurun sold the 32nd Street Cemetery for $20,000 and moved the bodies to Beth Olom. Today the Hotel Pennsylvania, built in 1919, stands on the 32nd Street Cemetery site that was the original burial place of the City’s oldest Ashkenazic congregation.

Bromley’s 1920 atlas of NYC shows the the Hotel Pennsylvania on the 32nd Street Cemetery site
A view of the 32nd Street Cemetery site today (NYCityMap)

Sources: A Century of Judaism in New York: B’nai Jeshurun, 1825-1925 (I. Goldstein 1930);A History of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, 1825-2005” (S. Brawarsky 2005); “Jewish City Cemeteries. I.,” The Jewish Messenger Jul 2, 1875, 5; “Bodies to be Removed,” New York Times Feb 23, 1887, 8; “B’nai Jeshurun Cemetery,” The Jewish Messenger, Apr 1, 1887, 2; Colton’s 1836 Map of the City and County of New-York; Perris’ 1854 Maps of the City of New York Vol 7 Pl 93: Bromley’s 1920 Atlas of the City of New York, Borough of Manhattan Pl 21; NYCityMap