At Einer Sporrer’s Grave

In my years of studying New York City’s cemeteries, I’ve come across many astonishing and touching life stories that have been forgotten over time and deserve more attention than a mere mention in my usual cemetery profiles. Here I present one of these remarkable stories of human experience, as part of a series called Lives Unearthed.

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Girls from a German American Bund unit give the Nazi salute during Einer Sporrer’s burial at Holy Trinity Cemetery in Brooklyn in March 1937 (Getty)

The sun shone brightly and a cold March wind blew when nine-year-old Einer Sporrer was buried in Holy Trinity Cemetery in Brooklyn in 1937. The turf over recent graves in the cemetery was spongy and beginning to show hints of green—signs of the arrival of spring. Around the new grave that was to be Einer’s the undertaker had spread imitation grass rugs to conceal the raw earth. Mary Sporrer, a plump, Bavarian woman, pressed close to her husband and sobbed as the small white coffin was placed on the apparatus that was to lower her daughter into the grave. John Sporrer, tall, grim-faced and impassive until then, could no longer control his grief. His face twisted and tears welled in his dark eyes. Slowly, the casket was lowered. John Sporrer gently placed a white carnation down the hole that had received his only child. Mary Sporrer tossed one after it. And nearby, a group of girls in dark berets and brown leather jackets stood in strict military attention as their right arms snapped up in a Nazi salute.

These girls were members of a unit of the German American Bund, one of several pro-Nazi groups formed by German immigrants living in the United States in the years preceding World War II. Shortly after Hitler came to power in Germany in January 1933, the Friends of New Germany, the American National Socialist League and other associations formed to promote German culture and cultivate a Nazi following. The German American Bund, the most successful of the American Nazi groups, formed in 1936 and reached 20,000 members at its peak. The Bund spread Nazi ideology—fascism, anti-Semitism, and anti-communism—through publications, meetings and rallies, and had camps where youths and adults participated in military drills and athletic activities. Members wore uniforms modeled on those of Germany’s Nazis and gave the Nazi salute during Bund gatherings.

Largely forgotten today, American Nazism was a small but powerful national movement that was of widespread concern in the 1930s. The U.S. government scrutinized American Nazi activities from the movement’s earliest days. Congressional hearings led to the dissolution of the Friends of New Germany in 1935 when they concluded that the group was receiving direct financial support from the German government and that its leaders were foreign agents. A few years later, the House Un-American Activities Committee launched an investigation into the German American Bund. Newspapers reported on these organizations with growing alarm. In the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in March 1937, columnist Clara Gruening Stillman cautioned that Germany’s “sturdy unofficial representatives in America are busily drilling by the tens of thousands in spiffy new uniforms, surrounded by swastikas and pausing now and then to practice the Nazi salute. Many are American citizens, many will become so, they will throng into our army, our business centers. Always with a divided allegiance they will make it their business to know about our weak spots than we do. They have votes. Have they guns, too?” The public reacted as well—when the Bund held a rally at Madison Square Garden in February 1939, New York City deployed over 1,700 police officers to hold back the crowd of 10,000 anti-Nazi protestors who demonstrated against the event.

Part of the New York World-Telegram’s 1935 series about American Nazism

Though American Nazism had a presence in German-American enclaves throughout the country, New York City was the center of this movement. In an investigative series that appeared in the New York World-Telegram in August 1935, reporter William A.H. Birnie declared Yorkville, the then-heavily German neighborhood on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, “the stronghold of the American Nazis,” with 2,000 “enrolled Nazis” living there. Nazis were concentrated in the German sections of the other boroughs, too—in Brooklyn there were 1,100, in the Bronx 400, and in Queens and Staten Island perhaps 500 more. It is difficult today to understand—or accept—reasons our citizens would have joined these groups, but Birnie offers a perspective regarding the mindset and motivations of some of the average members. “Most of these American Nazis are German born,” Birnie says, and “take their Nazi-ology like their schnapps—with moderation. They enjoy hearing about the glories of the Vaterland under the new regime, but they don’t bother themselves much about crusading in their adopted country. To them the American Nazi movement offers simply another of those sociable Vereins [clubs] they never can resist joining.” Many German Americans who had “little or no interest in spreading Hitlerite propaganda in the United States,” Birnie writes, were attracted to these groups merely because they sponsored extensive programs of social and athletic activities.

A photo of Einer taken aboard the ship that brought her to New York from Germany in 1935

John and Mary Sporrer came to New York from Bavaria, Germany, in 1929, leaving Einer behind with her grandmother. The Sporrers settled in Ridgewood, Brooklyn, a section along the Brooklyn/Queens border (part of the present-day neighborhoods of Bushwick, Brooklyn, and Ridgewood, Queens) mostly populated by German and Italian families at that time. Ridgewood was the hotbed for Brooklyn’s Nazi activity—the Friends of New Germany had its headquarters two blocks from the Sporrers’ home and its successor, the German American Bund, frequently held meetings and rallies in the neighborhood. After years of saving their money—John working as a boiler operator for a Manhattan hotel and Mary as a helper at a Brooklyn laundry—in 1935 the Sporrers were able to bring Einer to New York, where she enrolled in a Ridgewood parochial school and joined a girls unit of the German American Bund.

Photographers captured images of the girls from Einer’s Bund unit extending their arms in the Nazi salute outside the church where her funeral rites were held and again at her grave. One reader of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle was “shocked to see in today’s Eagle a photograph, taken at the funeral of Einer Sporrer, showing a group of so-called ‘American girls’ raising their arms in Nazi salute,” and called the Bund’s “attempts to foster foreign ideals an abuse of privileges granted to them in America.” Surprisingly, however, both the press and the public generally ignored the Bund girls’ salute and Einer’s connection to American Nazism. For there is another layer to Einer’s story, more shocking to most than her link to this troubling group. Einer was the victim of a horrific crime, the first in a string of attacks against children that panicked New York City in 1937 and sparked fears nationwide.

On the morning of March 20, 1937, the body of blue-eyed, blonde-haired Einer Sporrer was found stuffed in a burlap bag on the stoop of a house three blocks from her home. One of the police detectives called to the scene remembered that two months earlier he had arrested Salvatore Ossido, a 26-year-old barber whose shop was a few doors down from the Sporrer’s, for an attack on a young girl. Within hours Ossido had confessed to enticing Einer into his shop the day before with the promise of a few pennies if she would clean the back room. There, in the dingy ten-by-ten foot room, he crushed her skull with a hammer and raped her. Ossido then hid her body in the burlap bag and continued his day, shaving several customers and playing cards with friends in his shop while Einer’s body lay in the back room. That evening, he walked around the neighborhood for hours while the Sporrers and police were frantically searching for Einer. Returning to the shop after midnight, he carried the bag to the stoop where he left it to be discovered.

There was an immediate public outcry when it became known that Ossido was free on bail on a charge of attacking another girl when he committed Einer’s murder and that he had previous convictions for rape and molestation. Experts, politicians, and community groups called upon authorities to consider what laws must be passed, what parents must do, what medical or psychological treatments were required to protect children from “sex criminals.” The frenzy of public agitation incited by Einer’s murder calmed within a few weeks but was reignited when two similar crimes occurred in quick succession four months later. On July 31, eight-year-old Paula Magagna was found raped and murdered in a tenement house in Ridgewood, less than 10 blocks from the barber shop where Einer was slain. When the nude body of Joan Kuleba, just four years old, was found strangled and molested in a Staten Island beach bungalow on August 13, the city fell into full-blown “pervert hysteria.” The attacks added, as one newspaper reported, “explosive impetus to a campaign against sex crimes already running full tilt in the courts and police department.” In an August 15 article entitled “Open War on Sex Crimes,” the New York Times described a meeting of 1,000 irate residents of Ridgewood—where two of the murders had occurred—who met with members of the police department, the state legislature, the district attorney’s office and various civic agencies. Speakers warned parents “not to permit little girls to roam the streets in scanty attire such as so-called ‘sun-suits’ or open-work playsuits,” to “train your children to keep away from lonely places,” and to “refuse candy or other gratuities from strangers.”

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 23 1937

 Articles about the murders of the three girls were picked up by the national press and published in newspapers throughout the United States. Media reports of “dangerous sex deviates who exist in all large cities in numbers of which the average citizen has no comprehension” fueled fears that a wave of sex crimes was in full surge throughout the nation. Time magazine reported on the phenomenon in an August 1937 issue and other popular magazines featured articles about the apparent plague of sex crimes against children. In a syndicated piece that ran in September 1937, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover proclaimed that “the sex fiend, most loathsome of all the vast army of crime, has become a sinister threat to safety of American childhood…No parent can feel secure that his children are safe from attack.” The publicity given these crimes revealed that very little had been done in big cities to protect children against predators. In response, police departments in New York, Chicago, and other metropolitan areas formed specialized units to keep records on sex criminals. Community groups, municipalities, and state legislatures launched investigations into sexual violence and crimes against children and proposed legal reforms. Though it would be decades before substantive changes were made to protect children, the media-induced panic produced by this string of sex crimes against New York City children in 1937 provoked, for the first time, a broad discussion of the problem.

J. Edgar Hoover’s syndicated piece on sex criminals was part of the “pervert hysteria” that was sparked by Einer’s murder

As the 1930s came to a close, there was a lull in the anxieties about sex crime against children, Einer Sporrer’s name disappeared from the news, and her murderer was dead, executed in the electric chair at Sing Sing prison. The German American Bund fell apart after its leader was arrested for embezzlement in 1939, and public concerns of American Nazism waned. In 1942, John and Mary Sporrer had another daughter, the only child they would have after Einer. This daughter lived the long and full life that Einer did not, and rests today in the same grave with her parents and the sister she never met, in Holy Trinity Cemetery. The Sporrers’ grave is marked in the distinctive manner used for most of the plots in this German Catholic cemetery—with a simple hollow metal monument that is painted to look like stone. Visited on a day this spring, the grave was adorned with a palm cross in observance of Easter and the monument had a fresh coat of gray paint with gold lettering that sparkled in the sunshine. Tended with care, there are no signs at Einer Sporrer’s grave of the dark events that cast a shadow over her life and death in 1930s Brooklyn.

A view of the Sporrer family plot in Holy Trinity Cemetery, April 2018. Einer is listed as “Erna” on the grave marker (Mary French)

 

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East Houston Street Church Cemeteries

An 1852 map showing the church cemeteries along East Houston street and between First and Second Streets

“The expectation that cemeteries shall afford a permanent resting place to the bodies interred in them is conclusively discredited by experience,” wrote civic leader Louis Windmüller in 1898, declaring that “of all American cities, New York—where about a hundred graveyards have been destroyed or partially abandoned since it became a city—offers the most striking examples of the changeableness of ‘resting places.’” Burial grounds were scattered throughout lower Manhattan in the early 1800s to such an extent, says Windmüller, “that a splenetic Englishman who came to visit our shores speedily returned when he found every street lined with headstones.”

Graveyards that surrounded many Manhattan churches were removed or covered over as development encroached and congregations relocated. Some churches established new burial grounds further north of the dense downtown area where they thought they would be safe from disturbance. These cemeteries, often common burial grounds used by several congregations of the same denomination, were in turn overtaken by the ever-growing city. Such was the case with a cluster of six church cemeteries used by the Society of Friends (Quakers), Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, and Dutch Reformed Church, that were created between 1796 and 1822 on or near North Street (today’s East Houston Street) just east of Bowery. After the city banned interments below 86th Street in 1851, these burial grounds were sold and the remains relocated to cemeteries in Brooklyn, Queens, and elsewhere. The cemetery lands were redeveloped during the second half of the 19th century, typically subdivided into lots where multi-story brick tenement buildings and other structures were erected.

Friends Cemetery
The Friends Cemetery in 1853

In 1796, the Society of Friends purchased land “well out in the country” on the south side of East Houston Street, between Bowery and Chrystie, to serve as its new burial ground. Among the approximately 2,300 persons interred here were members of the earliest Quaker group to worship in Manhattan—the Green Street congregation, who built a meetinghouse in 1696 at today’s Liberty Place. Remains from the graveyard attached to that meetinghouse were transferred to a vault at the new Houston Street cemetery in 1825.

The Friends Burying Ground on Houston Street operated until about 1846, when the Friends Cemetery located within the present-day boundaries of Prospect Park in Brooklyn opened. By 1874, all interments at the Houston Street cemetery had been removed to the Westbury Meeting House grounds in Long Island or to the Quaker Cemetery in Brooklyn. The cemetery property was sold to Trinity Church, who built St. Augustine’s Chapel on the site. In 2004 the area was redeveloped as part of the Cooper Square Urban Renewal Project, and the 14-story Avalon Chrystie Place retail/residential building sits atop the Friends Cemetery site today. Archaeological testing conducted prior to the redevelopment project unearthed some small fragments of human bone likely left behind during the process of relocating the graves in the 19th century; these remains were reinterred at the Quaker Cemetery in Prospect Park.

Presbyterian Cemetery
The Presbyterian Cemetery in 1859

Across Chrystie Street from the Friends Cemetery was a burial ground used by three Presbyterian congregations. In 1803 the First Presbyterian Church, Brick Presbyterian Church, and Rutgers Street Church acquired 24 lots on the south side of East Houston Street for use as a cemetery. The three churches, founded in lower Manhattan between 1716 and 1797, removed some bodies from their churchyards to the Houston Street cemetery and used it as their primary burial ground after interments in those graveyards ceased. In 1865, the remains from the Presbyterian Cemetery on Houston Street were removed to Evergreens Cemetery, Woodlawn Cemetery, and Cypress Hills Cemetery, the property was sold, and by 1867 had been subdivided and developed. The city acquired the former Presbyterian Cemetery site in 1929 to form the northern portion of Sara Delano Roosevelt Park.

A removal notice for the Presbyterian Cemetery that appeared in the New York Herald in March 1865
Reformed Dutch Cemetery
The Reformed Dutch Cemetery in 1859

Just east of the Presbyterian Cemetery on the south side of Houston was the Reformed Dutch Church Cemetery. What little is known about this cemetery is gleaned from an 1868 article in the Evening Post announcing that the consistory of the Collegiate Reformed Dutch Church intended to remove the bodies interred in their burial ground, bounded by Houston, Forsyth and Eldridge streets, to Cypress Hills Cemetery that March. The 1868 announcement says:

This cemetery was laid out early in the present century and was about two hundred feet square. No attempt was made to ornament it, and the space was not entirely taken up with bodies. A few years ago a part of the front on Houston Street was used for the construction of the German Evangelical Mission Church, and two or three lots on the corner of Forsyth and Houston streets were sold for business purposes. There are a number of vaults on the corner of Eldridge and Houston streets, and several hundred graves in the remaining lots on Forsyth and Eldridge streets.

The cemetery was in operation by 1821, when the Common Council of the City of New York passed an ordinance to fill in sunken lots “fronting on Eldridge Street and Forsyth Street adjoining the Dutch Church Burial Ground.” The Reformed Dutch Church Cemetery likely was used by several congregations of the Collegiate Church, which formed in Manhattan in 1628. By the late 1870s, tenement buildings covered most of the old cemetery  site. The German Mission Church that was located in the front part of the cemetery on Houston Street became the site of a Yiddish vaudeville theater in the early 1900s and more recently was home to Sunshine Cinema. In 2017 it was sold to developers who plan to demolish it.

Baptist Cemetery
The Baptist Cemetery in 1820

On the north side of Houston, opposite Forsyth Street, between First and Second Avenues was a Baptist Cemetery that opened around 1815. This burial ground belonged to the First Baptist Church, which originated on Gold Street in 1762; other Baptist congregations may have used the cemetery as well. In 1861, the First Baptist Church gave notice of their intention to remove the bodies from the cemetery and sell the ground. The remains were likely removed to Cypress Hills Cemetery, where the First Baptist Church acquired 20 lots ca. 1860. The Baptist Cemetery lands were subdivided and developed by 1867; in the mid-20th century, a subway station was built beneath the site and it was partially covered by the widening of East Houston Street. A small park is now located at what is left of the Baptist Cemetery site.

A legal notice regarding the removal of the Baptist Cemetery that appeared in the NY Daily Tribune in Aug 1861
Methodist Episcopal Cemetery
The Methodist Episcopal Cemetery in 1820

One block north of Houston, at the corner of First Street and Second Avenue, was a cemetery established by the Trustees of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1805. It may have been a general Methodist burial ground during its early years; from 1836 until 1851 it was primarily used by the five churches who formed th the Methodist Episcopal Church East Circuit—the Forsyth Street, Seventh Street, Allen Street, Willett Street, and Second Street Methodist Episcopal Churches founded in Manhattan between 1789 and 1832.

A notice of the removal of bodies from the Methodist Episcopal Cemetery that appeared in the New York Times in Jan 1854

In 1853 the Trustees of the Methodist Episcopal Church East Circuit received permission from the New York State Supreme Court to remove the bodies from their cemetery and sell the property, a decision that incensed the family and friends of those interred there. The New York Times reported on public meetings held by those opposed to the removal of the dead from the cemetery, events that were “very largely attended.” The Trustees’ actions were regarded as “scandalous,” induced by the desire for financial gain, and done “so secretly that their rascality was not found out until 360 of the corpses had been removed.” In the end, the Trustees proceeded with the cemetery removal, a slow process “on account of the large number of dead buried there” (the number is unknown but was said to be “thousands”). The bodies were reinterred at Cypress Hills Cemetery. Between 1857 and 1862 the former cemetery was subdivided into 13 lots and developed with commercial/residential structures. In 2008 the area was redeveloped as part of the Cooper Square Urban Renewal Project; the seven-story Avalon Bowery Place 2 retail/residential building now stands at the Methodist Episcopal Cemetery site.

Methodist Society Cemetery
The Methodist Society Cemetery in 1859

One block directly east of the Methodist Episcopal Cemetery was a cemetery used by a group that broke off from the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1820 and formed the independent Methodist Society of New York. The Methodist Society established their cemetery—sometimes known as “Stillwell’s Cemetery” for the Society’s first pastor William M. Stillwell—in 1822 in the center of the block bounded on the east and west by First and Second avenues and on the north and south by First and Second streets. They subsequently built a church adjacent the cemetery, fronting on First Street. The later history of Methodist Society Cemetery is obscure. It is still recorded as a Methodist Cemetery in 1852, but by the 1870s a public school was at the site of the Methodist church that stood along First Street bordering the cemetery, and a Presbyterian church had been built next to the school on an eastern portion of the original cemetery property. In 1874, the Board of Education received permission to remove “all remains of persons now buried in the grounds or deposited in the vaults of the First Presbyterian Church, located between 1st and 2d sts. and between 1st and 2d avs.” The New York Times, reporting on the removals, said:

The entire cemetery, a part of which only is to be removed, is rather extensive, occupying the interior of the entire block bounded on the east and west by First and Second avenues and on the north and south by First and Second streets and extending under a portion of the school building on First street, and the whole of the City Mission on First Avenue…The bodies to be removed number several hundred, 108 of which are to be taken from the school-yard, a space 60 feet by 70, planked over and used as a playground by the children. Under these planks lie some eighty tombstones, face upward, within eight or ten inches of the surface. Under the school [the former Methodist church] are four large vaults, entirely filled with dead bodies. A more incongruous sight than the hundreds of gleeful children romping and playing immediately over the thickly huddled army of the dead can hardly be imagined.

In 1891, the Board of Education received permission to remove the rest of the “human remains buried in the old burying-ground, between First and Second streets and First and Second avenue”—those that had been left in the western portion of the original cemetery property. It is not known where the remains were reinterred in either of the removals. The large facility—Grammar School No. 79—that the Board of Education built over much of the site in 1886 and expanded in the 1890s is still present, converted into apartments.

An 1879 map showing redevelopment of the church cemetery sites
A 2016 aerial view of the former church cemetery sites

Sources: Randel’s 1820 Farm Maps; Dripps’ 1852 Map of the City of New-York extending northward to Fiftieth St; Perris’ 1853 Maps of the City of New York; Perris’ 1859 Maps of the City of New York; Bromley’s 1879 Atlas of the Entire City of New York; “Graveyards as a Menace to the Commonweal,” The North American Review 167:211-222; A History of the Churches of All Denominations in the City of New York from the First Settlement to the Year 1846 (Greenleaf 1846); The Graveyard Shift: A Family Historian’s Guide to New York City Cemeteries (Inskeep 2000); Cooper Square Community Development:Historical Overview and Assessment (Parsons Engineering 2000); Archaeological Investigations…within the Cooper Square Urban Renewal Area (John Milner & Assoc 2003); Second Avenue Subway Phase 1A Archaeological Assessment (Historical Perspectives, Inc. 2003); Phase 1B Archaeological Investigation:Block 457, Lot 28 (Former Methodist Episcopal Cemetery) (John Milner & Assoc 2005); Methodist Episcopal Cemetery Intensive Documentary Study, Second Avenue (Historical Perspectives Inc. 2003); Lower East Side Rezoning…Phase IA Archaeological Assessment (Bergoffen 2008); Friends of the City of New York in the Nineteenth Century (Wood 1904), 22-23; “Remains of Friends Now at Rest in Prospect Park Cemetery,” Spark Jan 2004 35:1; [Removal Notice], New York Herald, March 20 1865, 3; “Gravestone Inscriptions from the Burial Ground of the Brick Presbyterian Church,” NYG&BR, 60:1, Jan. 1929, 8-14; “City Intelligence—The Cemetery of the Reformed Dutch Church,” Evening Post Feb 27, 1868, 4; Minutes of the Common Council of the city of New York, 1784-1831 (City of New York 1917), 12:119, 141; Supreme Court, City and County of New York,” New York Daily Tribune, Aug 11 1861; The Cypress Hills Cemetery, 1863 [catalog & list of lot holders]; Lost chapters recovered from the early history of American Methodism (Wakeley 1858); Annals of New York Methodism (Seaman 1892); “Legal Notices,” New York Times Jan 2 1854, “The Burial Ground Excitement,” New York Times Jan 26 1854; “To Whom It May Concern [Notice], New York Times Jan 12 1874; “Removal of an Old Cemetery,” New York Times Jan 14, 1874; Laws of the State of New York Passed at the 114th Session of the Legislature (1891) Ch. 137