Silver Lake Cemetery & Mount Richmond Cemetery

A view of Silver Lake Cemetery in 1940 (NYPL)

When Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe arrived in the United States at the turn of the last century, they sought community resources that would provide social and financial support and help them maintain their cultural and religious traditions. Most joined mutual aid societies that, among other services, provided cemetery plots and traditional religious burials for its members. However, there were many Jewish immigrants who were unable to sustain society membership or through various other circumstances found themselves without connections that would ensure a traditional Jewish burial upon death.

Indigent Jews in New York City who were unaffiliated with a burial society or synagogue at the time of death risked burial in a communal grave on Hart Island, the city’s public burial ground, which contravened all aspects of Jewish religious law. Burial in accordance with traditional burial practices is central to Jewish faith and the threat of mass interment in a common grave among strangers posed an existential crisis in the Lower East Side Jewish community during the late 19th and early 20th century. In response, a group of Jewish businessmen founded Chebra Agudas Achim Chesed Shel Emeth (The Society of the Brotherhood of True Charity) in 1888, specifically to bury the unaffiliated Jewish indigent of the Lower East Side with religious observance. Later known as the Hebrew Free Burial Association (HFBA), this organization grew to serve the broader metropolitan area of New York City and is currently the largest free burial society outside of Israel.

Silver Lake Cemetery
Entrance to Silver Lake Cemetery, May 2017 (Mary French)

Early in its history, HFBA arranged for burials wherever plots were available, usually at Bayside Cemetery in Queens. To meet rapidly increasing need, in 1892 the society purchased its first burial ground, Silver Lake Cemetery on Staten Island. This six-acre cemetery is situated between two older cemeteries—Silver Mount Cemetery and Woodland Cemetery—on the east side of Victory Boulevard in the Grymes Hill area of Staten Island. Approximately 13,600 impoverished, marginalized men, women, children and infants were given traditional religious burial here until the cemetery’s capacity was met in 1909.

Though most of the cemetery was used for burying indigent Jews, several small sections were purchased by other Jewish burial societies and synagogues for the interment of their members. Among them is Congregation B’nai Jeshurun of Staten Island, the first Jewish congregation of Staten Island. While the HFBA stopped burying individuals at Silver Lake in 1909, these other groups continued to sporadically use their portions of the cemetery until about 1950. Today Silver Lake is inactive and is available to visitors only by appointment; however, the HFBA is in the process of restoring the cemetery to open it as a historic site and in 2017 it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

A 2012 aerial view of Silver Lake Cemetery
Mount Richmond Cemetery
Entrance to Mount Richmond Cemetery, May 2017 (Mary French)

After Silver Lake Cemetery was filled in 1909, HFBA began burials in its second cemetery about five miles south of Silver Lake in the Richmond area of Staten Island. Known as Mount Richmond Cemetery, this 23-acre burial ground is situated on the south side of Clarke Avenue east of Arthur Kill Road adjacent to United Hebrew Cemetery. At Mount Richmond, the HFBA has provided dignified burials to 55,000 of the Jewish poor and continues to bury about 400 each year. The neat rows of graves tell the story of the history of Jews in this country over the last century—the earliest graves those of Lower East Side immigrants, 22 victims of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, veterans of the wars, and, in recent years, immigrants from the former Soviet Union, many of whom were unable to observe their religion in their homeland but expressed the desire for a traditional Jewish burial.

Many of those laid to rest at Mount Richmond have no headstones, but the HFBA is working to place some type of marker at each grave. Granite markers engraved with personal identification and the Hebrew abbreviation for “here lies the soul” have been placed at thousands of these unmarked graves, creating vast fields of uniform headstones throughout the cemetery. Honoring the less fortunate of the Jewish community with a proper burial and maintaining their resting places with dignity is considered an important obligation and truest act of charity because it cannot be repaid.

A 2012 aerial view of Mount Richmond Cemetery
A view of grave markers in Mount Richmond Cemetery, May 2017 (Mary French)

See more photos of Silver Lake Cemetery

See more photos of Mount Richmond Cemetery

Sources: Fairchild Cemetery Manual (1910), 99, 125; Hebrew Free Burial Association—History; Hebrew Free Burial Association—Silver Lake Preservation; National Register of Historic Places Registration Form—Silver Lake Cemetery (Draft), Sept 2016; “Staten Island’s Silver Lake Cemetery Tells the Tale of NYC Jewish Immigrants,” SI Live, Jan 4 2013; “At Mount Richmond Cemetery, Hebrew Free Burial Association Maintains Dignity in Death,” SI Live, Nov 23, 2014; “On Staten Island, a Jewish Cemetery Where All Are Equals in Death, New York Times, Mar 31, 2009; “Who’ll Weep for Me?” Jewish Week, Feb 8, 2002; NYCityMap

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Rantus Family Cemetery

A listing for the Rantus Family Cemetery, or Troytown Cemetery, in a 1910 directory of NYC cemeteries

In 2014 the gravestone of Wilson Rantus, a prominent African American figure in pre-Civil War Queens, mysteriously turned up in the backyard of a Queens College professor’s home. How or why the 153-year-old marble tombstone ended up in the professor’s yard near the college’s Flushing campus was never ascertained, but it is known that it originally stood in the Rantus Family Cemetery that was nearby. In 1853, Troy Rantus established a burial ground on the family farm that was located in a community called “Head of Vleigh,” just south of today’s Queens College. The cemetery was actively used by the descendants of Troy Rantus into the early 20th century, and was referred to by a number of names including “The Burying Ground of the Family of Troy Rantus the First,” “Troytown Cemetery,” and “The Colored Burying Ground of South Flushing.” The last known burial in the cemetery was in 1911, when James A. Brooks, a 37-year old Queens mail carrier and son of Sarah Rantus, was interred there.

The headstone of Wilson Rantus discovered in 2014 (NY Daily News)

Although records show the family burial ground was the final resting place of at least a dozen members of the Rantus family, when the Queens Topographical Bureau surveyed the cemetery in 1919 only two headstones were present—those of Wilson Rantus (d. 1861) and James Rantus (d. 1903). Wilson Rantus was an educated African American farmer and activist who had large landholdings in both Flushing and Jamaica, Queens, in the mid-1800s. He took part in the struggle for equal voting rights in New York State, fought for educational rights for black children, and was a financial backer of Thomas Hamilton’s Anglo-African magazine and newspaper. The inscription on his gravestone was partially transcribed in 1919:

WILSON RANTUS
Died May 13, 1861
Aged 55 years
Jesus, lover of my soul, let me to Thy bosom
Fly, while the raging billows roll…
O, receive my soul at last

In 1952, a home building company obtained permission from the Rantus heirs to remove the bodies from the family cemetery so the company could have clear title to develop the land. At that time, no gravestones remained in the 52-by-84-foot plot, which was described as a “a long-forgotten Negro burial ground” at the southwest corner of 149th street and Gravett Road. The company reportedly removed the human remains “with care and respect” and transferred them to a plot in the Terrace Hill section at Evergreens Cemetery in Brooklyn. The Mainstay Cooperative Apartments now stand on the former site of the Rantus Family Cemetery.

An 1873 map of Flushing showing the approximate location of the Rantus Family Cemetery
The present day area of the Rantus Family Cemetery site

Sources: Beers 1873 Atlas of Long Island, Pl 57; Fairchild Cemetery Manual (1910), 164; Description of Private and Family Cemeteries in the Borough of Queens (Powell & Meigs 1932), 60-61; “New York City Municipal Deaths, 1795-1949,” FamilySearch, James A. Brooks, 10 Jun 1911; “Builders Seek to Remove Bodies from Burial Ground in Flushing,” Long Island Star-Journal, Oct 24, 1952, 26; “Wilson Rantus, Negro Leader,” Long Island Forum 25(7) July 1962, 143-144; African-American Leaders in Pre-Civil War Queens (Queens Public Library 2008), 12-15; “Queens College Professor Discovers Tombstone of Abolitionist,” New York Daily News, Jun 9, 2014; “Tombstone of 19th century Queens Abolitionist Will Be Placed at His Burial Site, New York Daily News, Jun 11, 2014; “Historic Headstone of 19th Century Abolitionist Will Be Reviewed by Conservationist at Evergreens Cemetery,” New York Daily News, Jun 12, 2014; NYCityMap

Machpelah Cemetery & the Union Field Cemeteries

A 1913 map showing Machpelah and the Union Field cemeteries situated west of Fresh Pond Road (Cypress Hills Street) and north of Cypress Hills Road (Cypress Avenue)

Beginning in the 1850s, a number of Jewish organizations began to acquire large tracts of land along Fresh Pond Road and Cypress Hills Road in Queens to create what would become four cemeteries situated on present-day Cypress Hills Street and Cypress Avenue in the Glendale-Ridgewood area. Jointly, these cemeteries—Machpelah Cemetery, Union Field Cemetery, New Union Field Cemetery, and Hungarian Union Field Cemetery—now cover about 60 acres where over 60,000 individuals have been interred. Although each of these cemeteries has its own entrance and is separately owned today, early in their history they were managed cooperatively by Machpelah Cemetery Association. This shared history can be seen in the fact that there are no fences separating the cemeteries from one another—the grounds run together and a visitor entering the gate of one cemetery may wander down a path and suddenly find him or herself in one of the adjoining cemeteries without realizing it. The communal nature of the four cemeteries has frequently led to mix-ups in burial records, obituaries, and other accounts regarding which cemetery an individual was actually interred in. Newspaper reports and property records often confuse the cemeteries and their ownership as well.

Location of the four cemeteries today (OpenStreetMap)
Machpelah Cemetery
A 1959 view of the recently-demolished entrance building at Machpelah Cemetery (NYC Municipal Archives)

An 1881 cemetery guide describes Machpelah Cemetery, which was established around 1855, as “a Jewish burial place of age and renown,” located “on high, sandy ground, that is well wooded and shaded,” “a handsome place and well laid out, and well cared for.” By the late 1980s, the cemetery had been abandoned to the state because its board had run out of money and its grounds had become a neglected “impassable jungle.Today the six-acre cemetery is administered by David Jacobson, who operates several of the city’s smaller Jewish burial grounds, and is well kept though timeworn and frequently deserted—burials are now rare at Machpelah Cemetery. Machpelah’s imposing 1928 entrance building on Cypress Hills Street deteriorated with the cemetery’s decline, its offices ransacked and the cemetery’s records scattered around the inside, and was demolished in 2013. Machpelah is distinguished as the burial place of master magician Harry Houdini (Erich Weiss). Since his death on October 31, 1926, thousands of magicians and fans have made the pilgrimage to Houdini’s gravesite at Machpelah where the Society of American Magicians and the Houdini Museum hold memorial services for the famed escape artist and help care for his grave.

The Houdini gravesite at Machpelah Cemetery, April 2018 (Mary French)
New Union Field/Beth-El Cemetery
Monument in the Russian Community Memorial Garden at New Union Field/Beth-El Cemetery, Sept 2011 (Mary French)

North of Machpelah Cemetery on Cypress Hills Street is the 10-acre New Union Field Cemetery, which was established around 1875 by Manhattan’s Temple Beth-El, one of New York’s wealthiest Jewish congregations at that time. In 1893 they erected the cemetery’s grand entrance building at a cost of $20,000; designed by architect Louis Korn, the two-story stone structure is 60 feet wide by 30 feet deep and was designed to accommodate a receiving vault, offices, and keeper’s apartment. New Union Field Cemetery is the final resting place of actor Edward G. Robinson and was the original burial place of businessman Isidor Straus, the co-owner of Macy’s department store who perished with his wife on the Titantic in April 1912 (he was later moved to Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx). In 1928 Temple Beth-El merged with Manhattan’s Congregation Emanu-El; Congregation Emanu-El operates New Union Field today as Beth-El Cemetery. Nowadays, Beth-El Cemetery primarily caters to the city’s Jewish community from the former Soviet Union, and in 2005 opened a Russian Community Memorial Garden that pays tribute to Jewish Russian war veterans, their families and loved ones lost during World War II. At the center of the garden is a monument representing the Star of David, topped with an obelisk and a sculpture of an eternal flame. The memorial provides the estimated 300,000 Russian Jews living in New York City with a place to gather and remember their loved ones.

Recent tombstones contrast with older mausoleums in New Union Field/Beth-El Cemetery, April 2018 (Mary French)
Union Field Cemetery
A 1928 view of Union Field’s gatehouse and chapel building (MCNY)

To the rear of Machpelah and New Union Field is Union Field Cemetery, a 35-acre, irregular L-shaped swathe that stretches from its entrance on Cypress Avenue to its northern boundary along 59th Street near 80th Avenue. Manhattan’s Congregation Rodeph Sholom established Union Field around 1855 and expanded it in 1878. Concurrent with the Congregation’s move to its present location on West 83rd Street in 1926, they erected the gatehouse designed by architect Charles B. Meyers that stands at the Cypress Avenue entrance. Union Field is the location of a number of kivrei tzaddikim, “graves of the righteous,” and is a pilgrimage site for many Orthodox Jews. One of the most important graves here is that of Rabbi Jacob Joseph, the first and only chief rabbi of New York. Rabbi Joseph was brought to New York from Europe in 1888 by a group of 17 Orthodox synagogues; he served for only a short time before dying of a stroke in 1902. Thousands visit his gravesite each year, including Hassidic rabbis and their congregants and Talmudical teachers and their students, to light candles and offer prayers around his tombstone. Among the less holy notable figures interred at Union Field Cemetery are actor Bert Lahr, best known for his role as the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz, and controversial attorney Roy Cohn, who rose to fame as Senator Joseph McCarthy’s chief counsel during the 1950s Communist investigations.

Gravesite of Rabbi Jacob Joseph, surrounded by metal candle boxes, at Union Field Cemetery (Shmuel Botchy Amsel/kevarim.com)
Hungarian Union Field Cemetery
A view of monuments in Hungarian Union Field Cemetery, April 2018 (Mary French)

In 1903, the First Hungarian Sick and Benevolent Society purchased a two-acre parcel of land just east of Union Field Cemetery that became known as Hungarian Union Field Cemetery. Besides obtaining burial grounds, the society, which was later called the Hungarian Society of New York, was founded for “mutual self-protection, philanthropy, the fostering of patriotism and the furtherance of humanitarianism.” The Hungarian Society eventually acquired an additional four acres so that the grounds of Hungarian Union Field Cemetery came to fill the area between Machpelah and Union Fields at the corner of Cypress Hills Street and Cypress Avenue. In 1937, the society constructed a large stone building on the cemetery grounds to house their offices. Joe Weber, a vaudevillian who, along with Lew Fields, formed the comedy team of Weber and Fields that was popular at the turn of the 20th century, is among the prominent individuals interred at Hungarian Union Field Cemetery; his remains were placed in the Weber-Friedman mausoleum near the cemetery’s entrance when he died in 1942. In recent years the Hungarian Union Field Cemetery was acquired by Mount Carmel Cemetery, the large Jewish cemetery located opposite it on Cypress Hills Street, and is now a division of Mount Carmel.

The Weber-Friedman mausoleum at Hungarian Union Field Cemetery, where vaudevillian Joe Weber is interred (Mary French)

View more photos of Machpelah Cemetery

View more photos of New Union Field/Beth-El Cemetery

View more photos of Union Field Cemetery

View more photos of Hungarian Union Field Cemetery

Sources: Hyde’s 1913 Atlas of the Borough of Queens Vol 2, Pl 19; The Cemeteries of New York (Judson 1881), 13; The Leonard Manual of the Cemeteries of New York and Vicinity (1901), 51, 63, 90-91; Fairchild Cemetery Manual (1910), 86, 106-107, 165, 167; “Our Public Cemeteries,” New York Herald, Jun 2 1867, 8; “Machpelah Cemetery Association,” Jewish Messenger, Dec 12, 1879, 2; “Thinking Ahead,” New York Times Oct 13, 1996; “Vandals Hit Glendale Cemetery,” Queens Chronicle, July 20, 2000; “Houdini’s Final Trick, a Tidy Grave,” New York Times, Oct 31, 2008; “Among the Cemeteries,” Jewish Messenger, Jun 16, 1893, 2; “The Funeral of Isidor Straus,” American Hebrew & Jewish Messenger, May 10, 1912, 36; The Cemeteries of Emanu-El (Congregation Emanu-El); “Beth-El Cemetery Opens New Russian-Jewish Memorial,” YourNabe.com, May 26, 2005; “Dedication of a Burial Ground,” Jewish Messenger, Sep 6, 1878, 2; “Graves of the Righteous,” Jewish Action, Fall 2010, 50-54; “Thousands Attend Gravesite of Rabbi Yaakov Joseph,” Vos Iz Neias, July 16, 2009; “First Hungarian Sick and Benevolent Society in U.S.,” YIVO News, No. 2013 Summer 2007, 21.

African Burial Ground, Inwood

A 1912 map of historic sites of upper Manhattan shows the “Slaves’ Burying Place” on the west side of 10th Ave, between 211th and 212th Sts. The burying ground used by colonial settlers is on the east side of 10th Ave.

In the early 20th century, development was spreading up to the last rural area left on Manhattan—Inwood, at the island’s northern tip. Workers began to raze Inwood’s old farmlands and estates and grade the land to lay out streets. In 1903, sensational reports appeared in city newspapers describing a burial ground that street graders had unearthed near 10th Avenue and 212th Street. The reports said that “huge skeletons” with “iron balls and chains hanging from their limbs,” some buried in an upright position, had been found in a grove of trees on top of a knoll that rose 12 feet above 10th Avenue. Neighborhood residents said it was well known that the knoll was an old burying ground for the slaves of local families who had estates nearby. Representatives of the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society and the American Museum of Natural History investigated the cemetery and, although they discovered the stories of upright burials and iron chains and balls were false, they confirmed that the human remains were “Negro” and agreed the site was a burial ground for the enslaved. The African burial ground was thought to be an extension of a colonial cemetery located across 10th Avenue, where the Dyckmans, Nagels, and other early settlers of northern Manhattan were buried.

Headlines from the Evening Telegram, March 14, 1903, announcing the discovery of the African burial ground in Inwood

Before emancipation in 1827, slave labor played an important role in the economy of most of the rural areas around New York City, particularly the Dutch American farms and estates like those of Inwood. In the 1700s, about 40% of the households in the rural parts of Manhattan Island included slaves. Most of these homes had two or three slaves, women working as household help and men as farm labor. Unlike in the plantation South, most of the enslaved men, women and children of New York did not reside in separate quarters, but instead lived under the same roofs as their owners, often sleeping in cellars or attics. Slaves were frequently buried in separate graveyards near the family burial grounds.

The African burial ground in Inwood included 36 graves arranged in rows, each marked by an uncut stone at its head, which was oriented to the west. Investigators found pieces of decayed wood and rusty nails—all that remained of the coffins—and brass pins, suggesting that the dead had been buried in shrouds. In one of the graves a child’s skeleton was found with a little bead necklace. Preservationists attempted to safeguard the human remains unearthed from the burial ground and give them a decent reburial, but apparently were not successful. The remains were treated with what we now consider shocking callousness—one newspaper photo shows the bones heaped in a pile near the site—and most were carried off by relic hunters. Today the former African burial ground site is located just beneath the elevated 1 train tracks, and is occupied by an auto parts store, parking facility and other structures.  Writing about the site in 1924, Reginald Pelham Bolton observed:

The remains of these humble workers of the past reminds us of the time when, even in this neighborhood, the practice of slavery was customary. Perhaps no other relic of the past could more decidedly mark the difference between the past and the present than the bones of these poor unwilling immigrants, whose labors cleared the primeval forest, cultivated the unturned sods, and prepared the way for the civilization that followed…

A 2016 aerial view showing the area of the former African burial ground site in Inwood

Sources: Touring Gotham’s Archaeological Past (Wall & Cantwell 2004), 32, 98-99; Historical map of the east side of upper Manhattan Isld., from Dyckman St. to Kingsbridge (Bolton 1912); Washington Heights, Manhattan, Its Eventful Past (Bolton 1924), 204; “Skeletons in Irons Dug Up in Street,” Evening World March 14, 1903, 4; “Workmen Find Skeletons in Heavy Chains,” Evening Telegram March 14, 1903, 16; “Big Skeletons in the Bronx,” New York Times March 15, 1903; “Two Ancient Burying Grounds of New-York City, New York Daily Tribune Apr 12, 1903.

Linden Hill Cemeteries

A 1909 map showing Linden Hill Methodist Cemetery and Linden Hill Jewish/Ahawath Chesed Cemetery (Bromley 1909)

On a hilltop near the intersection of Flushing and Metropolitan Avenues in Ridgewood, Queens, are two small garden-like cemeteries created in the mid-nineteenth century. Linden Hill Methodist Cemetery is a 21-acre burial ground situated along Woodward Avenue between Starr and Stanhope streets. Established in 1842 by the Second Street Methodist Episcopal Church in Manhattan, in 1852 the cemetery was acquired by the First German Methodist Episcopal Church of Manhattan who operated it until 1977, when it was transferred to the New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Although owned by Methodist entities throughout its history, Linden Hill Cemetery has always been a nonsectarian, multi-ethnic burial ground. The humble gravestones that fill its grounds mark the final resting place of more than 30,000 people and reflect the area’s shifting demographics—many of the earlier monuments are for German, Italian, and Eastern European immigrants, while more recent graves are predominately Hispanic and African American.

A view of Linden Hill Methodist Cemetery, April 2016 (Mary French)

In 1875, Ahawath Chesed, a prosperous German Jewish congregation now known as Central Synagogue and located on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, acquired a tract of land adjacent to Linden Hill Methodist Cemetery for a Jewish burial ground. Linden Hill Jewish Cemetery occupies 10 acres on the northwest side of the Methodist cemetery, and has its gatehouse at the corner of Metropolitan Avenue and Grandview Avenue. A number of prominent members of New York’s Jewish community lie buried beneath monuments and in mausoleums here, including U.S. Congressman Jacob Javits and businessman Joseph Bloomingdale. In 2008, Central Synagogue sold Linden Hill Jewish Cemetery to David Jacobson, who operates several of the city’s Jewish burial grounds, and today the cemetery primarily is used by recent Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

A view of Linden Hill Jewish Cemetery, April 2016 (Mary French)

Among the notable individuals interred at Linden Hill Jewish Cemetery is theatrical producer and playwright David Belasco, whose family mausoleum occupies a central position at the end of the cemetery’s entrance drive. Designed by Tiffany Studios, the domed structure is of heavy, rough-hewn granite with marble interiors. Belasco built the mausoleum in 1913 in memory of his daughter Augusta, who died three years earlier at age 22. During her life, it was said, Augusta Belasco dreaded the dark; when she was interred in the mausoleum David Belasco and his wife installed a bronze lamp that was kept burning day and night to insure “that beside their dead daughter there shall be kept an eternal vigil of light.” David Belasco was interred next to his wife and daughter in the mausoleum when he died in 1931.

The Belasco Mausoleum at Linden Hill Jewish Cemetery, April 2016 (Mary French)
A 1923 image of the southeastern end of Linden Hill Jewish Cemetery (NYPL)
A 2016 aerial view of the Linden Hill cemeteries

View more photos of Linden Hill Methodist Cemetery

View more photos of Linden Hill Jewish Cemetery

Sources: Bromley’s 1909 Atlas of the City of New York, Borough of Queens Pl 17; Linden Hill United Methodist Cemetery; The Cemeteries of New York (Judson 1881), 18; The Leonard Manual of the Cemeteries of New York and Vicinity (1901), 9, 50; Central Synagogue Archivist, personal communication, April 27, 2016; “Playwright’s Mausoleum,” The Reporter Oct 1914, 35; “Stars of Stage Pay Tribute to David Belasco,” Schenectady Gazette May 16, 1931, 14; Beyond Grief: Sculpture and Wonder in the Gilded Age Cemetery (Mills 2014), 182.