New Utrecht Cemetery

A view of New Utrecht Cemetery, ca 1915. Metropolitan Baptist Church is in the background. The Dubois-Crane obelisk, toppled by Hurricane Floyd in 1999, can be seen rising above the other tombstones at the northeast corner of the cemetery (MCNY)

Located on a quiet residential block in the Bensonhurst section of southwestern Brooklyn, the old New Utrecht Cemetery is a relic of a time when this locale was the heart of one of the six original towns of Brooklyn. The one-acre burial ground, at the corner of 16th Avenue and 84th Street, was established in 1654 when the Dutch settled the village of New Utrecht. The cemetery was centrally located on the village’s main thoroughfare (now 84th Street) and the town’s first house of worship, the New Utrecht Reformed Dutch Church, was constructed at its northeast corner in 1700. Although owned by the church, the cemetery was traditionally a community burial place where any inhabitant of New Utrecht could be buried regardless of religious affiliation.

A finely-carved, early tombstone at New Utrecht Cemetery, photographed ca. 1910 (BHS)

In 1828 the Reformed Dutch congregation tore down their building adjacent to the cemetery and built a new church two blocks away, at 84th Street and 18th Avenue, where it is today. In 1899, St. John’s German Lutheran Church (later Metropolitan Baptist Church) was erected where the Dutch church formerly stood; this building still stands at the northeast corner of the cemetery. Clustered closest to the church are the family plots of the earliest New Utrecht families, including the Van Brunts, Cortelyous, Cowenhovens, Cropseys, and Bennetts. Further from the building are plots for families who settled in the area in the 19th century a later—many with Scotch-Irish and Italian surnames. Behind the church is an unmarked area of the cemetery where American Revolutionary War soldiers are said to be buried. 

1896 newspaper clipping reporting John Hicks’ burial at New Utrecht Cemetery

In the northwest corner of the cemetery, near the intersection of 16th Avenue and 84th Street, is another section unmarked by gravestones. This is the old “slave burying ground,”  once fenced off the rest of the grounds, where members of the local African American community were buried into the 20th century. Though the names of most of those interred here are unknown, historical obituaries provide information for a few. Among them is John Hicks, a former slave of the Cortelyou family, buried “in that section set apart for colored people in the New Utrecht Cemetery” when he died in 1896. Also here is Anthony Thompson, who died in the Brooklyn Home for Aged Colored People in 1911 at age 98. Born enslaved at Paterson, New Jersey, Thompson escaped by running away at age 16, eventually settling in New Utrecht and fathering 13 children.

This photo from a 1900 newspaper article depicts the “slave burying ground” at the northwest corner of New Utrecht Cemetery

At the northeast corner of the cemetery is a large granite obelisk memorializing physicians James E. Dubois and John L. Crane, who died of yellow fever  while treating local victims of the disease during an 1856 epidemic. The seven-ton monument, which previously stood 18 feet high, broke off during Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and has lain on the ground since then. The townsmen of New Utrecht resolved to erect the monument at a meeting in December of 1856, where they made the following declaration:

That by the heroic courage and benevolence displayed by them in visiting all having the yellow fever, both rich and poor, until they were taken down themselves with that awful disease, thus sacrificing their own lives for their fellow suffers; resolved, therefore, that as they have endeared their memory to us, their neighbors and friends, we will erect a suitable monument to their many virtues.

Approximately 1,300 people have been interred in New Utrecht Cemetery during the past three centuries. Although the cemetery is still active, burials there are now rare.

View of New Utrecht Cemetery, May 2016 (Mary French)
A 2018 aerial view of New Utrecht Cemetery at 84th St and 16th Ave in Bensonhurst (NYCThen&Now)

View more photos of New Utrecht Cemetery

Sources: Reminiscences of Old New Utrecht and Gowanus (Bangs 1912); New Utrecht Reformed Dutch Church Cemetery Designation Report (Landmarks Preservation Commission 1998); “Respect to the Martyrs,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec 2, 1856;  “Burial of a Former Slave,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jun 17, 1896; “The Story of New Utrecht,”  Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Apr 1, 1900; “New Utrecht Village’s Old Dutch Burying Ground,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sep 23, 1900; “Old Church Graveyard in Sad State of Neglect,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec 24, 1905; “Obituary—Anthony Thompson,”  Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jun 1, 1911; “Stones in New Utrecht Cemetery Crumbling, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Mar 23, 1931; “A Burial Ground for the Mighty, Laid Low by Weeds,” New York Times, Dec 2, 2007

Cole Family Burial Ground

This detail from an 1853 map of southern Westchester county shows the Charles Darke and William O. Giles farms, properties that previously made up the the Jacob Cole estate. The Cole burial ground and vault was located at the southern end of Charles Darke’s farm.

In the summer of 1895, general contractor Charles W. Collins got a contract with the city for grading part of Boston Road in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx. His work proceeded smoothly and was almost complete when he encountered an unforeseen obstacle—a small graveyard, about 25 feet square, near what is today the intersection of Albany Crescent and Bailey Avenue. Containing several weather-beaten headstones and a ruined vault, the site was the burial place of between 40 and 50 members of the Cole, Schuyler, and Berrian families of Kingsbridge and Fordham. 

This burial place dated back to about 1820, when carpenter Jacob Cole acquired four acres of land near the junction of what was then Albany Post Road and Boston Post Road. By the 1840s, Jacob Cole’s property encompassed 52 acres between today’s Albany Crescent and West 238th Street. The burial ground, consisting mainly of a vault but with a few separate graves nearby, was situated at the south end of the Cole estate. Jacob Cole died in 1842, and in 1845 his son James and daughter-in-law Catherine sold the southern portion of the estate to Charles Darke, with an exception “reserving the vault for the use of descendants of Jacob Cole, deceased, twenty-two feet by forty feet.” Family members may have continued to use this burial place until the 1860s, afterward acquiring lots at Woodlawn Cemetery.

An 1867 property map (at left) shows the “Cole Grave Yard” on Charles Darke’s property; the 1873 topographical map at right depicts the burial vault.

The old Cole family burial vault, which was built into the slope of a hill and measured about 10 feet wide, 14 feet long, and 9 feet deep, first came to public attention in November of 1892 when heavy rainstorms caused the doorway to collapse and exposed the decayed and crumbling coffins to view. Children playing in the neighborhood discovered the open structure and carried off some of the skulls and bones. Descendants repaired the entrance to guard it against further vandalism, but their efforts would be short-term protection as it was only three years later that the site faced destruction.

When contractor Collins encountered the burial place during his roadway construction in 1895, he made arrangements with the city to remove the remains to St. Michael’s Cemetery in Queens. This plan incurred the wrath of Cornelius B. Schuyler (known as “the man that owns Kingsbridge” according to a New York Tribune article), who threatened to shoot anyone that dared to desecrate the final resting place of his ancestors. Mr. Schuyler was eventually pacified when assured that he could transfer the remains to the Schuyler plot in Woodlawn Cemetery.

On August 20, 1895, Mr. Collins, Mr. Schuyler, and a representative of the Board of Health met at the site to witness the work of the undertakers who removed the remains from the vault and graves. When the vault was opened, they found the stone walls had crumbled and the shelves on which the coffins had been placed had sagged towards the middle of the vault, where there was a pile of bones several feet high. A few coffin plates and a set of false teeth were found, which Mr. Schuyler pocketed. Two headstones marking the graves outside the vault were taken along with the remains to Woodlawn. They bore the names of Jacob Cole and Berrian and were dated 1835. After the removal the vault was demolished; today the site is under the roadbed of Albany Crescent.

A 2018 aerial view of the former site of the Cole family burial ground and vault (NYCThen&Now)

Sources: Map of the southern part of West-Chester County, N.Y. (Dripps 1853); Map of Property Situate in the Town of Yonkers Westchester Co NY belonging to Charles Darke, 1867 (Westchester County Clerk Map #Vol3 PG17); Topographical Map Made from Surveys by the Commissioners of the Department of Public Parks of the City of New York of that part of Westchester County adjacent to the City and County of New York…(Department of Parks 1873); Westchester County Conveyances, Vol 109 p25-27, “United States, New York Land Records, 1630-1975,” FamilySearch; “Skulls as Playthings,” Evening World, Nov 22, 1892; “An Old Burying Vault Disturbed, The Sun Nov 23, 1892; “Fifty in One Coffin,” New York Herald Sep 8, 1895; “An Old Graveyard Torn Up,” New York Tribune, Sep 8 1895; “An Old Graveyard Uncovered,” The Sun Sep 8, 1895; “Skeletons in the Kingsbridge Closet,” Riverdale, Kingsbridge, Spuyten Duyvil…(Tieck 1968); Cemeteries of the Bronx (Raftery 2016); “What Lies Beneath: Cemeteries of the Bronx,” Bronx County Historical Society exhibit, Oct 2017; Prepare for Death and Follow Me:”An Archaeological Survey of the Historic Period Cemeteries of New York City (Meade 2020)

88th Street Jewish Cemetery

An 1897 map shows the 88th Street Jewish Cemetery between Park and Madison Avenues

With the growth of New York City’s Jewish population and the increase in the number of synagogues, some two dozen Jewish graveyards were established in Manhattan between 1825 and the late 1840s. Most of these cemeteries were used for just a short time before their owners acquired new burial grounds at the large, rural Jewish cemeteries created in Brooklyn and Queens in the mid-1800s. By the turn of the century, the only Jewish cemeteries left in the city were those belonging to Shearith Israel, the city’s oldest Jewish congregation. In 1899, the last of Manhattan’s Jewish graveyards—excluding the Shearith Israel grounds—disappeared when “the old Jewish Cemetery” on 88th Street in Yorkville was removed.

This detail from an 1871 lot map shows the four lots that formed the 88th Street Jewish Cemetery. Shaare Zedek owned lots 282 & 283; Rodeph Sholom owned Lots 284 & 285

The cemetery originated in 1840, when Shaare Zedek (Gates of Righteousness)—a Polish Jewish congregation founded in 1837—acquired two lots on the south side of 88th Street, between present-day Park and Madison Avenues, as a burial place for their members. In 1842, a group of German Jews formed Rodeph Sholom (Pursuer of Peace) and in October of that same year acquired two lots adjoining Shaare Zedek’s. The conjoined burial grounds formed an 87-foot x 100-foot cemetery that was cooperatively managed by the two synagogues. In 1856, the sister congregations built a high, thick brick wall around the entire property and erected heavy iron gates at the cemetery’s entrance on 88th Street. At the time this enclosure was built to protect the 88th Street cemetery, Rodeph Sholom had discontinued burials here and was interring their dead at their new cemetery in Queens, Union Field. A few years later, Shaare Zedek established Bayside Cemetery in Queens and also ceased burials at the 88th Street cemetery.

An 1864 newspaper clipping reports a suicide at the 88th Street Jewish Cemetery

By the 1860s, the 88th Street Jewish Cemetery was inactive and soon fell into disrepair. In 1879, a reporter from the New York Times found the brick wall broken and crumbling and observed goats belonging to the neighborhood squatters nibbling the grass and lying on the toppled tombstones that crowded the grounds. Shaare Zedek’s trustees found a buyer for their part of the property in 1881 and made arrangements to remove the bodies, but their plans were defeated by the furious opposition of those with relatives buried there and by Rodeph Sholom’s refusal to sell the adjoining grounds. Finally, in 1899 the two congregations proceeded with the removals and sold their lots. In 1901, The Jewish Messenger announced that William B. Leeds had acquired the 88th Street Jewish cemetery property and planned to erect a private stable on the site. Today, Shaare Zedek and Rodeph Sholom worship at synagogues on the Upper West Side, and a condominium building is at the site of the old 88th Street Jewish Cemetery.

This 1899 Jewish Messenger clipping notes the removal of the 88th Street Jewish Cemetery and laments the loss of the city’s Jewish burial grounds.
A 2018 aerial view with arrow denoting the former site of the 88th Street Jewish Cemetery (NYCThen&Now)

Sources: Map of that part of the Harlem Commons east of the 5th Ave. & Central Park : copied from the original map made by Joseph F. Bridges, City Surveyor, January 1826… (Holmes 1871); Bromley’s 1897 Atlas of the city of New York, Pl 30; New York County Conveyances, Vol 408 p325-327, Vol 1601 p184-185, Vol 430 p153-154, Vol 850 p616-618, “United States, New York Land Records, 1630-1975,” FamilySearch; “The Clinton and Henry Street Congregations,” The Asmonean, Aug 22, 1856; “Suicide at a Graveyard,” The World, May 20, 1864; “Suicide,” The Jewish Messenger, May 27, 1864; “An Up-Town Cemetery,” The Jewish Messenger, Mar 7, 1879; “Some Old Grave-yards,” New York Times, May 18, 1879; “Selling a Cemetery, The Jewish Messenger, Jun 17, 1881; “Old Graves to be Disturbed,” The Sun, Nov 14, 1892; [No title], The Jewish Messenger, Feb 3, 1899; “Brevities,” The Jewish Messenger, Dec 14, 1900; “Finance and Trade, “ The Jewish Messenger, Apr 26, 1901; Laws of the State of New York, Passed at the One Hundred and Twenty-Third Session of the Legislature, Begun Jan 3rd 1900 and Ended April 6th 1900, Chap. 34; Rise of the Jewish Community of New York (Grinstein 1945); Within the Gates: A Religious, Social and Cultural History 1837-1962 (Monsky 1964);  Dust to Dust: A History of Jewish Death and Burial in New York (Amanik 2019); Our History – Congregation Shaare Zedek; Our History – Congregation Rodeph Sholom 

Mendelssohn Benevolent Society Cemetery

Snippet from the Mendelssohn Benevolent Society’s charter and by-Laws, 1914

From the time Jews first settled in colonial New York until well into the 19th century, synagogues had a monopoly on Jewish burials and controlled all the city’s Jewish graveyards. But as New York’s Jewish population grew from a few hundred residents in the 1820s to about 40,000 by mid-century, some new immigrants eschewed the synagogues to form independent groups that provided benefits to their members, including graves and funeral arrangements. One of the first of these was the Mendelssohn Benevolent Society, formed in 1841. The objectives of the Society included “mutual relief of the members thereof, and their families, when in sickness, want, and destitution or distress,” and to acquire “a suitable burial ground” and defray funeral and burial costs for members and their families. Membership was open to any Jewish male between the ages of 21 and 45, who was a resident of New York City and “in full possession of all his mental and physical faculties, and of good character.”

An 1871 map shows the three lots (delineated in red) Mendelssohn Benevolent Society acquired in 1845 on 87th Street, east of Fourth (now Park) Avenue. Only the strip along the eastern edge of the property was used for burials (approximate boundary denoted here by dashed line)

In May of 1845, Mendelssohn Benevolent Society purchased land on the south side of 87th Street, between today’s Park and Lexington Avenues, and used part of this property as the Society’s cemetery. Society members and their families were interred here until 1851 when the Society purchased new burial grounds at Salem Fields Cemetery in Brooklyn. In 1858, the Society sold their property on 87th Street, excluding the “strip of land running along the whole of the easterly side” of the premises, 21.2 feet fronting on 87th Street and 100.8 ½ feet in depth, which was reserved by the Mendelssohn Benevolent Society and their successors “for a burying ground forever.” As part of the transfer, the new owner agreed to build “a good and substantial fence” on the westerly side of the burial ground and “forever keep it in good repair.”

This entry from from one of the city’s Bodies in Transit registers records the removal of remains from Mendelssohn Benevolent Society Cemetery to Salem Fields in 1878

Mendelssohn Benevolent Society retained their cemetery on 87th Street until March of 1878 when they removed the remains to their plot at Salem Fields and sold the 21.2 ft x 100.8 ½ ft burial ground property.  Mendelssohn Benevolent Society was still active in 1941 when 400 people attended their 100th-anniversary dinner at the Hotel Astor. However, like the majority of organizations of its kind, the Society declined as members died off and were not replaced by a new generation and is now defunct.

A 2018 aerial view shows the site of the former Mendelssohn Benevolent Society Cemetery; arrow denotes approximate location (NYCThen&Now)

Sources: Map of that part of the Harlem Commons east of the 5th Ave. & Central Park : copied from the original map made by Joseph F. Bridges, City Surveyor, January 1826… (Holmes 1871); New York County Conveyances, Vol 465 p439-440, Vol 762 p621-624, Vol 1445 p407-408, Kings County Conveyances, Vol 285 p178-182, “United States, New York Land Records, 1630-1975,” FamilySearch; Bodies in Transit Register IX:1874-1880, Municipal Archives, City of New York; Mendelssohn Benevolent Society Charter and By-Laws, 1914; “Group Marks 100th Year,” New York Times, Oct 12, 1941; Rise of the Jewish Community of New York (Grinstein 1945); Dust to Dust: A History of Jewish Death and Burial in New York (Amanik 2019); Prepare for Death and Follow Me:”An Archaeological Survey of the Historic Period Cemeteries of New York City (Meade 2020)