The first Quakers arrived in New Amsterdam in 1657, where they were swiftly driven out by Governor Peter Stuyvesant’s religious intolerance. Some found refuge in English settlements in the countryside of Long Island and held meetings in a number of villages there. In the city, however, Quakers were not welcome until after British conquest in 1664. The earliest Quaker group to worship in Manhattan built their meetinghouse in 1696 on Green Street (now Liberty Place).
By the early 19th century the New York City Friends were a powerful minority among the state’s Quakers. They were generally wealthier than their country counterparts, and urban influences caused a shift in doctrinal beliefs that put them at odds with the traditional Quaker principles practiced by the rural Friends on Long Island. In 1828, a split arose out of these ideological and socioeconomic tensions. Elias Hicks led the traditionalists of Long Island and elsewhere, who became known as Hicksites. The more urban, wealthier Friends became known as Orthodox Quakers. Members of both branches established meetinghouses in Manhattan and in the city of Brooklyn.
Manhattan’s pioneer Quakers buried their deceased members in a graveyard attached to their meetinghouse on Green Street; in 1796 the Society of Friends established a new Quaker burial ground on Houston Street where they transferred remains from their original graveyard. In the city of Brooklyn, where Friends held meetings beginning in the 1830s, the Quaker dead were interred at Wallabout, a public cemetery near Fort Greene that had allotments for the different religious denominations. The Friends Cemetery located in today’s Prospect Park, Brooklyn, is a continuation of these earlier Quaker burial grounds.
Around 1840, the Friends of New York and Brooklyn purchased nine acres of undeveloped farmland on the Coney Island Plank Road in Brooklyn for a new Quaker cemetery. Remains from the Friends cemeteries on Houston Street and at Wallabout were transferred here and by 1846 it was open for new interments. The burial ground was divided into two unequal sections—a smaller area for Orthodox Friends and the larger remaining section for the Hicksites—and free plots were assigned to member families.
In the early 1860s, Brooklyn’s civic leaders moved to create an urban park comparable to the newly-created Central Park in Manhattan. Commissioners acquired 585 acres of forest and farmland that were transformed into Prospect Park, which opened in 1867. The preexisting Friends Cemetery was located within the boundaries of the land laid out for Prospect Park and was retained as a private property of the Society of Friends to be used as their burial ground in perpetuity. In the 1950s the two branches of Quakers—Orthodox and Hicksite—reunited and today the New York Quarterly Meeting (NYQM) is the organizational body of the Friends of Manhattan and Brooklyn. The NYQM owns the Friends Cemetery in Prospect Park, the only active Quaker burial ground in New York City. Rarely open to the public, the cemetery is enclosed by a fence and protected by a locked gate just off the park’s Center Drive.
Though some 3,500 individuals may be buried here, there are far fewer tombstones marking the site—early Quakers didn’t allow tombstones, their unmarked graves in keeping with the faith’s principle of humility. When markers began to be used, they were simple and modest. The earliest gravestones in theProspect Park cemetery date to the 1820s, and likely represent individuals transferred from earlier burial grounds. Among those buried in the cemetery are Brooklyn Borough President Raymond Ingersoll, who died in 1940, and Mary McDowell, a Brooklyn public school teacher who was fired by the Board of Education when she refused to sign a loyalty oath in support of World War I because it conflicted with her Quaker principles. The most well-known grave in the Friends Cemetery is that of Hollywood actor Montgomery Clift, who died in New York City in 1966 at age 45; he was interred here because his mother was a Quaker.
Sources: Dripps 1852 Map of Kings and Part of Queens Counties, Long Island N.Y.; Hyde 1903 Atlas of the Borough of Brooklyn, Vol 1, Pl 19; Copy of the Original Register of Interments in the Friends’ Cemetery in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, New York, to May 1906 (NYHS 1906); Inscriptions in the Friends’ Cemetery Prospect Park, Brooklyn, New York, Hicksite & Orthodox Branches (Haviland 1906); Fairchild Cemetery Manual (1910), 57; Encyclopedia of New York City, 2nd ed. (Jackson et al 2010), 1062; “Here They Rest in Peace,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jun 3 17, 1894; “The Cemetery in the Park,” New York Tribune, Sep 6, 1896; “Secluded Field in Park Is Friends’ Burial Plot,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec 25, 1910; “Simple Rites Held in Park for Ingersoll,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Feb 26, 1940; “Neighborhood Report: Prospect Park/Park Slope. He’s Here for Eternity, but Don’t Ask Where,” New York Times, Sep 27, 1998; “Brooklyn Quakers to Perform Play in Prospect Park Cemetery,” New York Daily News, Jun 26, 2008; NYQM Cemetery (New York Quarterly Meeting); History of Brooklyn Monthly Meeting (Brooklyn Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends)
A keen-eyed observer passing by one of the buildings of the Lambert Houses, a massive, low-income residential complex near the Bronx Zoo, will find an odd detail. Bolted to the 1970s-era, orange-brick structure at the corner of Boston Road and East 180th Street is a mangled metal sign, its faded hand-painted lettering offering guidance to “West Farms Soldier Cemetery, Bronx Landmark, 1 Block West.”How and why this marker was placed on one of the megastructures at this troubled complex is a mystery—and one that will be lost as the Lambert Houses are currently being demolished and redeveloped. In any case, this curious public notice offers a delightful link between the modern, urban Bronx neighborhood of West Farms and the old rural village that is its namesake.
Located at the corner of East 180th Street and Bryant Avenue, the burial ground known today as West Farms Soldier Cemetery is an oasis of calm near the edge of the Lambert Houses. Although 40 veterans of four wars—the War of 1812, the Civil War, the Spanish American War, and World War I—are interred here, the soldiers are only a part of a long a varied history of this cemetery, which served as a churchyard and a community cemetery beginning in the early 19th century.
In 1814, the trustees of the First Presbyterian Church of West Farms—then a “flourishing little village” of about 300 inhabitants, located 12 miles from New York City at the head of the Bronx River—acquired two parcels of land on Samuel Street (now 180th Street) to establish a church. The church, surrounded by a graveyard, was built in 1815 atop a hill on the north side of Samuel Street, about 200 feet west of the old Boston Post Road. The trustees designated part of the second parcel of land, located on the south side of Samuel Street, “a graveyard for strangers and black slaves.”
As West Farms began to grow in the 1820s, John Butler acquired a parcel on the east side of the Presbyterian churchyard to establish a larger cemetery to serve the West Farms community. Butler subdivided this parcel into burial lots that he sold directly to buyers. Though originally two separate burial grounds, over time Butler’s cemetery and the adjoining Presbyterian graveyard came to be seen as one site.By the early 20th century, some 200 individuals had been buried in the West Farms Cemetery, including 35 Civil War veterans. Most distinguished of these is Captain William J. Rasberry, who led his men into the Battle of Cedar Creek, Virginia, and died there, in 1864. The Rasberry family lived along what is today East 178th Street in West Farms.
The area surrounding West Farms Cemetery had developed into a bustling urban community by the early 1900s. With the changing times, the West Farms Presbyterian Church abandoned its hilltop sanctuary and moved to a new building constructed on the church-owned lot on the opposite side of 180th Street. This building, Beck Memorial Presbyterian Church, still stands today.The original church building was used as a gymnasium and recreation hall until it was destroyed by fire in 1948.
Grading and widening of streets in West Farms during the first decade of the 20th century disturbed graves in the cemetery next to the old Presbyterian church building as well as in the forgotten paupers’ burial ground on the south side of East 180th Street. When the public learned that soldiers graves were being neglected and desecrated in the West Farms Cemetery, a committee was founded to protect the site. The committee re-dedicated the cemetery as the West Farms Soldier Cemetery in 1910, and raised funds to improve the property, erect a Civil War monument, and have soldiers’ remains transferred to West Farms from burial grounds at Fort Schuyler and from the Potter’s Field at Hart Island. The final interment at the West Farms Cemetery, of World War I veteran Valeriano J. Tolosa, took place in 1929. The city assumed possession of the cemetery in 1954 and designated it a historic landmark in 1967.Today the roughly one-acre site, surrounded by an eight-foot-high iron fence, is under the care of the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation.
Sources: Beers’ 1868 Atlas of New York and Vicinity, Pl. 13; Hyde’s 1901 Atlas of the borough of the Bronx, Vol. 2, Pl. 8; The Story of The Bronx (Jenkins 1912), 281, 392; The Borough of the Bronx…(Cook 1913), 143-145; “Description of West-Farms,” Daily National Intelligencer, Apr 28, 1813;“Workmen Unearth Skeletons,” New York Times, Jun 19, 1900; “Harlem and the Bronx,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jun 26, 1900; “Dug Up Human Bones,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Aug 16, 1900; “Harlem and the Bronx,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sep 14, 1900; “Cutting Through a Cemetery,” New York Times, Sep 16, 1900; “Robbed of His Grave,” New York Times, Mar 5, 1909; “Veterans at Unveiling,” New York Tribune, May 30, 1910; “Take Soldier Dead from Pauper Field,” New York Times, May 29, 1916; “134 Year Old Building of Bronx Church Burns,” New York Times, Jan 11, 1948; “City Will Acquire Soldier Cemetery,” New York Times, May 6, 1954; Old West Farms Soldier Cemetery Designation Report (Landmarks Preservation Commission 1967); Archaeological Monitoring at the Old West Farms Soldier Cemetery (Parsons Engineering 2000); “What Lies Beneath: Cemeteries of the Bronx,” Bronx County Historical Society exhibit, Oct 2017; Cemeteries of the Bronx (Raftery 2016), 267-280
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.