New York City’s municipal Almshouse was under siege in the 1790s. The city was in a growth spurt that would double its population to 60,000 by the end of the decade; at the same time, it was ravaged by annual outbreaks of yellow fever. Though yellow fever endangered all New Yorkers (750 fell to it in 1795), the city’s poor were most susceptible to the disease. The rising number of indigent residents and ailing poor placed a strain on the crumbling, sixty-year-old Almshouse, which housed close to 800 people by 1795.
In response to this situation, the city opened a new, larger almshouse just north of the first Almshouse in City Hall Park and established a yellow fever hospital at Bellevue, along the East River north of the settled city. The city also found a new burial place for the poor, interred in grounds adjacent to the Almshouse since the 1750s. In August 1794, the Common Council ordered that the “Triangular Piece of Ground at the junction of the Post & Bloomingdale Roads be appropriated to the use of the Alms House for a Burying Ground.” A month later, the council directed that the hospital at Bellevue be permitted to bury their dead at this same site. The site became a graveyard for interment of paupers, the unknown, and those dying of contagious diseases.
The public burial ground at Post and Bloomingdale roads—the vicinity of present-day 26th Street between Fifth and Madison avenues—was used for just three years. Opposition to transporting the dead on the busy roads leading to the potter’s field compelled the city to discontinue its use in May 1797 and open a new public burial ground at what is now Washington Square Park. The abandoned potter’s field at Post and Bloomingdale roads transferred to the United States government for an arsenal in 1806; later it was the location of the House of Refuge for juvenile delinquents. In 1847, the site was leveled, sodded, and enclosed to create Madison Square Park.
Though the burial ground was used only for a short period, hundreds of people likely were interred there during this calamitous time. Some burials were disinterred when the U.S. government built a powder-and-shot magazine at the site; in 1808, L’Oracle (one of the city’s early 19th century newspapers)reported that “persons employed in digging the foundation of the Magazine in the Old Potter’s Field daily dig up coffins and dead bodies which are disposed of in the most indecent and disrespectful manner.” On several occasions in the early 20th century, construction workers uncovered human remains at the north end of the park during excavations for sewer lines and water pipes. Burials may still be present beneath the park.
Sources: Randel’s 1820 Farm Maps, No. 14; Minutes of the Common Council of the City of New York, 1784-1831 (City of New York 1917), 2:92, 102, 351, 365; Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York (Valentine 1856), 465; The Iconography of Manhattan Island: 1498-1909 (Stokes 1915-1928), 5:1313, 1474, 1494; Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital (Oshinsky 2016), 11-28; “Twenty Dollars Reward” [Notice], New York Evening Post, Apr 8 1809; “Park Once Potter’s Field, New York Times, July 11, 1908; “Unearth Skeleton in Park,” New York Times, Sep 11, 1930.
In the early 1730s, the growing city of New York—then about 9,000 people clustered at the south end of Manhattan—was grappling with the problem of poverty. The “Number and Continual Increase of the Poor within this City is very great and Exceeding burthensome to the Inhabitants thereof,” the Common Council reported in 1734, necessitating construction of a municipal poorhouse, or almshouse. The Almshouse opened in 1736 on the Commons, a triangular piece of communal pastureland at what was then the northern edge of the city. The Almshouse served as a shelter for the poor who were unable to work due to old age or illness and a workhouse/house of corrections for impoverished people considered able to work but “living Idly and unimployed,” as well as “all disorderly persons, parents of Bastard Children, Beggars, Servants running away or otherwise misbehaving themselves, Trespassers, Rogues, [and] Vagabonds.”
Along with housing the sick, impoverished widows, and orphans, the Almshouse put the idle back to work and incarcerated criminals. Inmates (the term used to refer to residents of all public institutions during this time period) received clothing and followed strict daily schedules consisting of meals, prayer, and work (carding wool, making buttons, shredding old rope for reuse, or raising garden crops). In 1785, the Almshouse had 301 inmates—63 men, 133 women, 50 boys, 49 girls, and “2 Black Men & 4 Black Women.” Stays ranged from a day up to the death of an inmate.
Over the course of the 18th century, the Commons became the site of a number of other public buildings including the Gaol, or Jail, completed in 1759, east of the Almshouse; the Bridewell, a prison built in 1775 west of the Almshouse; and the Barracks, four structures constructed at the north end of the Commons beginning in 1757 to house soldiers. Areas surrounding these buildings were used as institutional burial grounds. A fenced burial place for deceased Almshouse inmates was established in 1757 “to the Eastward of and adjoining to the fence of the said Work House, of the Length of two Boards.” Apparently this graveyard was filled by 1785, when the Keeper of the Almshouse requested new grounds for this purpose and the city ordered that vacant ground “in the rear of the Barracks” be used for interment of those dying in the Almshouse and the Bridewell.
In 1797, the city built a new almshouse just north of the first almshouse, which was demolished at that time. In 1803, City Hall was erected on the site the first Almshouse, and the Commons began to transform into today’s City Hall Park, located just south of Chambers Street, between Broadway and Centre streets. In 1816, the poor were relocated to a complex at Bellevue and the second Almshouse building was used a cultural center until it was demolished in 1857; it is now the site of Tweed Courthouse. As the Commons changed from an area of social welfare, penal institutions, and military housing to the seat of local government, the Almshouse burial grounds vanished beneath City Hall Park. Long thought to have been obliterated by two centuries of construction activity, the forgotten burial grounds reappeared during archaeological work connected with recent renovation projects.
More than 50 graves, and disturbed human remains representing at least 200 more individuals, have been found in the north section of City Hall Park since the late 1990s and are believed to be associated with the first Almshouse and the Commons’ other 18th-century institutions. Intact burials were left in place during the excavations, protected to prevent disturbance and covered over again; they rest under the lawns and paved areas near City Hall and Tweed Courthouse. Disturbed burials and fragmentary human remains were collected, analyzed, and eventually reburied in the northeastern corner of the park near Chambers and Centre streets.
Analysis of the skeletal remains suggests people consistent with the Almshouse population—most appear to be of European ancestry; males and females, young and old adults, infants and children are all represented; and many show the traces of lives spent in hard work, poorly healed fractures, and pathologies caused by illness or poor nutrition. These discoveries provide a view of an overlooked segment of society—those unfortunate and unruly early New Yorkers laid to rest in the Almshouse burial grounds, souls no longer forgotten.
Several cemeteries in Queens have intriguing features hidden within them—small burial grounds that predate the cemeteries in which they are nestled. These earlier graveyards were on family estates acquired by religious and non-denominational corporations that assembled swathes of land to form new, large-scale cemeteries in the second half of the 19th century.
Estate owners tried to protect their family burial grounds with covenants in wills and deeds that exempted them from property transfers and directed that they be preserved intact. Three of these early burial grounds are located within the boundaries of Calvary and Mount Zion cemeteries in western Queens, and hold the remains of some of the pioneer settlers of Newtown, the historic township that comprised much of the area. These are the burial places of the Alsops, Cumbersons, and Betts, families of English origin who had neighboring farms in Newtown and were prominent in local events and public life during the colonial period and later, but disappeared from the area as their estates were broken up and sold off.
Alsop Family Burial Ground
In 1691, Richard Alsop inherited a sizeable estate along Newtown Creek upon the death of his uncle, Thomas Wandell. Wandell created the estate through acquisition of a 100-acre plantation originally granted to Richard Brutnell in 1643, and adding to it 50 acres patented in 1652 to Richard Colfax. Succeeding his uncle, Richard Alsop resided on what became known as the Alsop farm until his death in 1718, living in the home his uncle had built on the north shore of Newtown Creek. Alsop was buried on the crown of a hill near the house—the same spot where his uncle had been laid to rest in 1691, and a site where Alsop’s descendants would be buried for over 170 years.
Richard Alsop’s offspring became distinguished in the legal profession and mercantile life; his son Richard (1695-1764), a justice of the peace, took over the paternal farm at Newtown. One of Richard Alsop II’s sons, also Richard (1730-1790), a highly respected and influential citizen of Newtown who served in the magistracy for many years, inherited the estate next. Richard III’s son, John Alsop (1779-1837), succeeded as owner of the Alsop farm; in 1845, his widow sold the property—then consisting of about 115 acres—to the Trustees of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The Trustees secured the land to establish a new cemetery for Manhattan’s Roman Catholic population. The Alsop farm became the original section of Calvary Cemetery, known as Old Calvary, bounded today by the Long Island Expressway, Laurel Hill Boulevard, Review Avenue, and Greenpoint Avenue. When Mrs. Ann Alsop sold the farm to the Trustees, the agreement provided that the Alsop family burial ground would remain inviolate and the Trustees have maintained it to this day.
The Alsop Family Burial Ground is situated in the southeastern part of Old Calvary where it is enclosed—and separated from the consecrated grounds that surround it—by a metal fence. Some two dozen gravemarkers still stand in the 75×54 foot plot, including several brownstone monuments with the winged death’s head motif common on colonial gravestones. The oldest headstone in the plot marks the grave of the first Richard Alsop (d. 1718), the progenitor of the Newtown Alsops; his wife Hannah, who survived him by 39 years, rests beside him. A large granite obelisk commemorates the final family members interred here: William Alsop (d. 1883), the last known direct descendant, and his wife Sarah Leaird Alsop, who died in 1889. The old Alsop mansion, built by Thomas Wandell ca. 1651, stood within the boundaries of Old Calvary until 1880, when it was demolished as Calvary laid out the grounds for gravesites.
Cumberson Family Burial Ground
By the 1870s, much of Old Calvary Cemetery was full and church authorities began purchasing large parcels of land east of the original cemetery to accommodate more burials; these tracts would come to form New Calvary Cemetery, which stretches from Queens Boulevard to 55th Avenue in three divisions. Among the land that became part of the north end of New Calvary is a portion of an estate established by Thomas Cumberson in 1761 on the west side of the Road to English Kills (58th Street), near present-day Queens Boulevard. The Cumberson farm is the scene of a vivid account in Riker’s 1852 Annals of Newtown, which details an attempted robbery of Thomas Cumberson’s home by deserting British soldiers during the military occupation of Newtown from 1776 to 1783. The episode ends with Cumberson mortally wounding one of the robbers, who soldiers buried in the woods at the north end of the farm. The Cumberson home was rebuilt after the Revolution, and stood at today’s 58th Street near 43rd Avenue until it was torn down in 1915.
Thomas Cumberson’s son and successor to the estate, the second Thomas Cumberson (1775-1849), seems to have created the small burial ground just south of the Cumberson home that was used by his family during the first half of the 1800s. In 1848, Cumberson authorized in his will that his heirs could sell his farm but not the graveyard at the southern end of the property; he devised and bequeathed the burial ground to his children and grandchildren, and to their heirs and assigns, to be kept and used by them as a burial place and for no other purpose.
An 1887 article in the Newtown Register describes a visit to the “lonely little cemetery” of the second Thomas Cumberson, who was “remembered by his neighbors as a man of cultivated mind and of singular powers of memory in treasuring up the traditions of Newtown.” The handful of tombstones included those to “Thomas Cumberson, who died March 31, 1849, aged 74,” “Hannah Cumberson, wife of Thomas Cumberson, who died November 1, 1847,” “In memory of Jane Cumberson, who died October 25, 1829, aged 16 years, 8 months, 21 days,” “Frances Jane Cumberson, daughter of Peregrine and Frances Cumberson, died July 24, 1848, aged 13 years,” and “Sacred to the memory of Peregrine Cumberson, who departed this life October 29, 1834, aged 34 years.”
Today, no tombstones remain in the Cumberson Family Burial Ground, located at the southwest corner of 58th Street and Queens Boulevard. The descendants of the first Thomas Cumberson, who established the farm in 1761, held a reunion in the late 1880s; of the 200 present, only one bore the Cumberson name. The Cumberson’s are now extinct in the area and those at rest in the tiny, unmarked preserve at the northeast corner of New Calvary Cemetery are the only link to the family’s history in old Newtown.
Betts Family Burial Ground
Just south of the Cumberson farm, on the opposite side of today’s 58th Street, was the 120-acre estate founded by Captain Richard Betts in 1656. Betts built his home on the east side of the Road to English Kills and north of the Road to Newtown (later Penny Bridge Road and then Borden Ave), at what is now the northeast corner of 58th Street and 54th Avenue. An extensive landholder active in public affairs, Capt. Betts was an influential figure in Newtown’s history. A zealous revolutionist against the Dutch, he held a number of provincial government positions under English rule, including a 1678 commission as “High Sheriff of Yorkshire upon Long Island.” He left large landed possessions to his children and his descendants occupied portions of the paternal estate into the early 20th century.
Capt. Betts was 100 years old when he died in 1713; legend has it a few days before he died he dug his own grave in the family burial ground near his home. Both the site of the old Betts house and the family graveyard are now within Mount Zion Cemetery, part of land purchased by developers in the 1890s to establish a cemetery to accommodate the burial needs of the city’s burgeoning Jewish immigrant population. The Betts house is long gone, but the burial ground lies secluded on a gently sloping hill in the southwestern part of Mount Zion.
About 30 headstones survive in the roughly 85×65 foot plot, which includes an old right-of-way (no longer used) to 54th Avenue. No headstone is here for the grave of the illustrious Capt. Betts, its absence possibly accounted for by the fact that his sons were members in the Society of Friends and early Quakers didn’t allow tombstones. Three rough stones containing only initials and dates are the oldest in the burial ground—these identify the graves of Capt. Betts’ grandson Daniel Betts (d. 1759), his wife Mary Betts (d. 1757), and their son Daniel Betts (d. 1762). Most of the graves in the plot are marked with white marble tombstones commemorating family members who occupied the estate in the 19th century, the most recent marker dating to 1885.
Sources: Riker’s 1852 Map of Newtown Long Island; Beers 1873 Atlas of Long Island, Pl 52 ;The Annals of Newtown (Riker 1852), 212-214, 334-338, 373-378; History of Queens County (Munsell 1882, 340); Description of Private and Family Cemeteries in the Borough of Queens (Powell & Meigs 1932), 66-68, 70-71 & Supplement 1975, 5-7; 300 Years of Long Island City (Seyfried 1984), 76, 179, 183; Woodside: A Historical Perspective (Gregory 1994), 5-9; “The Catholic Cemeteries of New York,” Historical Records and Studies 1 (1899), 375-377; Wills of Real Estate, Queens County, Liber, 1845-1849 (Case 1940), 65; “Personal—Alsop,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jan 26, 1880; “Relics of Long Ago,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Apr 25, 1880, 1; “The Last of the Alsops,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Mar 1, 1889, 6; “A Protestant Burial Ground Maintained by Catholics,” New York Times, Apr 12, 1950; “Walks Through Old Cemeteries in Newtown,” Newtown Register, Nov 11, 1875; “Walks Through Old Cemeteries,” Newtown Register, March 15 1877, 4; “Old Newtown and Its Confines,” Newtown Register, Jun 30, 1887, 8; “Many Points of Interest in Queens Co.,” Daily Star, Oct 3, 1917, 8.
In October 1888, a Brooklyn Daily Eagle reporter visited an apartment on the fourth floor of a tenement building near the Brooklyn riverfront. “In a corner sat a young woman with an old face,” writes the reporter, “not an unusual sight to be seen in the more thickly-settled or poorer parts of Brooklyn.” The woman’s daughter, a girl a little over a year old, had died the night before and was lying on a bed nearby, where her body was tended by a group of neighbor women. The mother’s “grief was not of the distressing kind, yet she stared into vacancy and was apparently oblivious of what was passing around her.” Her husband was in prison serving a sentence for assaulting a man while drunk; she had been supporting herself and her daughter by taking in washing. When her child died she was destitute, so she applied to the Commissioner of Charities for a permit to have her daughter buried by Kings County. Soon the county undertaker came with a little pine box and the mother was asked to take leave of her child, which she did in an undemonstrative way. The neighbors went home and the mother was left alone in her apartment as the coffin was carried off for burial at the Kings County potter’s field in Flatbush. “It was nothing new, this scene,” our witness remarks. “Such episodes are of daily occurrence in a great city like Brooklyn.”
Until 1824, individual towns within New York State were required to care for their residents who did not have the means to support themselves financially. In 1824, this changed when the legislature passed an act requiring the care of the indigent poor be addressed at the county level. In 1830, the Kings County Board of Supervisors purchased land at Flatbush for erecting a poorhouse, or almshouse, for the indigent of Kings County. By the mid-19th century, this property—known as the County Farm—included the almshouse, as well as a hospital, nursery, and lunatic asylum. The buildings stood along Clarkson Avenue, facing toward Canarsie Bay. At the east end of the County Farm was the potter’s field. This was the burial place for those dying in the county’s public institutions, as well as those brought from the city of Brooklyn for burial by order of the of Charities Commissioner.
The Kings County cemetery, originally a few acres at the far eastern end of the 67-acre tract, expanded over time, progressing westward so that the cemetery eventually took up the entire eastern section of the County Farm from about East 45th Street to the property boundary near Utica Avenue. In the 1860s there were over 500 annual interments and the original three-acre burial ground was so overcrowded that the Board of Health was called in to investigate complaints that it posed a danger to the health of the community. Their examination “revealed a condition of things which is disgraceful to Kings County and should not and would not have been tolerated up to this time, had it been generally known.” The manner of burial within the cemetery was “of itself sufficiently revolting to necessitate a reform.” Large pits were dug, each about 12 feet square and 12 feet deep, in which coffins were stacked one on top of another, averaging 250 bodies to each pit. Gravediggers—inmates from the almshouse that were assigned to this duty—sprinkled a thin layer of dirt over the coffins as they stacked them, leaving the pit open until it was full—usually taking four to five months—when it was finally covered with about four feet of earth. The only record kept of those buried in each pit was a numbered ticket corresponding with a number on each coffin for all persons 13 years of age and older. No record was kept of children, whose coffins were unnumbered and their remains unidentified.
Conditions at the potter’s field were no better in 1874, when a committee of the Kings County Board of Supervisors testified, “Nothing occurred in the course of our investigation which more surprised and disgusted us than to learn of the manner in which, for many years past, the dead have been buried at the public burial ground. It is hard to conceive how the minds of public officials could have become so deadened to all sense of decency as to permit the bodies of human beings to be disposed of in the manner which the evidence taken by your Committee proves to have been the case at Flatbush … To say that they are buried like dogs would fall far short of a correct use of language; for, with however little respect these animals are usually buried, they are but rarely consigned in large numbers to the same common pit.”
By October 1888, when the above-mentioned Daily Eagle correspondent accompanied the young girl’s body to the King’s County potter’s field to observe her interment, the situation had improved. Pits were no longer used; bodies were buried in graves, each containing three or four bodies, with the top body five feet below the surface. Pine boards were placed above each grave, marked with the numbers of the coffins beneath; each body, including children, had a number to correspond to the burial books kept in the almshouse. In some areas of the graveyard plain white crosses identified the names of those beneath. A single marble headstone stood in the cemetery, marking the grave of a child.
The Kings County cemetery was used until about 1914 when the state acquired the County Farm and its buildings from the city and the complex became known as Long Island State Hospital. In 1917, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that the remains of the estimated 50,000 individuals interred in the potter’s field were disinterred and removed to a burial ground on North Brother Island; hospital buildings and other structures were built over the site, which is now the Kingsboro Psychiatric Center. In August 2017, construction workers repairing sewers near the grounds of the psychiatric center found human remains about 13 feet underground. The skull, arm and leg bones, unearthed at Clarkson Avenue by East 48th Street, are believed to be from the long-forgotten potter’s field.
Sources: Robinson’s 1890 Atlas of Kings County Pl 29; Fairchild Cemetery Manual (1910), 77; “Kings County Board of Supervisors,” New York Times, Aug 6, 1862; “Our County Institutions,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Mar 12, 1868; “How Our Paupers are Buried,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jun 11, 1869; “Sick Paupers,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sep 19, 1874; “Our Poor,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec 16, 1874; “Paupers,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sept 16, 1880; “The Burial of a Pauper,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Oct 21, 1888; “Metz Wants Pauper Bodies Cremated,” Brooklyn Standard Union, May 13, 1906; “Potters Field Burials In a Growing Section,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jun 9, 1912; “New Street Invades Paupers’ Graveyard,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Aug 22, 1913; “State Owns Hospital Now,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Aug 14, 1914; “Keeper of God’s Acre Soon to Lose Place, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jul 1, 1917; “Human Remains Found During Sewer Repairs Near Brooklyn Psychiatric Hospital,” Brooklyn Daily Aug 21 2017; “Human Bones Found by Construction Workers in Brooklyn,” amNewYork Aug 23 2017; Phase IA Archaeological Documentary Study, CAMBA Gardens, 560 Winthrop Street, Brooklyn, New York (Historical Perspectives, Inc., 2013)
In 1836, members of the Methodist Episcopal Church of the City of New York established a church on property owned by the society on 18th Street, west of 8th Avenue. The church was erected on a site known as the “old Chelsea burying ground,” where, it was said, villagers had long been buried. Shortly after dedicating their new house of worship on 18th Street, the society built a number of burial vaults in the grounds surrounding the church. These were used by church members and residents of the rapidly growing neighborhood of Chelsea, and became a source of considerable income for the church. Approximately 500 bodies were interred in the vaults between 1836 and 1851, when a city ordinance forbade further burials below 86th Street.
The churchyard of the 18th Street Methodist Church consisted of a strip of land, 100 x 50 feet, running from the back of the church to 19th Street, and an additional 50 x 20 foot plot on the southeast corner behind the church parsonage. It contained 64 vaults, including large public vaults used by licenses, and smaller, private vaults acquired by deed. The vaults were “splendidly built of brickwork throughout;” the entrance to some was by a door on the side; to others admittance was gained by lifting a slab on top. In an 1886 article in the Evening Post, a Chelsea resident describes a funeral he attended in the 18th Street churchyard during the summer of 1849, when a neighbor and her and child died during a cholera epidemic of that year. “I do not remember in what vault the young mother, with her babe asleep upon her quiet bosom, was laid away,” he recalled, “but I remember going down some steps that were green and slimy with the breath of decay, and looking with awe-struck curiosity at the contents of some shelves that were already occupied by crumbling tenants.”
By the 1880s, the members of the 18th Street Methodist Church viewed their defunct vault yard with disfavor, considering it unused land that could be a source of revenue. The trustees of the church, a young, “vigorous and business-like” group with no sentimental attachment to a generation that had long since passed away, in 1882 offered a resolution to remove the dead from the vaults in the strip of land extending from the rear of the church to 19th Street. Although many of the vault owners initially resisted the plan to clear out the vaults and sell the ground, by 1886 the Trustees had obtained consent to proceed with the disinterments and the bodies were removed to plots at Woodlawn and Cypress Hills cemeteries. After the removals, the church sold the section of the property fronting on 19th street for $26,000 and townhouses were built there. It’s not known when or if the bodies from the smaller plot to the rear of the parsonage, or the bodies from the earlier Chelsea Village burial ground, were ever removed from the church grounds.
The 18th Street Church continued as a place of worship for the Methodists in the Chelsea section until 1945, when they merged with the Metropolitan-Duane Methodist Church at 7th Avenue and 13th Street and subsequently sold their property on 18th street. During demolition of the church in 1950, workmen unearthed eleven human skulls and several dozen arm and leg bones when digging belong the surface of the lot. No evidence of the old vaults was reported at that time; the remains, which were found in a large pile in the ground, likely were left behind during the earlier removals. A six-story apartment building sits atop the site today.
Sources: Dripps’ 1852 Map of the City of New-York extending northward to Fiftieth St; The History of the Charter Church of New York Methodism, Eighteenth Street, 1835-1885 (Force 1885); “Their Ancestor’s Bones,” New York Times, Jan 22 1882; “The City’s Old Graveyards,” The Chronicle (Mt Vernon NY), Aug 25 1882; “Opening a Charnel House,” New York Herald, Nov 15 1886; “Emptying a Graveyard,” Daily Graphic, Nov 16 1886; “A Tour Around New York,” Evening Post, Dec 15 1886; “Skulls Unearthed in Old Churchyard,” New York Times Mar 25 1950