When English Quakers arrived in New Netherland in 1657, they were unwelcome among the Dutch but found acceptance in some of the English settlements on Long Island, especially at Flushing in present-day Queens. Soon many were holding Quaker meetings in their homes, attracting the attention of Dutch civil authorities. When Governor Peter Stuyvesant issued an order forbidding colonists to allow Quakers into their houses, Flushing town leaders delivered the Flushing Remonstrance, one of the earliest documents proclaiming religious freedom in America. In 1662, Stuyvesant arrested John Bowne, a prominent figure in Flushing’s Quaker community, for holding services in his home. Bowne successfully appealed to the Dutch West India Company and Stuyvesant was ordered to permit all faiths to worship freely. With religious toleration now the law of the colony, Flushing’s Quakers could hold their services without fear of disturbance and continued to meet at Bowne’s house twice a week for thirty years.
In 1676 Bowne provided land for a burial ground for Flushing’s Quaker community, and in 1694 a meetinghouse was built on land adjacent to the Quaker cemetery. For more than 300 years, the Flushing Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends has worshipped at this old meetinghouse, situated at 137-16 Northern Boulevard in what is now a bustling commercial area in downtown Flushing. The cemetery, located behind the wood-shingled meetinghouse, is the oldest Quaker burial ground in New York City and is the final resting place for many early Quakers and prominent local families, including the Bownes, Hicks, Farringtons, and Lawrences.
No one knows how many are buried in the one-acre graveyard since there are no burial records and the early Quakers didn’t allow tombstones—their unmarked graves in keeping with the faith’s principle of humility. When markers began to be used in the 19th century, they were designed to be simple and modest—typically small, plain stones with little more than a name or initials. About 130 tombstones are visible in the graveyard today, recording individuals who died between the 1820s and the 1890s, when the cemetery closed to new interments. After a period of neglect, the graveyard is now nicely maintained and blooms with indigenous flowers and bushes. Old elm trees and oaks shade the perimeter and help set the place apart from the teeming urbanism that surrounds it. This peaceful oasis is a reminder of a time when Flushing was a leading center of American Quakerism and the nation’s struggle for religious freedom.
By the 1840s, the enormous increase in New York’s Catholic population had exhausted all available space in existing Catholic cemeteries in Manhattan and Brooklyn. To meet the necessity, the Archdiocese of New York opened Calvary Cemetery in Queens in 1848 as a new burial ground for Manhattan’s Catholics and, a year later, established Holy Cross Cemetery to serve the Catholic community of the city of Brooklyn. Since 1822, when the first Catholic church in Brooklyn was founded, Brooklyn’s Catholics had been buried in parish churchyards or in the Catholic section of Wallabout Cemetery, a public cemetery near Fort Greene that had allotments for the different religious denominations. Holy Cross Cemetery began with the purchase of 17 acres in the town of Flatbush in Kings County and had 6,000 interments in its first year of operation. After years of expansion, it now entails 96 acres of land and is the final resting place of over 500,000 people.
Unlike Calvary Cemetery, which is set among the rolling hills along the Brooklyn-Queens border, the landscape of Holy Cross Cemetery is “a surface as level from one end to another as an Illinois prairie,” as it was aptly described by Brooklyn historian Henry Stiles in 1870. Situated today in the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn, the cemetery is a roughly rectangular expanse bordered by Brooklyn and Schenectady Avenues and Snyder Avenue and Cortelyou Road. The grounds are plainly spread out and divided into broad fields of tombstones and greenery. There are many fine, statuseque monuments, but more modest markers are the rule. The main entrance at Brooklyn and Tilden Avenues leads to a small chapel that was built in 1855 and is still used today. The chapel was part of the improvements made when Holy Cross came under the control of Bishop John Loughlin after the Brooklyn Diocese was created in 1853. Some of the pioneer priests of the diocese are interred in catacombs beneath the chapel, and nearby are the graves of some of Brooklyn’s oldest Catholic families.
Well-known figures can be found at Holy Cross—businessman James (Diamond Jim) Brady, Dodgers great Gil Hodges, and bank robber Willie Sutton among them—but the graves of the lesser known are what give this cemetery its character. The earliest section of the cemetery is rich in mid-19th-century Irish-Catholic markers. Hundreds of tombstones here display traditional Hibernian motifs and record the history of immigrants who fled famine in Ireland and made Brooklyn their home. Later sections are dominated by gravestones of the Italian and Hispanic families who followed.
Sources: Beers 1873 Atlas of Long Island, Pl 20; Holy Cross Cemetery (Catholic Cemeteries, Diocese of Brooklyn); Tombstones of the Irish Born: Cemetery of the Holy Cross, Flatbush, Brooklyn (Silinonte 1992); Silent Cities: The Evolution of the American Cemetery (Jackson & Vergara 1989), 54; Fairchild Cemetery Manual (1910), 72; The Eagle & Brooklyn: The Record of the Progress of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle… (Howard & Jervis 1893), Vol 1, 360; A History of the City of Brooklyn (Stiles 1870), Vol 3, 633-634, “Our Public Cemeteries,” New York Herald, Jun 2, 1867; “Vandal Topples 63 Headstones and Statues at Historic Brooklyn Cemetery,” New York Daily News, Feb 13, 2018; NYCityMap
Beginning in colonial times, a quarantine system existed in New York Harbor to prevent foreign ships from bringing diseases into the port of New York. For much of the 18th century, Bedloe’s Island (today’s Liberty Island) was the quarantine station, where vessels having contagious diseases on board were required to stop and sick individuals were detained. In 1799, an act of the state legislature relocated the quarantine station to Staten Island; anchorage grounds and a hospital were established at Tompkinsville on the island’s northeastern shore. The quarantine remained at Tompkinsville for nearly 60 years, despite resentment by the island’s residents to its location there. Considered a blight on the community and an endangerment to its citizens, hostility towards the quarantine grew in the 1840s and 1850s when a surge in immigration brought an increase in patients at the complex.
The state made several attempts to find another site for the quarantine, including acquiring property in 1857 at Seguine’s Point on the south shore of Staten Island where temporary quarantine buildings were erected. Authorities encountered the same animosity towards the quarantine here; in a series of attacks in May 1857, local residents burned down everything connected with the quarantine development at Seguine’s Point. With no other place to operate, the quarantine continued at Tompkinsville until September 1858, when it, too, was destroyed by locals who removed the patients from the buildings and torched the complex. Following the destruction of the Tompkinsville site, floating hospitals down New York Bay were used as an interim quarantine system pending construction of two artificial islands—Swinburne and Hoffman—in the Lower Bay off the southeastern shore of Staten Island. Swinburne and Hoffman Islands were used for quarantine purposes from the 1870s until the 1920s.
During the quarantine process, physicians boarded ships upon arrival and inspected passengers and crew for signs of smallpox, yellow fever, cholera, typhus, or other pestilential diseases. Individuals determined to be ill were sent for treatment at the quarantine complex. In addition to treating those arriving from foreign shores, the quarantine hospitals also received patients from the city who showed symptoms of contagious diseases. Patients who died in quarantine at Tompkinsville and subsequent facilities were interred in cemeteries on Staten Island that were part of the quarantine establishment. Approximately 10,000 individuals were buried—typically without ceremony or the presence of family or friends—in these quarantine cemeteries during the 19th century. Disposal of the dead who died in quarantine was a constant predicament for the establishment’s officials, as Staten Islanders opposed the interment of bodies of those dying of contagious diseases. In 1889 a crematory was erected on Swinburne Island to incinerate the remains of those who died in quarantine.
Quarantine Cemeteries, Tompkinsville
Opened in 1799, the New York Marine Hospital at Tompkinsville—known as the Quarantine—was a 30-acre complex situated just south of where the Staten Island Ferry lands today in the neighborhood now known as St. George. The grounds, which were enclosed by a high brick wall and included several hospital buildings, employee residences, and gardens, occupied the area bounded by present-day Hyatt Street, St. Marks Place, and Victory Boulevard, extending down to the water where quarantined ships anchored. Two cemeteries were located within the quarantine complex—one in the southwest corner of the grounds near today’s Victory Boulevard and St. Mark’s Place, and a second one in the northwestern corner, at Hyatt Street and St. Mark’s Place. The second cemetery was established when the earlier, southern cemetery became full during a spike in Quarantine patients at the time of the Irish potato famine, a period described in an 1849 report regarding conditions at the Quarantine as “the great tide of immigration which swelled upon our shores during the eventful years of 1846 and 1847, when thousands were driven from their homes in the old world by the famine which prevailed, and bringing with them the germs of disease engendered by want, had to be provided for immediately on their arrival.”
Prior to the 1840s, the number of patients treated at the Quarantine was less than 500 per year; by 1849 the number had increased to 7,000 per year. New buildings were erected on the grounds to meet this emergency situation, but still the complex was crowded to overflowing. And with two or three patients dying each day, Quarantine officials were running out of space to put the bodies. Instead of burying the dead in single graves, as had been the previous practice, large trenches were dug in the northern cemetery where coffins could be stacked three deep. An estimated 3,000 burials were made in these mass graves during a two or three-year period and the decomposing bodies produced an offensive odor that was a major complaint to residents living near the Quarantine. In 1849, the state legislature ordered the Quarantine to procure a new burial ground “remote from the premises of the Marine Hospital” and cease burials within its Tompkinsville site.
Following the 1858 destruction of the Quarantine, the Tompkinsville complex largely lay idle until 1868 when it was sold to private developers who divided the property into buildings lots. “Bodies with their accompanying gravestones” were reportedly removed at that time from the Quarantine grounds to the off-site cemetery that had been purchased in 1849 near Silver Lake; however, if remains really were removed, it’s likely only those from the older, southern cemetery were transferred. Recent archaeological investigations revealed that remains are still present at the site of the northern cemetery that was used in the late 1840s. In 2003, plans began for the construction of a new court complex on part of the former Tompkinsville Quarantine grounds, including the area of the northern cemetery. Archaeologists conducted exploratory tests along the perimeter of the cemetery site, which had been covered by a parking lot since the 1950s, and found human remains at several locations. The remains of 83 people were recovered from the site, including 38 intact burials, some still stacked two or three deep within the burial trenches. The rest of the one-acre burial ground site was left undisturbed and is now a Memorial Green in front of the St. George Staten Island Court complex; the human remains recovered from the site were reinterred here in 2014.
Quarantine Cemetery, Silver Lake
When Quarantine authorities were compelled to stop burying their dead within the Tompkinsville grounds in 1849, the state purchased four acres of land in the township of Castleton, near Silver Lake, for a new cemetery. The burial ground, known as Marine Cemetery or Quarantine Burying Ground, was located on the northwest side of the Richmond Turnpike (today’s Victory Boulevard) and “situated as to be at the greatest possible distance from an inhabited neighborhood, and over forty rods [660 feet] from the nearest public road, yet not more than about a mile distant from the Marine Hospital.” A high fence, with well-secured gates, enclosed the grounds and a small house was erected in front of the enclosure for the permanent residence of the person in charge of the burial ground. Although the new cemetery satisfied the complaints of the inhabitants of the neighborhood of the Quarantine at Tompkinsville, it created a rift with the Town of Castleton, whose residents were alarmed to have the Quarantine dead transported by wagon through the village to the burial ground. The Castleton Board of Health made several attempts to prevent Quarantine authorities from sending bodies to the cemetery, but the state officials disregarded their prohibitions.
Over 5,000 individuals were interred at the Marine Cemetery between 1849 and 1858. After the Quarantine was moved from Tompkinsville, the Marine Cemetery at Silver Lake became impractical owing to its great distance from the new quarantine facilities. The cemetery’s status is discussed in the 1869 annual report of the Commissioners of Quarantine, who note that although it could no longer be used for its intended purpose, “as it is the resting place of thousands who have fallen victims to disease while under quarantine, it should still be treated as a part of the establishment, and preserved from injury or depredations.” In 1924 the cemetery became part of the grounds of Silver Lake Park and is now within the park’s golf course.
Most of the people buried in the Quarantine cemeteries at Tompkinsville and Silver Lake were interred without markers, but occasionally friends or family members would arrange for tombstones to be placed at the graves. In 1888, 32 tombstones stood in the Marine Cemetery at Silver Lake; many were those that had been moved there from graves at the Tompkinsville grounds. The inscriptions on the gravestones provided a sample of some of the lives that came to an end at the Quarantine, including Andrew Staley, a “Native of Old England who fell a Victim to the Epidemic Fever” in 1805; William Crowther of London, who died of a fever on his return from Haiti “ere he could reach the arms of his expectant Family at Philadelphia” in 1818; and John Nicol, who was one of 40 yellow fever cases that came to the Quarantine from the frigate Susquehanna in April 1858. In 1923, only 24 tombstones remained in the graveyard and by the 1930s they had all disappeared, possibly buried under the soil when the golf course was constructed. Today the cemetery is memorialized by a bronze plaque embedded in a boulder near the 18th hole of the golf course; it reads, “The Forgotten Burial Ground 1849-1858.”
Quarantine Cemetery, Seguine’s Point
Once the Marine Cemetery at Silver Lake became useless for quarantine purposes after 1858, authorities turned to Seguine’s Point on the southeastern shore of Staten Island for a new burial ground. The state had purchased 50 acres here in 1857 with the intention of relocating the quarantine establishment to the property, but these plans were abandoned when locals torched everything built at the site. A portion of the property was reserved for burial purposes and was used for the interment of those dying in quarantine at the floating hospitals and later at the Swinburne Island hospital. Those dying of contagious diseases in the city or on vessels in the Bay were also buried here. The Seguine’s Point Quarantine Cemetery was described as an “isolated, lonely spot close by the water of the Bay, with a heavy body of timber intervening between it and the cultivated farm residences which dot this portion of Staten Island.” Enclosed by a picket fence and protected from the water by a small stone seawall, the graves were marked with wooden slabs identifying the deceased. There was no pier or landing place, and boatmen usually would run a small boat up on the beach and carry the plain, pine coffins the few yards up the shore to the cemetery.
In 1867, the physician of the quarantine hospital ship described some of the difficulties in transporting bodies to the cemetery, which was eight or nine miles from their anchorage: “In stormy weather, especially when the wind is blowing on shore, the boat carrying the dead is immediately filled on striking the beach…The boatmen are thoroughly drenched, and have to remain so for hours, and are sometimes compelled to stay on the shore during the night, as the inhabitants in the neighborhood of the cemetery will not allow anybody from the hospital to come near their dwellings or even their outhouses.” The farmers and oystermen residing in the vicinity of the quarantine burial ground were sometimes driven “wild with rage” when they knew yellow fever and cholera victims were being interred in the cemetery. One boatman who was burying a body from the Swinburne Island hospital had to take to a tree to evade an angry party of neighbors who approached with guns and dogs to stop him. He escaped without injury but refused to bury another body at Seguine’s Point.
A New York Times reporter visited the Seguine’s Point cemetery in 1882 and interviewed a man he found repairing his rowboat near the graveyard. “I once seen them bury a poor chap in that ground,” the man said. “They just hurried his coffin off a tugboat and dumped it into the grave. They didn’t have no prayers, but they just covered him up with dirt and left. Some summers they only bury six or seven there, but other summers they do a good deal more planting in that ground.” The remains of roughly 500 people were interred in the Seguine’s Point burial ground until 1889, when the quarantine establishment began to use the crematory on Swinburne Island to dispose of the dead. An act of Legislature of 1888 directed the removal of the dead at Seguine’s Point and the bodies “disposed of in such manner as will not endanger the public health.” The disinterment work—described in grisly detail in a series of articles in the New York Herald—was completed in February 1890. The bodies were incinerated in a temporary crematory constructed on the premises and the ashes gathered for reburial on Swinburne Island. The land that was once the Seguine’s Point Quarantine Cemetery is now part of Wolfe’s Pond Park.
Sources: Butler’s 1853 Map of Staten Island; Beers’ 1887 New Map of Staten Island; Bromley’s 1917 Atlas of New York City, Borough of Richmond, Pl 11; Communication from the Committee Appointed…to Inquire into the Propriety of the Removal of the Quarantine Establishment (State of New York, 1849); Annual Reports of the Commissioners of Emigration of the State of New York, 1847-1860; Annual Reports of the Commissioners of Quarantine of the State of New York, 1865-1890; Realms of History: The Cemeteries of Staten Island (Salmon 2006), 124-135; Phase IB, II, and III Field Investigation for the Staten Island Criminal Court and Family Court Complex, Staten Island, New York (Historical Perspectives, Inc., 2017); “The Quarantine War,” New York Herald, Sep 12, 1858; “Quarantine Affairs,” New York Times, Sep 16, 1858; “The Quarantine Troubles,” New York Times, Sep 17, 1858; “The Quarantine Troubles,” New York Tribune, Sep 17, 1858; “Destruction of the Quarantine Buildings Near Tompkinsville, Staten Island,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, Sep 18, 1858; “Staten Island—A Tour of the Island,” New York Herald, Apr 12, 1869; “Reminder of Dramatic Event in Staten Island History,” The Sun, Oct 5, 1919; Staten Island Gravestone Inscriptions, Vol 2 (Vosburgh 1925), 155-159; “Refugees of Irish Famine to Get a Proper Burial,” New York Times, Apr 25, 2014; “A Plague-Stricken Ship,” New York Herald, Aug 14, 1872; “Barring Out Epidemics,” New York Times, July 28, 1879; “A Desolate Burial Spot,” New York Times, Jan 3, 1882; “Minor Telegrams,” Lockport Daily Journal, Oct 13, 1887; “Sketches of the New York Quarantine Establishment,” Harper’s Weekly, Oct. 8 1887, 732-733; “New York Quarantine,” American Agriculturist, Dec 1886, 548-549 & Jan 1888, 4-5; “Resurrecting Quarantine’s Dead,” New York Herald, Feb 12, 1890; “Exhuming the Dead with Greater Care,” New York Herald, Feb 13, 1890; “Burning the Quarantine Dead,” New York Herald, Feb 14, 1890; “Quarantine’s Burial Grounds,” New York Tribune, Feb 23, 1890
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
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.
Mount Richmond Cemetery
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.
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
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.
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 RANTUSDied May 13, 1861Aged 55 yearsJesus, lover of my soul, let me to Thy bosomFly, 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.
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
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.
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.
New Union Field/Beth-El Cemetery
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.
Union Field Cemetery
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.
Hungarian Union Field Cemetery
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.