Category Archives: Brooklyn

Wallabout Cemetery

Wallabout Cemetery is depicted on this 1834 map of Brooklyn

Just north of Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn is a site in the middle of the superblocks formed by the vast Whitman-Ingersoll public housing developments. Situated between St. Edwards Street, North Portland Avenue, Auburn Place, and Park Avenue, this site contains the Walt Whitman Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, P.S. 67/Charles A. Dorsey School, and the former Cumberland Hospital—the birthplace of sports greats Michael Jordan and Mike Tyson, now a homeless shelter and medical clinic. In the century before these institutions were erected here, this land was the Wallabout Cemetery, a public burial ground for the citizens of the City of Brooklyn.

In the 1820s, the rapidly growing town (later city) of Brooklyn was running out of places to bury its dead. “Where shall I deposit the remains of my friend,” was a frequent question among the town’s citizens, according to the author of a letter published in the Long Island Star. The letter writer further commented that a survey of the “scanty burying grounds among us” was convincing evidence of the need for a public cemetery to be used by all denominations. In 1824 the town appointed a committee to find a suitable property for this purpose, eventually choosing five acres of farmland within a mile of the village, near Fort Greene and Wallabout Bay.

A diagram of the Wallabout Cemetery allotments from an 1835 newspaper article

At a town meeting in April of 1827, the burial ground committee announced that preparation of the public cemetery was almost completed and that some graves had already been made in the allotments assigned to eight denominations—Reformed Dutch, Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal, Friends, Catholic, Baptist, and Universalist—and a ninth, common lot for use by the town for burial of the poor and those unaffiliated with a church. “The different allotments are separated and ornamented with forest trees,” the committee reported, “the fences and gateway are of solid masonry and the passage and road in front of the passage is paved.” Their report on the cemetery further boasts that “no place in the town is now more eligibly situated and better prepared for the purposes of interment, and that it probably contains space enough for each of our citizens who are journeying to this grave yard for a century to come; and that the work will remain a lasting monument of credit to this town.”

Despite these lofty aspirations, a mere 10 years later the Long Island Star lamented that Wallabout Cemetery “is shamefully neglected by its keepers, if such it have, and the cattle, horses and hogs have been allowed to break over its enclosure.” Upkeep of the public cemetery was an ongoing problem, evidenced by regular newspaper reports of its poor condition. In 1849, burials were disturbed when Canton Street (now St. Edwards Street) was constructed along the cemetery’s west side; a year later, the city’s Board of Health reported that Wallabout Cemetery was “densely crowded with bodies” and recommended its closure.

A notice of the Wallabout Cemetery’s closure by the Brooklyn Board of Health in 1854

The City of Brooklyn finally closed the cemetery in 1854. In 1857 the state legislature  passed a bill authorizing  sale of the land and providing for burial plots for each denomination in the new, large cemeteries that opened in Brooklyn and Queens in the mid-19th century. Churches were responsible for removing the remains from their allotments, a process that took several years. In January 1861, Brooklyn Mayor Samuel S. Powell reported that the last of the remains had been removed from the Wallabout Cemetery and deposited in a plot acquired by the city at Evergreens Cemetery in Brooklyn.

As with many 19th-century cemetery removals, some graves in the Wallabout Cemetery were missed during the process and encountered during later construction. In 1867 laborers digging for a cellar on the former cemetery site exhumed a coffin containing human remains; the inscription on the coffin plate was John Switzer, who died in June 1846. Many years later, in March 1924, workers for the Brooklyn Edison Company found human bones when excavating for a conduit at St. Edwards Street along what had been the western boundary of the former cemetery. The bones were reportedly “of both sexes, one wrist bone decorated with a bracelet or arm band of crude iron.” Remains of other 19th-century Brooklynites that may have been overlooked during the removal of Wallabout Cemetery possibly rest today beneath the grounds of the public institutions built on the site in the early 20th century.

Wallabout Cemetery in 1855
A 2018 aerial view of the former Wallabout Cemetery site

Sources: Martin’s 1834 Map of Brooklyn, Kings County, Long Island ; Perris’ 1855 Maps of the City of Brooklyn, Pl 20; Laws of the State of New York, Passed at the 81st Session of the Legislature, Begun January 5th and Ended April 19th, 1858, Chap. 232; “Report,” Long Island Star, Jun 16, 1824; [Letter to Editor—Public Cemetery], Long Island Star, Jan 5, 1825; “Town Meeting,” Long Island Star, Apr 5, 1827; “Brooklyn Cemetery,” Long Island Star, Jul, 30, 1835; “The Violated Grave,” Long Island Star, Jan 11, 1838; “Common Council,” Long Island Star, Dec 30, 1839; “Common Council,” Brooklyn Evening Star, Nov 24, 1841; “The Burial Ground, Once More,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jan 28, 1844; “Burial Grounds,” Brooklyn Evening Star, Oct 24, 1846; “Cemetery at the Wallabout,” Brooklyn Evening Star, Nov 9, 1849; “The Mayor’s Communication of the Wallabout Cemetery,” Brooklyn Evening Star, Nov 16, 1849; “Common Council,” Brooklyn Evening Star, Jan 22, 1850; “Removal of Dead Bodies,” Brooklyn Evening Star, May 22, 1850; “Public Notice,” Brooklyn Evening Star, Jul 24, 1854; “Things at Albany,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Mar 20, 1856; “New York Legislature,” Brooklyn Evening Star, Jan 26, 1857; “Notice to Episcopalians,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Aug 10, 1857; “Office of the Commissioners for Sale of the Burial Ground at the Wallabout,” Brooklyn Evening Star, Dec 15, 1857; “Wallabout Burying Ground,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Apr 27, 1858;  “Great Sale of 11th Ward Property,” Brooklyn Evening Star, Jun 8, 1858; “Burial of the Dead,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Feb 17, 1860; “Common Council Proceedings,” Brooklyn Evening Star, Jan 29, 1861; “Human Remains Found,” Commercial Advertiser, Oct 14, 1867; “Thinks Old Skeletons Are From Ancient Cemetery,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Mar 25, 1924; NYC Then&Now

Barkeloo Cemetery

A view of the Barkeloo Cemetery in 1922 (Standard Union)

In the early 1800s  at least a dozen small burial grounds speckled the landscape of farms and estates across the six historical townships that came to form the modern borough of Brooklyn. These graveyards were set aside on homesteads of families that settled the area during the Dutch colonial period and later, and their owners tried to preserve them for descendants with covenants in wills and deeds that exempted them from property transfers. But as urban development encroached over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries and estates were broken up and sold off, most of these families—once prominent in local events and public life—disappeared from the area, as did their ancestral burial grounds. Today only one of these homestead burial grounds survives in Brooklyn—the tiny Barkeloo Cemetery in Bay Ridge.

This detail from an 1811 map shows historic New Utrecht and Yellow Hook, where the Barkeloo homestead was located.

The Barkeloo family home stood on the Shore Road overlooking the Narrows and New York Bay, in the Yellow Hook section of the historic Town of New Utrecht. To the rear of the residence was the family burial plot, situated at what is now the corner of Narrows Avenue and MacKay Place. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, Jaques Barkeloo (1747-1813) occupied the farm with his first wife Catharine Suydam (1753-1788), his second wife Maria Bogert (1768-1841), and offspring from both marriages. Jaques Barkeloo was a prominent figure in New Utrecht, serving as Town Supervisor for several years.

In 1794, Jaques Barkeloo recruited the first English-speaking teacher for New Utrecht’s village school; this advertisement for the position appeared in a 1793 newspaper.
Jaques Barkeloo’s obituary, April 14, 1813

In 1834, the old Barkeloo homestead transferred out of the family when Jaques’ widow Maria sold the property. The graveyard was excluded from the deed and the family continued to make burials there until 1848. For many years thereafter, the burial ground was reportedly well cared for, surrounded by a high picket fence that was regularly given a fresh coat of white paint, and the branches of the family contributed annually to a fund for upkeep of the site. But by the end of the 19th century few Barkeloo descendants remained in Bay Ridge and their ancestral burial ground was neglected. In July 1897, the New York World reported that the spot was “unkept,” “surrounded by a dilapidated wooden fence,” and threatened by road construction. Though the site may have contained more than 30 graves, only three tombstones were standing at that time—those of Jaques Barkeloo, his first wife Catharine, and his widow Maria.

The Barkeloo Cemetery is delineated on this 1890 map

The Barkeloo family cemetery continued in a state of disrepair until 1923, when a local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution rehabilitated the site, clearing it of rubbish, covering it with new soil, and surrounded it with a hedge. By this time, Jaques Barkeloo’s tombstone had disappeared, but his wives’ tombstones remained, and another—that of Margetta Barkeloo Wardell (1798-1834)—was found buried four and a half feet under dirt during the landscaping work. As part of their efforts to revitalize the site, the DAR touted it as a Revolutionary War cemetery by installing a monument in honor of Harmanus Barkeloo (1745-1788), who in March 1776 was commissioned as Second Lieutenant in the New Utrecht Company of the Kings County Militia. Harmanus survived the war but was felled by smallpox when traveling in New Jersey in 1788; sources disagree as to whether he is interred in the Barkeloo Cemetery or at the Old Parsonage Burying Ground in Somerville, New Jersey.

The DAR also installed a monument for Simon Cortelyou (1746-1828), who married Jaques Barkeloo’s widow, Maria, and is believed to be buried next to her in the Barkeloo cemetery. Cortelyou was “one of the many Tories who infested Long Island,” as one local history puts it; a well-known British loyalist, Cortelyou was imprisoned and fined for mistreatment of American prisoners during the Revolution. Given Cortelyou’s history, it’s curious that the DAR chose to memorialize him; however, when dedicating the rehabilitated cemetery, they claimed they had found records (possibly these) showing that Cortelyou gave “vast sums of money for Washington’s army” and that he had been in constant communication with Governor George Clinton during the war. Whatever the case may be regarding Cortelyou’s loyalties during the Revolution, he was a leading community figure in New Utrecht during the early Republic era and seems to have been forgiven any anti-patriotic sins of his past. His obituary, which ran in the New York Spectator on August 15, 1828, reads simply: “Died—On Friday night at the Narrows, L.I., Simon Cortelyou, Esq., an old and respectable inhabitant of that place.”

Since it’s rehabilitation by the DAR in 1923, patriotic groups have frequently held ceremonies at the Barkeloo Cemetery. This July 1926 photo shows members of a local chapter of the VFW preparing to fire volleys over monuments in the cemetery in observance of the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence (Times Union).

Now tucked behind Xaverian High School, which has occupied the former Barkeloo homestead since the 1950s, the Barkeloo Cemetery links the past of old New Utrecht and the American Revolution with the present Bay Ridge and the modern city that has been built around it. It endures through the efforts of various civic groups and neighborhood caretakers, who’ve protected the site with a wrought-iron fence and keep the grounds nicely maintained with pretty flowers and trimmed shrubbery. A large granite marker installed at the site in 1984 by the Trust of Emma J. Barkuloo and Bay Ridge Historical Society lists 21 people thought to be interred here.

The Barkeloo Cemetery in May 2016 (Mary French)
The Barkeloo Cemetery in May 2016 (Mary French)
A 2012 aerial view of Barkeloo Cemetery and its environs (NYCityMap)

Sources: Eddy’s 1811 Map of the Country Thirty Miles Round the City of New York; Robinson’s 1890 Atlas of Kings Co. Pl 8; The Bergen Family or the Descendants of Hans Hansen Bergen (Bergen 1876), 375; History of Kings Co. (Stiles 1884), 263-266; Reminiscences of Old New Utrecht and Gowanus (Bangs 1912); Cemeteries in Kings and Queens Counties (Eardeley 1916), 1:47-48; Twenty-third Annual Report of the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, 1918, 285-286; “Wanted,” The Diary, May 22, 1793; “Died,” Long Island Star, Apr 14, 1813; “Sheriff’s Sale,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jan 13, 1880; “An Old Cemetery to Go,” New York World, Jan 7, 1897; “Ancient Gravestones in Old Bay Ridge,” Brooklyn Standard Union, Jul 6, 1919; “Historic Old Burying Ground,” Brooklyn Standard Union, Nov 21, 1922; “DAR Will Restore Old Burial Plot,” Brooklyn Standard Union, Feb 4, 1923; “Honor Memory of Revolution Heroes Buried in Bay Ridge,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Nov 4, 1923; “Rescuing Brooklyn’s Tiniest Graveyard,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec 16, 1923; “Two Revolutionary War Heroes Made V.F.W. Members,” Brooklyn Times Union, Jul 23, 1926; “Shaft to Be Dedicated at Barkeloo Cemetery,” New York Daily News, May 1, 1935; “New Fence for Barkaloo Cemetery,” Home Reporter & Sunset News, Feb 8, 1980; “Cemetery Revamp,” Brooklyn Graphic, Mar 16, 2010; “How an Ancient Cemetery Survived in Bay Ridge,Hey Ridge, Jun 4, 2018; The Smallest Cemetery in Brooklyn Has a Story, Brooklyn Ink, Oct 24, 2019

New Lots Cemetery

An 1886 map of New Lots shows the old cemetery next to the school of the north side of New Lots Ave, and the new cemetery next to the church on the south side of New Lots Ave

When the historic town of Flatbush became overcrowded with Dutch farmers in the 1670s, a consortium of settlers were granted permission to set up new plantations on land east of Flatbush in what is now the East New York section of Brooklyn. The new community, known as New Lots, established a burial ground on common lands situated on the south side of today’s New Lots Avenue and Barbey Street, extending north past Livonia Avenue.

By the early 19th century, New Lots’ farmers had tired of traveling to Flatbush to attend church, and in 1823 built their own Dutch Reformed Church on the south side of New Lots Avenue, opposite the cemetery where generations of Van Siclens, Rapeljes, Vanderveers, Schencks and other early families had been laid to rest. Around this same time, they erected a school just west of the cemetery, on the common lands on the north side of New Lots Avenue. Soon needing to expand their burial grounds, in the 1840s they established a new cemetery—owned and managed by the lot holders—on land adjoining the Reformed Church. Many descendants of the old families moved their dead from the original cemetery to family lots in the new cemetery. The original cemetery gradually feel into disuse and the remaining graves were largely abandoned; by the end of the 19th century, the site was commonly known to locals as the “old slave cemetery.”

A plaque commemorating New Lots’ historic African American community and its burial ground is mounted at 683 Barbey Street (Mary French)

Most of the original Dutch settlers utilized enslaved people on their farms. The population of New Lots in the 17th and 18th century is unknown, but the 1820 census enumerated 338 whites and 91 blacks in New Lots and half of the town’s 62 families owned slaves. Although the black population of New Lots remained relatively small until the 20th century, African Americans have been a critical part of the development of New Lots since colonial times. When the original burial ground was established, a clearly distinguished portion of the parcel—the section at the north end, near Livonia Avenue—was set aside for New Lots’ black community. The African American community continued to use this burial ground throughout the 19th century. Articles from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in the 1880s and 1890s note, “once in a great while there is a colored person interred in the back part of the [old New Lots Cemetery] and “there is no care taken of the place except in the negro part.”

This 1900 photo provides a view towards the northwest of the Old New Lots Cemetery, with the corner of P.S. 72 visible. A broken tombstone lies across the path (BDE)

By the turn of the century, New Lots had evolved from a rural farming district to the 26th Ward of the City of New York. With its broken down fences, overturned headstones and generally dilapidated appearance, the old cemetery—containing the African burial ground as well as many burials of white community members that had never been moved to the new cemetery—was considered an eyesore and nuisance to the area’s residents. The new, large Public School 72 now stood next to the graveyard, erected in 1888 by the Board of Education to replace the town’s old school. A local resident decried the situation in an 1899 letter to the Daily Eagle, remarking, “a desecrated cemetery alongside of one of the best and largest public schools in Brooklyn is not a very pleasing spectacle, and it is to be hoped some action will soon be taken by the city government toward remedying the evil.”

A 1922 view of tombstones in the Old New Lots Cemetery, looking northwest towards Livonia Ave and the elevated subway tracks (NYHS)

After years of community agitation and complaints, in the early 1920s the old cemetery was taken over by the school for use as a playground. Although public officials announced their intentions to remove the remaining burials on the site—including at a 1908 meeting of the New Lots Board of Trade, where President Jacob Hessel stated, “it matters not that these bones are but the remainder of slaves; slaves they were, but they were also part of New Lots’ history, and as such we owe them respect”—there is no evidence removals occurred at the time the playground was established.

Street sign on Livonia Ave commemorating the African burial ground. Part of the New Hope Family Worship Center can be seen beneath the train tracks; this building was erected on the northernmost section of the old cemetery in 1954 (Mary French)

In the mid-1950s, the old burial ground site was redeveloped—P.S. 72 was demolished, replaced with a branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, and the school playground was converted into a public park, (Schenck Playground), both of which still stand at the site today. A shirt-pleating plant was built on the northernmost section of the old cemetery site, north of Livonia Avenue—in 2000, this building was converted into New Hope Family Worship Center. In 2017, fragments of human bone, pieces of tombstones, and other evidence of the old cemetery were located during archaeological tests conducted at Schenck Playground prior to planned improvements at the site, suggesting disturbed and intact burials may exist beneath the park. In 2019, the playground was renamed Sankofa Park in honor of the African burial ground that was part of the old cemetery.

On the south side of New Lots Avenue, the 200-year-old Dutch Reformed Church survives and, next to it, the “new” New Lots Cemetery that has been in use since the 1840s. The cemetery is still owned by the New Lots Cemetery Association, composed of descendants of New Lots’ early Dutch settlers.

Rear view of New Lots Reformed Church (built 1832) and the New Lots Cemetery (established in 1840s), as seen west from Jerome street, 1934 (NYPL)
View of New Lots Cemetery, December 2010 (Mary French)
A 2018 aerial view showing the present New Lots Cemetery and the approximate boundaries of the Old New Lots Cemetery (indicated in red)

View more photos of New Lots Cemetery

Sources: Robinson’s 1886 Atlas of the City of Brooklyn, Pl 40;“An Old Farmer’s Talk,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sep 19, 1886; “An Old Burying Ground,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 31, 1891; “A Neglected Cemetery,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Feb 5, 1899; “The Old Dutch Cemetery in East New York,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Aug 5, 1900; “Cemetery Gets Permission,”  Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Apr 24, 1903; “Canine Cops in New Lots,” The Chat [Brooklyn], Nov 7, 1908; “New Lots Cemetery Ass’n Elects Rapelje as Head,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Apr 11, 1923; Fairchild Cemetery Manual (1910), 105; Cemetery Inscriptions from New Lotts Burying Ground (Frost 1913); Phase IA Archeological Literature Review and Fieldwork Plan, Schenck Playground (Hartgen Archeological Associates 2016); Phase IB Archeological Field Reconnaissance, Schenck Playground (Hartgen Archeological Associates 2018); “Celebration and Re-interment of Our Ancestors,” Amsterdam News, Aug 1, 2019

Friends Cemetery, Prospect Park

A view of the modest tombstones in the Friends Cemetery in Prospect Park, ca 1935 (BHS)

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.

An 1852 map depicts the Friends Cemetery situated on the Coney Island Plank Road, on the Brooklyn-Flatbush border, before Prospect Park was built around it in 1866

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.

Hyde 1903 Atlas of the Borough of Brooklyn Vol 1 Pl 19 Quaker
The Quaker Cemetery is shown within the boundaries of Prospect Park on this 1906 map

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. 

The Friends Cemetery in Prospect Park on a recent fall day (Getty)

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 the  Prospect 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.

Montgomery Clift’s grave at the Friends Cemetery in Prospect Park (FindaGrave)
Entrance to the Friends Cemetery, May 2016 (Mary French)
A 2012 aerial view showing the boundaries of the Friends Cemetery within Prospect Park (NYCityMap)

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)

Kings County Cemetery

BDE Oct 21, 1888In 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.”

A listing for the Kings Co potter’s field from a 1910 directory of NYC cemeteries

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.

An 1890 map shows the potter’s field located in the eastern section of the Kings Co. Farm. Originally confined to the area between 48th St and Utica Ave, the cemetery later extended to E 45th St

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.”

A view of the Kings Co. cemetery in 1912, from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle

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.

This photo of the Kings Co. potters field, from 1913, shows the numbered boards used to identify the graves, as well as the only marble tombstone that stood in the cemetery

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.

A 2012 aerial view of the former potter’s field, now the site of the Kingsboro Psychiatric Center. Star denotes the area where bones were unearthed in 2017.

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)