In 1890 the Brooklyn Daily Eagle published an article about discriminatory burial practices in New York City’s cemeteries. “In this city, except in isolated instances, the color line is strictly drawn at the grave,” the piece asserts. “Although not generally known, even among the proscribed race, the bodies of blacks may not be interred in the same section of certain cemeteries with those of whites.” African Americans often were segregated to the less desirable sections of cemeteries or, in some cases, completely barred from purchasing graves. The situation was “a source of considerable feeling and discontent among colored people,” the Eagle reported. “The utmost dissatisfaction is expressed at it and there is a growing feeling that some steps should be taken to remedy it.” The black community was still struggling with this problem 45 years later when a group of Harlem businessmen created Frederick Douglass Memorial Park in Staten Island to combat segregated burials. The cemetery was open to all—and had an interracial board of directors—but was created and managed by African Americans with the intention of providing a place where the city’s black residents could be buried affordably and with dignity.
Frederick Douglass Memorial Park is situated adjacent to Ocean View Cemetery on Amboy Road in the Oakwood section of Staten Island. Touted as “an ultra-modern cemetery” when it was established in 1935, this new burial ground was planned along the memorial park model that came to dominate cemetery landscape design in the 20th century. Grave markers were generally required to be flat against the ground, thus making lawn care more economical and giving greater emphasis to the park-like setting. The burial park attracted African Americans from Harlem, Brooklyn, and other areas of the city, and by 1949 Frederick Douglass Memorial Park had over 10,000 interments. Its grounds—which began as 53 acres but dwindled to its present 17 acres by the 1960s—became the final resting place of a number of prominent black public figures, including Negro League baseball player Sol White, blues singer Mamie Smith, and jazz trumpeter Tommy Ladnier.
In 1961 the cemetery erected a monument to its namesake, the esteemed abolitionist, orator, and statesman who died in 1895 and is buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, NY. The Frederick Douglass cenotaph, located near the cemetery’s entrance, features a bronze portrait mounted on an eight-foot-tall granite slab. The $20,000 monument was created by British-born artist Angus McDougall (known for the iconic apple paperweight he designed for the Steuben Glass Company) and was New York City’s first public sculpture to honor Douglass.
Despite its early success, Frederick Douglass Memorial Park has fallen on hard times in recent years. Business slowed as the cemetery ran out of space for new graves, and it now does only a small number of burials each year. Plagued by poor stewardship, financial woes, and disrepair, since 2005 the cemetery has been operated by a series of court-appointed receivers. The current management, along with the non-profit organization Friends of Frederick Douglass Memorial Park, is working to reestablish financial stability, restore the grounds, and preserve the heritage of this historic African American cemetery.
Sources: “Where the Color Line Exists,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec 7 1890; “Frederick Douglass Memorial Park…,” New York Age, June 22 1935; “Frederick Douglass Memorial Park Fills Long-Felt Need,” New York Age, July 30 1949; “Monument Honors Ex-Slave Crusader,” New York Times, May 29 1961; “Monument Dedicated In N.Y.” New Journal and Guide (Norfolk, VA), Jun 10 1961; “A Place of Dignity Falls on Hard Times, New York Times, Oct 17 2008; “Hard-pressed Staten Island Cemetery Counting on Descendants,” Staten Island Advance, May 14 2009; “A Cemetery Holding Black Bodies is in Disrepair,” New YorkAmsterdam News, May 11 2017; “In Oakwood, a Troubled Final Resting Place Searches for Help,” Staten Island Advance, Jun 20 2017; Castaways of Frederick Douglass Memorial Park, Staten Island, NY (Eric K. Washington); 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.
On a hilltop near the intersection of Flushing and Metropolitan Avenues in Ridgewood, Queens, are two small garden-like cemeteries created in the mid-nineteenth century. Linden Hill Methodist Cemetery is a 21-acre burial ground situated along Woodward Avenue between Starr and Stanhope streets. Established in 1842 by the Second Street Methodist Episcopal Church in Manhattan, in 1852 the cemetery was acquired by the First German Methodist Episcopal Church of Manhattan who operated it until 1977, when it was transferred to the New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Although owned by Methodist entities throughout its history, Linden Hill Cemetery has always been a nonsectarian, multi-ethnic burial ground. The humble gravestones that fill its grounds mark the final resting place of more than 30,000 people and reflect the area’s shifting demographics—many of the earlier monuments are for German, Italian, and Eastern European immigrants, while more recent graves are predominately Hispanic and African American.
In 1875, Ahawath Chesed, a prosperous German Jewish congregation now known as Central Synagogue and located on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, acquired a tract of land adjacent to Linden Hill Methodist Cemetery for a Jewish burial ground. Linden Hill Jewish Cemetery occupies 10 acres on the northwest side of the Methodist cemetery, and has its gatehouse at the corner of Metropolitan Avenue and Grandview Avenue. A number of prominent members of New York’s Jewish community lie buried beneath monuments and in mausoleums here, including U.S. Congressman Jacob Javits and businessman Joseph Bloomingdale. In 2008, Central Synagogue sold Linden Hill Jewish Cemetery to David Jacobson, who operates several of the city’s Jewish burial grounds, and today the cemetery primarily is used by recent Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
Among the notable individuals interred at Linden Hill Jewish Cemetery is theatrical producer and playwright David Belasco, whose family mausoleum occupies a central position at the end of the cemetery’s entrance drive. Designed by Tiffany Studios, the domed structure is of heavy, rough-hewn granite with marble interiors. Belasco built the mausoleum in 1913 in memory of his daughter Augusta, who died three years earlier at age 22. During her life, it was said, Augusta Belasco dreaded the dark; when she was interred in the mausoleum David Belasco and his wife installed a bronze lamp that was kept burning day and night to insure “that beside their dead daughter there shall be kept an eternal vigil of light.” David Belasco was interred next to his wife and daughter in the mausoleum when he died in 1931.
One of the city’s largest Jewish burial grounds is Montefiore Cemetery, located in far southeastern Queens near the edge of the New York City limits. This 114-acre site is situated on flat land along Springfield Boulevard and Francis Lewis Boulevard in Cambria Heights, an area that held a thriving Jewish population during the first half of the 20th century, and surrounds the non-sectarian, 5.5-acre colonial-era Old Springfield Cemetery on Springfield Boulevard.
Montefiore Cemetery has been serving the Jewish community of the New York City area since 1908, and hundreds of societies, congregations, lodges, and temples own sections here. Montefiore is the final resting place of more than 158,000 individuals, mostly ordinary men and women who are remembered with modest monuments that hint at life stories or personalities.“When we fell in love it was forever,” proclaims the inscription on one couple’s tombstone, while the numerous stones placed atop the marker of an “Adoring Grandmother / Beautiful Soul” attest to frequent visits and devotion of her family and friends.
A number of famous—and infamous—figures are also buried here, including abstract expressionist painter Barnett Newman, songwriter Sholom Secunda, actor Fyvush Finkel, and Prohibition-era mobsters Jacob Shapiro and the Amberg brothers, Hyman, Joseph and Louis. Prizefighter Al “Bummy” Davis (Albert Davidoff), who was killed resisting a Brooklyn bar robbery in 1945, is also here, as is Arnold Schuster, a 24-year-old clothing salesman who provided a tip that led to the capture of bank robber Willie Sutton in 1952 and was murdered a few weeks later, allegedly at the order of mob boss Albert Anastasia.
Most notably there is also the grave of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh—and last—leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic dynasty based in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Known universally as “the Rebbe” and considered one of the most influential Jewish leaders of the 20th century, Rabbi Schneerson died at age 92 in 1994. Every year, tens of thousands of Jews from around the world, many of whom claim Schneerson as the messiah, visit his gravesite. Following the belief that part of the soul of a righteous Jew who has died remains at the grave, when people visit they experience it as though they are in the presence of the holy man himself. When the Rebbe was of this world, people would visit him and write to him to ask for his blessing and advice. Now people visit the site where he is buried and leave little notes to ask for his blessing, informing him of recent activities, and asking questions—certain that the Rebbe will find a way to answer them. The notes are read at graveside, torn into four parts, and left on the ground in front of the grave.
Rabbi Schneerson’s grave is located in the northeastern section of Montefiore Cemetery where it borders Francis Lewis Boulevard. Shortly after the Rebbe’s death, Chabad Lubavitch purchased a house adjoining his gravesite. The site is known as the Ohel, and refers to the structure built around the resting place; the house abutting the cemetery is the Ohel Chabad Lubavitch Center, and offers access to the gravesite via a private walkway. Open day and night, all year, the Rebbe’s resting place has become a pilgrimage site for the ultra-Orthodox Lubavitchers, as well as for secular Jews and Gentiles who are drawn to the mystical passion surrounding the Rebbe. More than 50,000 people visited the site to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Rebbe’s death in 2014.
Sources: Montefiore Cemetery; [Montefiore Cemetery Ad], The American Hebrew & Jewish Messenger May 13, 1910, 40; “If You’re Thinking of Living In/Cambria Heights, Queens,” New York Times March 25, 2001; The Neighborhoods of Queens (Copquin 2009), 20, 189; Beyond the Grave: Cultures of Queens Cemeteries (Harlow 1997); “Thousands Beat Path to Queens Cemetery to Remember a Jewish Leader,” New York Times July 1, 2014; “Jews Make a Pilgrimage to a Grand Rebbe’s Grave,” New York Times Sept 13, 2013; OpenStreetMap
Founded in the mid-1830s by African American entrepreneurs, the historic village of Weeksville, in what is now the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, became one of the largest free black settlements in the United States. This independent African American community established all that was needed to support its citizens, including a school, churches, an orphanage, a home for the elderly and, in 1851, a cemetery. On September 1, 1851, Alexander Duncan, Robert Williams and Charles Lewis (described as “respectable colored men”) purchased 29.5 acres of land at the eastern edge of Weeksville; 12 acres of this became the Citizens’ Union Cemetery, and the rest was set aside for building lots. Situated on high ground on Buffalo Avenue between today’s Sterling Place and Eastern Parkway, the cemetery was enclosed with a wooden fence, had an entry gate at the northwest corner of Sterling Place and Buffalo Ave and had an underground vault for the temporary reception of the dead.
Although intended as “a burial place for the colored,” the founders of Citizen’s Union Cemetery advertised that it had no “rule which excludes any person from sepulture within its border, on account of complexion.” The cemetery offered free burials to the poor, charging only to open and close the grave, a policy that contributed to the financial hardships the cemetery experienced throughout its history. Investors received a poor return, which caused many stockholders to sell their shares. The cemetery reorganized in 1854 under the Mount Pleasant Cemetery Association but continued to struggle. By 1870, Mount Pleasant owed the city of Brooklyn $4,000 dollars in back taxes and the city intended to construct new streets through the cemetery lands. With permission from New York State, Mount Pleasant sold the cemetery in 1872 for $25,000 with the condition that they remove their dead from the site.
With some of the proceeds of the sale, Mount Pleasant’s trustees bought an acre of land at Cypress Hills Cemetery to receive the exhumed bodies from Mount Pleasant Cemetery. How many individuals were buried in Citizens’ Union/Mount Pleasant Cemetery during its twenty-year history is unknown. Ninety-four bodies are known to have been reburied in the Mount Pleasant grounds at Cypress Hills Cemetery, and many in unmarked graves were reportedly placed in a common trench there. A Brooklyn Daily Eagle reporter who witnessed the exhumations at Mount Pleasant described the chaos that occurred during the process, because many people had been buried in unmarked graves that weren’t recorded in the cemetery’s books. As a result, the contractors removing the remains had no idea where to look for them and bodies were often caught by the steam shovel and “carried off to the dump before anything can be done.”
Sources: Sidney’sMap of Twelve Miles around New-York, 1849; Dripps’ 1869 Map of the City of Brooklyn Sheet 3; Bedford-Stuyvesant (Kelly 2007), 66; Brooklyn’s Promised Land: The Free Black Community of Weeksville, New York (Wellman 2014), 70-72; A History of the City of Brooklyn (Stiles 1870), Vol 3, 633; “Citizens Union Cemetery Association,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sept 10, 1851, 3; “Our Public Cemeteries,” New-York Herald Jun 2 1867, 8; “Notice—The Mount Pleasant Cemetery Association,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle May 25 1870, 4; “Mount Pleasant Cemetery,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 22, 1871, 2; “Desecration of the Dead,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Aug 26, 1872, 3; NYCityMap
The passage of the Rural Cemetery Act by the New York legislature in 1847 spurred the creation of new large-scale cemeteries throughout the state, including over a dozen developed from farmland situated along the Brooklyn-Queens border. The first of these was Cypress Hills Cemetery, organized in 1848 as a non-sectarian cemetery that “might furnish extraordinary facilities for the vast and rapidly increasing population of this region.” Dubbed “the people’s graveyard” in a late 19th century guidebook for its inclusiveness and egalitarian principles, Cypress Hills offered a place “where every church and society may consecrate its own grounds according to its ideas of duty or feeling, and embellish them as its own means or taste may dictate.” Today Cypress Hills Cemetery is remarkable for the number of ethnic, religious, and social groups represented within its borders, and the resonance of their unique histories and cultural values.
The cemetery’s 225 acres of rolling terrain extend from Jamaica Avenue in Brooklyn to Cooper Avenue in Queens. Its open policies and affordable lots attracted many religious, fraternal, and benevolent associations, and by the 1880s some 50 organizations owned ground within its boundaries. Groups such as the Metropolitan Police Benevolent Burial Association, New York Press Club, and Society of Mechanics & Tradesmen acquired extensive plots of ground, as did churches and religious societies of many denominations, and numerous immigrant mutual aid societies. The U.S. Government owns a three-acre parcel in the cemetery that was set aside for burial of Civil War dead, and in 1879 Mount Sinai Hospital acquired a sizeable plot to provide free burial for patients who died in the institution and were not claimed by relatives or friends.
Cypress Hills has interred approximately 380,000 individuals since its inception, including an estimated 35,000 bodies transferred from church cemeteries in Brooklyn and Manhattan and reinterred here. It is the final resting place of a number of celebrated individuals, including iconic sex symbol Mae West, artist Piet Mondrian, and Jackie Robinson, the Brooklyn Dodger who integrated baseball. But what is most striking about Cypress Hills is the large clusterings of stones according to ethnic affiliation that seem to form “neighborhoods of the dead.” Significant among these are Chinese, Greek, Albanian, Japanese, Jewish, and Hispanic sections, each with memorial designs, grave adornments, offerings, and rituals tied to cultural values.
The city’s Chinese community has been burying their dead at Cypress Hills since the 1890s, when an acre of ground at the north end of the cemetery was established as a Chinese section. This was the burial ground used by the Hip Sing and On Leong tongs (secret brotherhoods) that battled one another in the streets of Chinatown during the gang wars that raged for the first three decades of the 20th century. These and other early Chinese graves at Cypress Hills are gone now due to the practice of Jup Gum, by which dead Chinese were disinterred, cleaned and sent back to China for reburial every five to seven years. This custom, which kept a dead person’s ghost from sorrowing in an alien land, faded with the onset of World War II and the rise of communism in China.
Chinese monuments now dominate much of the landscape at Cypress Hills, especially on hillsides where burial is considered auspicious. The Chinese plots are made more distinctive by the elaborate offerings at gravesites, where food is left for the dead and fake money, incense and other items are burned. When purchasing a grave, Chinese frequently bring along a feng shui practitioner for advice on the best placement, and Cypress Hills recently built a trapezoid-shaped section similar to ones in Hong Kong’s cemeteries to appeal to new immigrants.
More than a dozen prominent African Americans are among those buried at Cypress Hills—besides baseball legend Jackie Robinson, there is ragtime-and-jazz great Eubie Blake and Arturo Schomburg, the pioneering historian and scholar who helped lay the foundation for the field of African American studies, as well as lesser-known 19th century trailblazers such as James McCune Smith, the first African American to hold a medical degree in the United States, and Charlotte Ray, the nation’s first black female lawyer. Cypress Hills is the final resting place of Wallace Turnage, an escaped slave who wrote a rare, recently discovered manuscript detailing his experiences, and Gavin Cato, the seven-year-old accident victim whose death ignited the Crown Heights race riots in 1991.
One of the best views in City Island, that scenic village off Pelham Bay Park in the north Bronx, is from the cemetery on the island’s east side. There’s no hint that you’re in New York City here in Pelham Cemetery, where tombstones overlook boats bobbing rhythmically in the waters of Long Island Sound. The people of City Island have always had strong ties to the water. Once home to oystermen and shipmakers, today the island is a haven for those who seek recreation and refuge in its Cape Cod-like environment.
Throughout the cemetery there are vivid reminders of the island’s past as a hub of maritime production and signs that the water is the community’s soul—numerous tombstones are marked with nautical ranks of those who made their living on the water or are decorated with images of ships, sailboats, anchors, compasses, fish and other animals, all emphasizing the aquatic connection, whether commercial or recreational. An inscription on one gravemarker perfectly captures the spirit of the place: Rest in peace on this island where you were born and raised; home again on the shores of these waters you loved.
A fire that destroyed the cemetery’s records before 1922 obscures its early history, but it seems it was established as the village graveyard by the mid-19th century. An 1868 map depicts the cemetery at is current location along the shore, and many of the early tombstones in the graveyard date to this time period when large numbers of settlers moved to City Island. The island was isolated and sparsely populated until Connecticut shipbuilder Orrin Fordham established an oyster planting business on the island’s east side around 1830, a concept that revolutionized the American oyster industry and ushered in settlers and a period of prosperity for City Island. The oyster business thrived here through the 1890s and oystermen became some of the island’s wealthiest residents. Many of these early settlers and their descendants are represented in family plots at Pelham Cemetery.
In 1881, the three-acre cemetery was officially incorporated as Pelham Cemetery Association, so named because City Island was within the boundaries of the town of Pelham in Westchester County until New York City annexed it in 1895. According to City Island legend, remains from an early burial ground on Fordham Street were transferred to Pelham Cemetery when Public School 17 was built on the old burial site at 190 Fordham Street in 1897-98.
Also buried in Pelham Cemetery are men and women who worked in the shipyards and sailmaking lofts that opened on the island in the 1860s and flourished until the mid-20th century. Among the shipbuilding pioneers interred at the cemetery is Augustus B. Wood (1831-1902), a lawyer, yachtsman, and boatbuilder whose City Island shipyard developed a national reputation for building very durable, light boats, including oyster skiffs and the famed Hell Gate pilot boat.
The Hell Gate Pilots Association had their headquarters at City Island and in the 19th and early 20th centuries many of the island’s men made their living piloting vessels through the East River’s treacherous Hell Gate passage. A number of Hell Gate pilots are buried at Pelham Cemetery, including “Dynamite” Johnny O’Brien (1837-1917), a daredevil sea captain and gunrunner revered as a hero of the Cuban people for his expeditions supporting their revolution. Capt. Edward Sadler, a City Island icon who died in 2011 at age 95, is here at Pelham Cemetery, too. Sadler, a Hell Gate pilot and FDNY fireboat captain, was a lifelong islander and community activist; he died in the same home he where he was born in 1916.
Pelham Cemetery is a nondenominational burial ground and more than 2,000 people are buried here; most spent their lives on the mile-and-a-half-long island or have strong connections here. One exception is Italian artist Pietro Vaini, whose life on City Island was a brief and tragic one. Vaini came to New York City from Rome in 1872 and had a studio in Manhattan, where his talents attracted attention and he was considered to have great promise. On August 31st, 1875, Vaini came to City Island to attend a picnic at a gathering of local politicians and Hell Gate pilots. At one point during the afternoon, Vaini rose to recite a poem in Italian; his intense and earnest delivery riveted his audience, although most didn’t understand his words. At the close of his recitation, he announced, “Dio è il giudice di tutti i giudici, ed è il giudice di questo, mio atto,” (“God is the judge of all judges, and is the judge of this, my act”); he then drew a small revolver from his pocket and fired into his right temple. The spectators, imagining his act was simply the denouement of a dramatic performance, broke into applause before realizing what had happened. Vaini died without regaining consciousness; subsequent inquiries determined that friends were worried about his mental state for some time before the incident. The story of Pietro Vaini’s suicide became part of City Island lore, with many variations and embellishments over the years. Two weathered wooden crosses just inside the cemetery’s main gate mark his grave.
Today, City Island’s days of oystering, boatbuilding, and sailmaking are long gone. Gone too are the Hell Gate pilots, who were absorbed by the Sandy Hook Pilots Association in 1967. But the island is still alive with nautical pleasures and a walk through Pelham Cemetery tells the story of its rich maritime heritage, and of those who are still lured to the island and its waters.
Sources: Beers’ 1868 Atlas of New York and Vicinity, Pl 35; City Island:Tales of the Clam Diggers (A. Payne 1969); City Island and Orchard Beach (C. Scott 2004); The Other Islands of New York City (Seltz & Miller 2011), 106-128; The Bronx, in Bits and Pieces (B. Twomey 2007), 92-94; “A Strange Suicide,” New-York Tribune, Sep 2, 1875, 1; “Causes of Pietro Vaini’s Suicide,” New-York Tribune, Sep 3, 1875, 8; “Funeral of Pietro Vaini,” New-York Tribune, Sep 4, 1875, 12; “’Dynamite Johnny’ O’Brien to be Buried Wednesday,” New-York Tribune, Jun 25, 1917, 7; “Shaft to Rise from Lonely Grave of ‘Dynamite Johnny,’ Liberator,” New York Herald, Jun 27, 1924, 17; “City Island Mourns the Loss of Captain Ed Sadler,” Bronx Times, Nov 23, 2011; NYCityMap; Barbara Harrison Kaye & Darrell Smith, personal communication, July 3, 2017