When New York City authorities decided to close the public burial ground at Washington Square in 1825, they selected a property “situate between the Third and Fourth Avenues, and between the 48th & 50th Streets” as the location for the new potter’s field. The site was considered well-suited for a public burial ground, since it was outside the populated city but only about a mile-and-a-half from both the state prison on the Hudson River and the almshouse at Bellevue. The grounds had recently been improved by the Commissioners of the Almshouse (who may have already been using it as burial ground), were enclosed by a “strong stone wall,” and required “no preparation for its immediate occupancy than that of a small tenement as a residence for the Keeper.” The site was quickly put into operation—the following year, 1,659 of the 4,973 people who died in the city were interred in the new potter’s field.
Located between today’s 50th and 48th streets and extending from Park to Lexington avenues, the remains of more than 60,000 people were laid to rest in the potter’s field over the next two decades, including approximately 600 cholera victims interred there during an outbreak in the summer of 1832. By the 1840s, the city was regularly receiving complaints about conditions at the 50th Street potter’s field. The New York Mirror called the site “disgraceful to the city of New-York—revolting to every properfeeling of the human heart, and unworthy of a Christian country.” In an 1845 report to the Board of Aldermen, the City Health Inspector described the situation at the site, where “bodies have not been regularly or decently interred in graves, but great pits have been dug in which a large number of bodies have been deposited; and when filled, have been covered over slightly with earth, allowing the most offensive and pernicious exhalations to fill the atmosphere, to such an extent as to endanger the health of the whole neighborhood.” Though a site on Randall’s Island was selected for a new potter’s field in 1843, many of the city’s indigent and unknown continued to be buried at the 50th Street site until the late 1840s.
During the 1850s, the defunct public burial ground at 50th Street was continually disturbed by the city’s northward expansion. A section of the grounds at Fourth Avenue (today’s Park Avenue) and 48th Street transferred to a private owner, necessitating the removal of some 2,000 bodies to another part of the field. Property owners in the vicinity petitioned the city to convert the site into a public park, as it had done with the previous public burial ground at Washington Square, but the request was refused by the city council, who voted to open 49th Street through the site. The city cut the street through in 1853, leaving “the bones of its unfortunate citizens” scattered about, according to the Evening Post.
Thousands of bodies were again disinterred and moved to another area of the grounds in 1857, when Fourth Avenue and 50th Street were graded along the site’s western and northern boundaries. This work left the old potter’s field in shambles—the Herald described stacks of coffins lining the sidewalks and a rough fence erected on the southwest corner of Fourth Avenue and 50th Street to “prevent the pile of coffins tumbling from their somewhat higher position to the level of the newly made sidewalk.” Exposed coffins were visible in the soil banks along the graded streets, “with the hairless skulls of the poor pauper occupants staring the passerby full in the face.”
In April 1857, the City Health Inspector recommended removal of remains from the 50th Street Potter’s Field, noting that the “general appearance of the ground was disgusting,” with hundreds of human bones exposed and “many people gathered there on Sundays and amused themselves by poking out the skulls and bones.” In 1858-59, the remains were disinterred and transferred to the potter’s field then in operation on Ward’s Island. The 50th Street potter’s field is notable as the last potter’s field established on Manhattan Island; much of the site is occupied today by the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, built in 1929-31.
Sources: Colton’s 1836Map Of The City and County Of New-York; Bromley’s 1955 Manhattan Land Book of the City of New York, Pl 78; Minutes of the Common Council of the City of New York, 1784-1831 (City of New York 1917), 14:306-308; “Proceedings of the Common Council,” New York Spectator, Mar 6, 1827; [City Inspector’s Report of Deaths], New York Evening Post Jul 17, 1832; “Board of Health,” New York Spectator, Jul 26, 1832; “Potter’s Field,” New York Mirror May 30 1840; Documents of the Board of Aldermen of the City of New York Vol 11, 1845, 681-682; “Burials in Cities,” New York Daily Tribune May 30, 1848; “Twelfth Ward Street Opening,” New York Herald, Mar 26, 1850; “Old Potter’s Field,” New York Evening Post, May 30, 1853; “The Old Potter’s Field,” New York Times, May 31, 1853; “The Old Potter’s Field,” New York Herald, Mar 15, 1857; “Public Health—Potter’s Field Again,” New York Daily Tribune, Apr 7, 1857; “Exhumation of Bodies at the Potter’s Field,” New York Evening Post, Jun 8, 1858; “Potter’s Field,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper,Jun 19, 1858; “The News,” New York Herald, Jun 7, 1859
In April 1797, New York City authorities decided to purchase a piece of property “bounded on the Road leading from the Bowery Lane at the two Mile Stone to Greenwich” to replace the public burial ground then in use at Madison Square Park. The property was seen by many as a good choice for the new potter’s field—it was in a rural area north of the populated city but a convenient distance to the Almshouse in City Hall Park, to the public hospital at Bellevue on the East River, and to the new state prison just west on the Hudson River. One group, however, was incensed by the plan—affluent New Yorkers who had country retreats in Greenwich village. The burial ground would not only abut the suburban homes of many of the city’s elite, but it was contiguous to the only road leading westward from the Bowery turnpike to Greenwich, so they and their fashionable visitors would have to suffer the slow-moving wagons carrying bodies to the site.
Fifty-seven owners of residences in the vicinity, including Alexander Hamilton, immediately sent a letter of protest to the Common Council, stating that the burial ground would “lie in the neighborhood of a number of Citizens who have at great expense erected dwellings on the adjacent lots for the health and accommodation of their families during the summer season, and who, if the above design be carried into execution, must either abandon their seats or submit to the disagreeable sensations arising from an unavoidable view of and close situation to a burial place of this description destined for the victims of contagion.” The petitioners offered to buy another piece of land in exchange for the planned site, but their proposal was denied. The city proceeded with preparing the new burial ground, bounded by Greenwich Lane on the north, Fourth street on the south, Wooster Street on the east, and Minetta Creek (which ran southwest from the foot of Fifth Avenue to the corner of MacDougal and Fourth streets) on the west. This property forms approximately the eastern two-thirds of today’s Washington Square Park.
By November 1797, the new burial public burial ground was ready—fenced with “good posts and rails” and planted with trees—and the city ordered the keeper to commence interments there instead of at the old Potter’s Field at Madison Square Park. The keeper, who lived in a house in the northeast corner of the seven-acre site, dug graves, maintained the grounds, and performed another important function—protecting the cemetery from grave robbers. During the 18th and 19th centuries, medical students and physicians were in desperate need of cadavers for their training and research; with no mechanism in place to supply them with fresh corpses, they resorted to body snatching—a crime so common that almost every prominent physician in the city confessed to having taken part. They often pilfered remains from the city’s most vulnerable graveyards—the African burial grounds and potter’s fields, where their raids were less likely to arouse public outrage.
John McKenzie, Keeper of the Potters Field in 1808, was dismissed from the position when he confessed to “conniving at the disinterment and taking away of dead bodies” from the burial ground. One of his successors in the position, William Schureman, was a more faithful servant to the dead—at about 3 o’clock on an April morning in 1824, Schureman “suspected that some person had entered the field for the purpose of removing the dead, and after sending for two watchmen, and calling his faithful dog, he went to ascertain the fact.” His suspicions were confirmed when he arrived at a burial pit containing about 10 coffins that had been uncovered; when the person concealed in the grave refused to show himself, Schureman sent his dog into the pit. Instantly, “a tall, stout fellow made his appearance, and took to his heels across the field.” The grave robber was eventually secured by the watchmen and sentenced to six months in prison. Reporting the story, the New York Evening Post cautioned, “the young gentlemen attending the medical school of this city, will take warning by this man’s fate. They may rest assured that the keeper of Pottersfield will do his duty and public justice will be executed upon any man, whatever may be his condition in life, who is found violating the law and the decency of Christian burial.”
The potter’s field was a burial place not only of “strangers and paupers,” but citizens, rich and poor alike, who died of yellow fever. In the summer of 1798, the disease returned to the city in such proportions it became known as the Great Epidemic; of the 2,000 New Yorkers who perished, about 660 were buried in the potter’s field. The following year, and in subsequent outbreaks, churches were forbidden from burying yellow fever victims in their burial grounds; all those succumbing to it were interred in the potter’s field. In an address delivered to the New-York Historical Society in 1857, John W. Francis describes the potter’s field at Washington Square as “our Golgotha during the dreadful visitations of the Yellow Fever in 1797, 1798, 1801, and 1803…many a victim of the pestilence, of prominent celebrity, was consigned to that final resting-place on earth, regardless of his massive gains, or his public services.”
In addition to serving as burial ground for the indigent, the unknown, and those dying of contagious diseases, the potter’s field was the location of a number of church plots, which lined the burial ground’s eastern edge. Among these church plots were several at the northeastern corner of the potter’s field belonging to congregations of the Scotch Presbyterian Church, and two 50-foot-square plots set aside for the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and Asbury African Church.
By the 1820s, some 20,000 bodies had been laid to rest in the potter’s field and the area surrounding the burial ground—once farm fields and country estates—had transformed into a thriving suburb of the city. Houses and shops lined the blocks immediately south of the burial ground; wells were dug, pumps installed, and streets regulated. “The present Pottersfield is nearly filled, and by Spring it will be necessary to remove it to some other place,” the city council reported in December 1824; a month later, they announced, “the time has arrived when interments should be interdicted in a part of Our City so rapidly improving as that in the vicinity of the present Pottersfield.” In 1825, the burial ground was closed and ordered filled and leveled. The city acquired additional land on the west side of the potter’s field to give the property a uniform shape, and in 1828 the site was described as “a beautiful public square, called Washington Square, which is also used as a military parade ground.” By 1878 it was a public park.
When the city was in the process of creating a public square from the burial ground, the Common Council declared “it is not the intention of this Board to disturb any of the graves within these grounds nor will there be any absolute necessity for such a measure.” They acknowledged that among those buried there were “many connected with our most respectable families” and said they would not think of “disturbing the numerous remains deposited there.” Despite these noble intentions, remains of those resting under Washington Square Park have been disturbed a number of times over the years.
Workmen digging the foundation for the park’s iconic Washington Memorial Arch at the Fifth Avenue entrance in 1890 unearthed coffins, skeletons, and headstones, two bearing the date 1803. In 1941, the New York Times reported more “grim human relics of the eighteenth and nineteenth century” were encountered by WPA laborers who found human remains during excavations for a sewer on the north side of the park. During utility excavations at the northeastern corner of the park in 1965, Con Edison workmen broke through the domed roof of an underground burial vault containing several coffins and “at least 25 skeletons;” this likely was part of the burial grounds of the Scotch Presbyterian Church.
And remains representing at least 31 individuals, including 16 intact graves, were discovered during archaeological work connected with renovations at the park between 2009 and 2013. Also discovered during these excavations was a beautifully-engraved brownstone marker found in the southwest quadrant of the park. “Here lies the body of James Jackson,” the inscription on the three-foot-tall headstone says, “who departed this life the 22nd day of September 1799 aged 28 years native of the county of Kildare Ireland.” Though no human remains were found associated with the headstone, research confirmed that Jackson was a victim of yellow fever and that’s how he—and his finely-made headstone—came to rest in the potter’s field.
New York City’s municipal Almshouse was under siege in the 1790s. The city was in a growth spurt that would double its population to 60,000 by the end of the decade; at the same time, it was ravaged by annual outbreaks of yellow fever. Though yellow fever endangered all New Yorkers (750 fell to it in 1795), the city’s poor were most susceptible to the disease. The rising number of indigent residents and ailing poor placed a strain on the crumbling, sixty-year-old Almshouse, which housed close to 800 people by 1795.
In response to this situation, the city opened a new, larger almshouse just north of the first Almshouse in City Hall Park and established a yellow fever hospital at Bellevue, along the East River north of the settled city. The city also found a new burial place for the poor, interred in grounds adjacent to the Almshouse since the 1750s. In August 1794, the Common Council ordered that the “Triangular Piece of Ground at the junction of the Post & Bloomingdale Roads be appropriated to the use of the Alms House for a Burying Ground.” A month later, the council directed that the hospital at Bellevue be permitted to bury their dead at this same site. The site became a graveyard for interment of paupers, the unknown, and those dying of contagious diseases.
The public burial ground at Post and Bloomingdale roads—the vicinity of present-day 26th Street between Fifth and Madison avenues—was used for just three years. Opposition to transporting the dead on the busy roads leading to the potter’s field compelled the city to discontinue its use in May 1797 and open a new public burial ground at what is now Washington Square Park. The abandoned potter’s field at Post and Bloomingdale roads transferred to the United States government for an arsenal in 1806; later it was the location of the House of Refuge for juvenile delinquents. In 1847, the site was leveled, sodded, and enclosed to create Madison Square Park.
Though the burial ground was used only for a short period, hundreds of people likely were interred there during this calamitous time. Some burials were disinterred when the U.S. government built a powder-and-shot magazine at the site; in 1808, L’Oracle (one of the city’s early 19th century newspapers)reported that “persons employed in digging the foundation of the Magazine in the Old Potter’s Field daily dig up coffins and dead bodies which are disposed of in the most indecent and disrespectful manner.” On several occasions in the early 20th century, construction workers uncovered human remains at the north end of the park during excavations for sewer lines and water pipes. Burials may still be present beneath the park.
Sources: Randel’s 1820 Farm Maps, No. 14; Minutes of the Common Council of the City of New York, 1784-1831 (City of New York 1917), 2:92, 102, 351, 365; Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York (Valentine 1856), 465; The Iconography of Manhattan Island: 1498-1909 (Stokes 1915-1928), 5:1313, 1474, 1494; Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital (Oshinsky 2016), 11-28; “Twenty Dollars Reward” [Notice], New York Evening Post, Apr 8 1809; “Park Once Potter’s Field, New York Times, July 11, 1908; “Unearth Skeleton in Park,” New York Times, Sep 11, 1930.
In the early 1730s, the growing city of New York—then about 9,000 people clustered at the south end of Manhattan—was grappling with the problem of poverty. The “Number and Continual Increase of the Poor within this City is very great and Exceeding burthensome to the Inhabitants thereof,” the Common Council reported in 1734, necessitating construction of a municipal poorhouse, or almshouse. The Almshouse opened in 1736 on the Commons, a triangular piece of communal pastureland at what was then the northern edge of the city. The Almshouse served as a shelter for the poor who were unable to work due to old age or illness and a workhouse/house of corrections for impoverished people considered able to work but “living Idly and unimployed,” as well as “all disorderly persons, parents of Bastard Children, Beggars, Servants running away or otherwise misbehaving themselves, Trespassers, Rogues, [and] Vagabonds.”
Along with housing the sick, impoverished widows, and orphans, the Almshouse put the idle back to work and incarcerated criminals. Inmates (the term used to refer to residents of all public institutions during this time period) received clothing and followed strict daily schedules consisting of meals, prayer, and work (carding wool, making buttons, shredding old rope for reuse, or raising garden crops). In 1785, the Almshouse had 301 inmates—63 men, 133 women, 50 boys, 49 girls, and “2 Black Men & 4 Black Women.” Stays ranged from a day up to the death of an inmate.
Over the course of the 18th century, the Commons became the site of a number of other public buildings including the Gaol, or Jail, completed in 1759, east of the Almshouse; the Bridewell, a prison built in 1775 west of the Almshouse; and the Barracks, four structures constructed at the north end of the Commons beginning in 1757 to house soldiers. Areas surrounding these buildings were used as institutional burial grounds. A fenced burial place for deceased Almshouse inmates was established in 1757 “to the Eastward of and adjoining to the fence of the said Work House, of the Length of two Boards.” Apparently this graveyard was filled by 1785, when the Keeper of the Almshouse requested new grounds for this purpose and the city ordered that vacant ground “in the rear of the Barracks” be used for interment of those dying in the Almshouse and the Bridewell.
In 1797, the city built a new almshouse just north of the first almshouse, which was demolished at that time. In 1803, City Hall was erected on the site the first Almshouse, and the Commons began to transform into today’s City Hall Park, located just south of Chambers Street, between Broadway and Centre streets. In 1816, the poor were relocated to a complex at Bellevue and the second Almshouse building was used a cultural center until it was demolished in 1857; it is now the site of Tweed Courthouse. As the Commons changed from an area of social welfare, penal institutions, and military housing to the seat of local government, the Almshouse burial grounds vanished beneath City Hall Park. Long thought to have been obliterated by two centuries of construction activity, the forgotten burial grounds reappeared during archaeological work connected with recent renovation projects.
More than 50 graves, and disturbed human remains representing at least 200 more individuals, have been found in the north section of City Hall Park since the late 1990s and are believed to be associated with the first Almshouse and the Commons’ other 18th-century institutions. Intact burials were left in place during the excavations, protected to prevent disturbance and covered over again; they rest under the lawns and paved areas near City Hall and Tweed Courthouse. Disturbed burials and fragmentary human remains were collected, analyzed, and eventually reburied in the northeastern corner of the park near Chambers and Centre streets.
Analysis of the skeletal remains suggests people consistent with the Almshouse population—most appear to be of European ancestry; males and females, young and old adults, infants and children are all represented; and many show the traces of lives spent in hard work, poorly healed fractures, and pathologies caused by illness or poor nutrition. These discoveries provide a view of an overlooked segment of society—those unfortunate and unruly early New Yorkers laid to rest in the Almshouse burial grounds, souls no longer forgotten.
In October 1888, a Brooklyn Daily Eagle reporter visited an apartment on the fourth floor of a tenement building near the Brooklyn riverfront. “In a corner sat a young woman with an old face,” writes the reporter, “not an unusual sight to be seen in the more thickly-settled or poorer parts of Brooklyn.” The woman’s daughter, a girl a little over a year old, had died the night before and was lying on a bed nearby, where her body was tended by a group of neighbor women. The mother’s “grief was not of the distressing kind, yet she stared into vacancy and was apparently oblivious of what was passing around her.” Her husband was in prison serving a sentence for assaulting a man while drunk; she had been supporting herself and her daughter by taking in washing. When her child died she was destitute, so she applied to the Commissioner of Charities for a permit to have her daughter buried by Kings County. Soon the county undertaker came with a little pine box and the mother was asked to take leave of her child, which she did in an undemonstrative way. The neighbors went home and the mother was left alone in her apartment as the coffin was carried off for burial at the Kings County potter’s field in Flatbush. “It was nothing new, this scene,” our witness remarks. “Such episodes are of daily occurrence in a great city like Brooklyn.”
Until 1824, individual towns within New York State were required to care for their residents who did not have the means to support themselves financially. In 1824, this changed when the legislature passed an act requiring the care of the indigent poor be addressed at the county level. In 1830, the Kings County Board of Supervisors purchased land at Flatbush for erecting a poorhouse, or almshouse, for the indigent of Kings County. By the mid-19th century, this property—known as the County Farm—included the almshouse, as well as a hospital, nursery, and lunatic asylum. The buildings stood along Clarkson Avenue, facing toward Canarsie Bay. At the east end of the County Farm was the potter’s field. This was the burial place for those dying in the county’s public institutions, as well as those brought from the city of Brooklyn for burial by order of the of Charities Commissioner.
The Kings County cemetery, originally a few acres at the far eastern end of the 67-acre tract, expanded over time, progressing westward so that the cemetery eventually took up the entire eastern section of the County Farm from about East 45th Street to the property boundary near Utica Avenue. In the 1860s there were over 500 annual interments and the original three-acre burial ground was so overcrowded that the Board of Health was called in to investigate complaints that it posed a danger to the health of the community. Their examination “revealed a condition of things which is disgraceful to Kings County and should not and would not have been tolerated up to this time, had it been generally known.” The manner of burial within the cemetery was “of itself sufficiently revolting to necessitate a reform.” Large pits were dug, each about 12 feet square and 12 feet deep, in which coffins were stacked one on top of another, averaging 250 bodies to each pit. Gravediggers—inmates from the almshouse that were assigned to this duty—sprinkled a thin layer of dirt over the coffins as they stacked them, leaving the pit open until it was full—usually taking four to five months—when it was finally covered with about four feet of earth. The only record kept of those buried in each pit was a numbered ticket corresponding with a number on each coffin for all persons 13 years of age and older. No record was kept of children, whose coffins were unnumbered and their remains unidentified.
Conditions at the potter’s field were no better in 1874, when a committee of the Kings County Board of Supervisors testified, “Nothing occurred in the course of our investigation which more surprised and disgusted us than to learn of the manner in which, for many years past, the dead have been buried at the public burial ground. It is hard to conceive how the minds of public officials could have become so deadened to all sense of decency as to permit the bodies of human beings to be disposed of in the manner which the evidence taken by your Committee proves to have been the case at Flatbush … To say that they are buried like dogs would fall far short of a correct use of language; for, with however little respect these animals are usually buried, they are but rarely consigned in large numbers to the same common pit.”
By October 1888, when the above-mentioned Daily Eagle correspondent accompanied the young girl’s body to the King’s County potter’s field to observe her interment, the situation had improved. Pits were no longer used; bodies were buried in graves, each containing three or four bodies, with the top body five feet below the surface. Pine boards were placed above each grave, marked with the numbers of the coffins beneath; each body, including children, had a number to correspond to the burial books kept in the almshouse. In some areas of the graveyard plain white crosses identified the names of those beneath. A single marble headstone stood in the cemetery, marking the grave of a child.
The Kings County cemetery was used until about 1914 when the state acquired the County Farm and its buildings from the city and the complex became known as Long Island State Hospital. In 1917, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that the remains of the estimated 50,000 individuals interred in the potter’s field were disinterred and removed to a burial ground on North Brother Island; hospital buildings and other structures were built over the site, which is now the Kingsboro Psychiatric Center. In August 2017, construction workers repairing sewers near the grounds of the psychiatric center found human remains about 13 feet underground. The skull, arm and leg bones, unearthed at Clarkson Avenue by East 48th Street, are believed to be from the long-forgotten potter’s field.
Sources: Robinson’s 1890 Atlas of Kings County Pl 29; Fairchild Cemetery Manual (1910), 77; “Kings County Board of Supervisors,” New York Times, Aug 6, 1862; “Our County Institutions,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Mar 12, 1868; “How Our Paupers are Buried,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jun 11, 1869; “Sick Paupers,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sep 19, 1874; “Our Poor,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec 16, 1874; “Paupers,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sept 16, 1880; “The Burial of a Pauper,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Oct 21, 1888; “Metz Wants Pauper Bodies Cremated,” Brooklyn Standard Union, May 13, 1906; “Potters Field Burials In a Growing Section,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jun 9, 1912; “New Street Invades Paupers’ Graveyard,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Aug 22, 1913; “State Owns Hospital Now,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Aug 14, 1914; “Keeper of God’s Acre Soon to Lose Place, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jul 1, 1917; “Human Remains Found During Sewer Repairs Near Brooklyn Psychiatric Hospital,” Brooklyn Daily Aug 21 2017; “Human Bones Found by Construction Workers in Brooklyn,” amNewYork Aug 23 2017; Phase IA Archaeological Documentary Study, CAMBA Gardens, 560 Winthrop Street, Brooklyn, New York (Historical Perspectives, Inc., 2013)
At a back corner of Ocean View Cemetery in the Oakwood section of Staten Island is a narrow gravel road that leads into the woods. Wandering down the path, one passes thick brush and brambles, a small pond, rusted scraps of abandoned cars and other junk, until finally encountering a clearing. Here, lined up row by row seemingly in the middle of nowhere, is a cluster of aging headstones marking the graves of merchant mariners who died between 1901 and 1937 in a federal hospital on the borough’s north shore. The Marine Hospital, established on Bay Street in the Clifton section in the 1880s, was part of a network of hospitals around the country that were dedicated to the care of sick and disabled seamen. In the early 1900s, the Marine Hospital on Staten Island evolved into the U.S. Public Service Hospital, which in turn became the site of Bayley Seton Hospital.
After the graveyard on the hospital grounds became full, in 1901 the Marine Hospital purchased a section of Ocean View Cemetery as a new burial ground for the seamen who died in the facility. The men buried here—approximately 1,000, from all around the world—include Adolf Jorgenson of Norway, who died in 1909, aged 33; Joseph Giffney, a 51-year-old native of Massachusetts, who died in 1918; 72-year-old Benton Moore, a seaman from New Jersey who died in 1906; and Nemed Achi, a 21-year-old mess-room steward from India who was interred among the mariners in 1919.
Although the federal government paid for the graves, interment, and burial markers for the men who died in the Marine Hospital, no money was set aside for perpetual care of the burial ground and responsibility for maintaining the site was never assigned to any federal agency. When agencies restructured over the years, the Merchant Marine Cemetery fell through the cracks as ownership and responsibility became undefined, leading the site to suffer a long history of neglect. As early as 1947, just 10 years after burials at the graveyard ended, Representative Ellsworth Buck decried the “appalling conditions” at the abandoned site. Dubbed the “Forgotten Acre,” graves were sunken, headstones crumbling, and metal name markers rusted and broken. Despite efforts of elected officials and several community-sponsored cleanups over the decades, with no one taking on continual care of the burial ground, it would again be forgotten and left to the elements.
In recent years, Ocean View Cemetery’s board of directors committed to restoring the Merchant Marine Cemetery, regardless of who is legally responsible for it. Beginning in 2009, they installed the gravel access road, cleared the site of brush and tree branches, and reset or straightened many of the monuments. On Veteran’s Day 2011, American flags were placed on each grave at the reclaimed site—the first time these merchant marine veterans received such recognition.
Sources: Fairchild Cemetery Manual (1910), 166; Realms of History: The Cemeteries of Staten Island (Salmon 2006), 78-81; “Island’s Own Arlington Planned for Soldier Dead at Ocean View,” Staten Island Advance, May 7, 1951; “Treatment of the Men of ‘Forgotten Acre’ a Borough Blemish, Staten Island Advance, March 1, 2004; “Senator Seeks Federal Help to Repair Forgotten Cemetery,” Staten Island Advance, March 2 2004; “A Cemetery and Its War Dead Wait for a Savior,” New York Times, April 4, 2004; “Forgotten Acre Stuns Surgeon General,” Staten Island Advance, Apr 29, 2004; “At Staten Island Cemetery, a Tribute to Merchant Marine Vets of ‘Forgotten Acre,’ Staten Island Advance, Nov 10, 2011; The Forgotten Acre (Facebook site); U.S. Public Health Service—History; “New York City Municipal Deaths, 1795-1949,” Nemed Achi, 11 Mar 1919, FamilySearch; “New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957,” Ancestry.com
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