In 1849, Congregation Shaar Hashomayim of Manhattan purchased land on 89th Street to serve as a burial place to supplement its earlier graveyard in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The five lots acquired for $900 in 1849 were situated on the north side of 89th Street, near present-day Madison Avenue. By 1875, when the congregation decided to transfer the remains to new plots in Cypress Hills Cemetery, approximately 100 bodies were interred in Shaar Hashomayim’s 89th Street cemetery.
Shaar Hashomayim was one of several Jewish congregations that exhumed remains from their old burial grounds in the late 1800s, an act that was denounced by the Jewish public and press. The editors of The Jewish Messenger took Shaar Hashomayim to task when the congregation began removing their 89th Street cemetery, asserting that “there is absolutely no reason for this desecration. The old cemetery could, with very little expense, have been put in such a condition as to continue an object of grateful reverence. Had the members of Shaar Hashomayim retained any of the old Jewish feeling, they would have hesitated before disturbing the remains of their parents and other relatives.” The editorial goes on to claim that the only motive for emptying the cemeteries was to sell the land at a profit, and pleads with congregations not “to follow their example of contempt for the departed.” Today, an apartment building stands at the site of Shaar Hashomayim’s 89th Street cemetery.
On a June day in 1910, an undertaker and his assistants labored in the drizzling rain to remove coffins from the Watt-Pinkney estate that covered an entire city block between 139th street and 140th streets and 6th and 7th avenues (today’s Lenox Avenue and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard) in Harlem. Complete with magnificent trees, flower and vegetable gardens, two barns, and a row of chicken houses, this single-block enclave was a vestige of a vast farm purchased by Archibald Watt in 1826.
Born in Scotland, Archibald Watt came to New York in 1820 and made his fortune as a merchant and land speculator. In 1827, he married Mrs. Mary Pinkney, a widow whose deceased husband came from a wealthy Maryland family. Archibald became stepfather to Mary’s two daughters—17-year-old Mary Goodwin Pinkney and two-year-old Antoinette Pinkney. Archibald and Mary would go on to have two additional children, Thomas and Grace Watt.
Archibald’s stepdaughter Mary G. Pinkney became his confidant and business secretary and was deeply involved in his real estate deals. When he was hard-pressed for ready cash during a financial downturn in 1843, it was Miss Pinkney who came to his rescue with a $40,000 inheritance left to her by her father. In return, Archibald willed her his Harlem estate “in consideration of love and affection.” Until her death at age 98, Mary Pinkney made her primary residence at the old family manor house near the corner of 139th Street and 7th Avenue and took great pride in the grounds. Dubbed “the wealthiest spinster in the world” when she died in 1908, her real estate holdings in upper Manhattan were worth an estimated $50 million.
Mary Pinkney’s will included a clause directing that “the mortal remains of the members of my family that lie buried in the private burial grounds situate in the plot between 139th street and 140th streets and between Sixth and Seventh avenues shall be removed to the plot now owned by me at Woodlawn Cemetery.” Six of Mary Pinkney’s family members were laid to rest on the estate—her half-sister Grace Watt, who died at age seven in 1839; her sister Antoinette Pinkney, died 1841, aged 16; her 14-month-old niece Mary Pinkney Watt, who died in 1858; her stepfather Archibald Watt, died 1867, age 77; her half-brother Thomas Watt, died 1876 at age 48; and her 94-year-old mother, Mary Goodwin Pinkney Watt, the final interment, in 1883.
In each case, the coffins were enclosed in brick masonry and sealed at the top but left without a tombstone or any other exterior markings. Although the location of the burial vaults is described as “under the grape arbor” on the property, precisely where this was within the block is not known today. When the vaults were opened in 1910, the coffins were found to be in excellent condition, with the nameplates still readable. They were removed and put in zinc boxes for reburial at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. The Watt-Pinkney manor house and grounds were sold in 1925; the house was subsequently demolished and the land redeveloped.
Sources: Sidney’sMap of Twelve Miles around New-York, 1849; Sanborn’s 1909 Insurance Maps of the City of New York,Vol 11, Pl 33; New York, U.S., Episcopal Diocese of New York Church Records, 1767-1970 (Ancestry.com); “Died,” Evening Post, Jul 23, 1839; “Died,” Log Cabin, Nov 13, 1841; “Died,” New York Daily Tribune,Jun 1, 1858; “Died,” New York Herald, Mar 2, 1867; “Died,” New York Herald, Nov 12, 1876; “Died,” New York Herald, Mar 26, 1883; “Estate of Millions, Miss Pinkney’s Care,” New York Times, May 4 1902; “Obituary—Miss Mary G. Pinkney,”New York Tribune, Dec 9, 1908; “Miss Pinkney Buried,”The Sun, Dec 11, 1908; “$50,000,000 Pinkney Estate Goes to a Man and Two Women,”Evening World, Dec 15, 1908; “Pinkney Estate Cut in Four,” The Sun, Dec 16, 1908; “City Overspreads Old Watt Cemetery,” New York Times, Jun 17, 1910; “Historic Estate in Auction Market,” New York Times, May 7 1911; “Harlem to Lose Ancient Landmark,” New York Times, Nov 29 1925; Biographical Register of Saint Andrew’s Society of the State of New York, Vol 2 (Macbean 1925)
Much of the area of Manhattan known today as the Upper West Side was once a country village called Bloomingdale (an Anglicization of the Dutch name Bloomendal, meaning “vale of flowers”). In the 18th and early 19th centuries, wealthy residents of downtown Manhattan built summer houses in Bloomingdale to escape the city and its outbreaks of diseases such as cholera, smallpox, and yellow fever. The village was reached from lower Manhattan by the Bloomingdale Road, which opened in 1703 and followed an old Indian trail from what is now 23rd Street to 114th Street. In 1806, several parishioners of Trinity Church in downtown Manhattan founded St. Michael’s Church to serve the summer residents of Bloomingdale. This congregation built their church, a small wood-frame building, on a hill east of Bloomingdale Road, at what is now Amsterdam Avenue and 99th Street. At its consecration in 1807, it was the only Episcopal Church between lower Manhattan and Yonkers. When this first church building burned down in 1853 it was swiftly replaced with a new sanctuary, consecrated in 1854.
On the south side of St. Michael’s Church, between the building and 99th Street, was the churchyardwhere parishioners were buried. The first recorded burial in St. Michael’s churchyard was in 1809, when Joseph Armstrong, the two-year-old son of the church sexton, was laid to rest here. In the following years, about 500 burials were made in the churchyard where many members of the church’s more prominent families—such as the DePeysters, Weymans, Wagstaffs, Hazards, and Windusts—had family vaults. Bloomingdale farmers, shopkeepers, and other local households that were members of St. Michael’s congregation also were buried in the churchyard. The last known interment was Abraham Valentine Williams, the 25-year-old son of Dr. A.V. Williams, a former warden of the church, in 1873.
From its founding, St. Michael’s was committed to social service, establishing numerous ministries for the poor and disenfranchised. Although burial in their churchyard was reserved for members of their congregation proper, they provided a burial place for the poorer members of their community at a small cemetery a short distance north of the church. In 1828, the church vestry appropriated for this purpose a little over an acre of ground at Clendining Lane, a site between present-day 103rdand 104th Streets and Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues. Known as “St. Michael’s upper ground,” there were 185 interments in this cemetery until its closure in 1854.
In the early 1850s, Rev. Thomas McClure Peters, rector of St. Michael’s, recognized the need for more burial space for the church and for the many charitable institutions with which it was connected. In 1852, he found appropriate land for a cemetery in Queens, where sections were set aside for St. Michael’s parishioners and burial of the poor. Over time, St. Michael’s Cemetery broadened its scope to provide burial space for other churches and institutions and individuals and families of all faiths. It is still owned and operated by St. Michael’s Church today.
As St. Michael’s developed its new cemetery in Queens, urbanization was making its mark in Bloomingdale and would eventually lead to the obliteration of the parish’s Manhattan burial grounds. Opening of streets through the area in the 1870s carved away at both sites, which are described in an 1879 New York Times article. The churchyard, depicted as “cool and breezy” and “well shaded by great trees,” was by that time only half its original size, “the remainder having been taken from it by the opening of Tenth [Amsterdam] Avenue.” “Though many of its headstones bear the marks of extreme age, and are in some cases crumbled and moss-grown,” the article continues in its description of the churchyard, “they all stand upright, and no intruders are allowed to deface them or trample over the well-kept mounds of the graves.” The Times piece also portrays St. Michael’s parish burial ground at 103rd Street as a pleasant site, “well shaded with trees and still containing a few old gravestones,” though diminished when a portion was taken when 104th Street was opened.
In 1890, St. Michael’s removed the remaining graves from their 103rd Street burial ground to their cemetery in Queens and the site was redeveloped (New York City Housing Authority’s Frederick Douglass Houses complex covers the site today). By this time the congregation had outgrown their 1854 church building and decided to build a new church on the existing property, including the churchyard area. Some of the old graves and vaults were opened at that time by their owners and the remains removed to St. Michael’s Cemetery in Queens or elsewhere. However, most of the remains were left in place and lie today beneath the chancel and the southern half of the nave of the present St. Michael’s Church, completed in 1891.
Citizens of New York City readied to protect their dead in 1842 when the Hudson Insurance Company threatened to remove a cemetery near the corner of Chrystie and Delancey streets in the Lower East Side and convert the property into house lots. Thousands signed a petition that was forwarded to the state legislature, asking for a prohibition of the digging up of the dead. A large group of women watched the cemetery day and night—one lady, armed with a pistol, guarded the grave of her husband and children. And when the company’s agent arrived at the burial ground with workmen carrying shovels and spades, “it was the Ladies,” the New York Herald reports, “who over-powered and over-awed this wonderful agent with his men of war, and made them quit the battlefield.”
The scene of this excitement was the burial ground belonging to Bethel Baptist Church. The second oldest Baptist congregation in the city, Bethel Baptist organized in the year 1770 and had its first house of worship on Rose Street in downtown Manhattan. By the early 1800s the congregation had grown to more than 400 members and in 1819 their pastor, Rev. Johnson Chase, purchased eight lots of ground at the corner of Chrystie and Delancey streets for a new church, parsonage, and burying ground. They erected a 65×85-foot brick church on the lots along Delancey Street and used the four lots adjoining the building for the graveyard.
A circular prepared in 1844 by friends and relatives of those interred in the cemetery provides a description of the site: “The said four lots, constituting the Bethel Baptist Burying Ground, contain a square of one hundred feet of ground, fronting on Christie st. In this ground, the remains of about 5,000 human beings are supposed to have been interred since said purchase. On an average the coffins are understood and believed to be at least five deep. The lowest tier of coffins are about fourteen feet below the surface. The surface of the grave yard is now five or six feet above what it originally was, having been filled up with coffins, graves, etc.”
Beset by difficulties (including claims that church trustees used the cemetery as a money-making enterprise, selling the same plots over and over), Bethel Baptist disbanded in 1840 and sold their property. Thwarted in their attempts to remove the burial ground, Hudson Insurance Company suspended their plans for the site. The abandoned cemetery became an enclosure for hogs that tore up the ground and uprooted headstones. The city took over the property in 1856 and built a public school at the site. In the 1930s, the school was demolished and the site became part of Sara Delano Roosevelt Park.
Although remains from the burial ground may have been removed before the site was redeveloped for a public school and later a public park, it seems likely the cemetery was simply built over since evidence of burials has been discovered over the years. In 1891, workmen excavating beneath the basement of the public school unearthed a large quantity of human remains under the northwest corner of the building—including 25 skulls and “a miscellaneous assortment of bones of arms, legs, and thighs.”
In 1964, decades after the site had been incorporated into the park, construction workers digging for foundation piles for a new senior recreation center were astounded when bones of what appeared to be at least 200 individuals were uncovered. Several engraved silver coffin plates were also found. The plates bore the names of Elizabeth Morrell and Emma Buchler, who died in 1821, and Martha Darby, who died in 1823. The foundation walls of the former school were visible in the excavation where the skeletons were found and had apparently been sunk down through burial vaults in the old cemetery. Following the 1964 discovery, the senior center was built and still stands at the site today. The disposition of human remains encountered during construction at the site is unknown.
Sources: City of New-York (Burr 1832); Robinson’s 1893Atlas of the City of New York 4:13; A History of the Churches of All Denominations in the City of New York from the First Settlement to the Year 1846 (Greenleaf 1846); “Board of Aldermen,” New York Daily Express, Nov 30, 1841, “Corporation Notice,” Evening Post, Feb 9, 1842, “Protect Your Dead,” New York Tribune, Feb 23, 1842; “Protect the Dead,” New York Tribune, Feb 26, 1842; “Bethel Baptist Burying Ground,” New York Tribune, Mar 22, 1842; “Disturbing the Dead,” New York Herald, Mar 31, 1842; “Legislature of New York,” Spectator, Apr 2, 1842; “Digging Up the Dead,” New York Herald, Apr 13, 1842; “Removal of the Dead,” New York Herald, Apr 4, 1844; [Letter to Editor], New York Herald, Apr 5, 1844; “Protect the Dead in Their Graves,” New York Express, May 27, 1844; “Little Better Than Footballs,” New York Herald, Jul 19, 1891; “Bones Under a Schoolhouse,” New York Times, Jul 19, 1891; “Lower East Side Diggers Find Graves on a Construction Site,” New York Times, Dec 18, 1964
In the early 18th century the Reformed Dutch Church at Exchange Place in Lower Manhattan found it necessary to build a second church to accommodate their growing congregation. The New Dutch Church opened in 1729 on the east side of Nassau Street, between Cedar and Liberty Streets. It was a substantial stone building, 100 feet long and 70 feet wide, with a tall steeple and bell. In the winter of 1732-33, an administrative committee established rules and regulations for burials in the churchyard of the New Church. Plots for vaults or graves “shall be at least six feet long and nine broad,” the rules read, and “at least six feet from the Church wall.” Vaults were to be built of stone or brick at the plot owner’s expense, and the owner was responsible for keeping it in repair. For the sum of £15 “in New York currency,” the owner acquired the right of burial in the plot “for himself and his heirs forever.”
Obituaries for those interred in the churchyard of the New Dutch Church appear with great frequency in early New York newspapers. Among them are death notices for John Van Der Speigel, “a Gentleman of unblemished Character” interred in the family vault in the New Dutch Churchyard in 1770; Ann Low, “an affectionate Wife and indulgent Mother” laid to rest here in 1772; Nicholas Gouverneur, “an ancient and respectable inhabitant of this city” transported to the family vault after he died at his country seat near Newark in 1786; and Martha Washington Clinton, the 13-year-old daughter of then-governor(and later United States vice-president) George Clinton, whose remains were “conveyed from the Government House and deposited in a vault in the New Dutch Church Yard” in 1795.
Around the turn of the 19th century, the New Dutch Church on Nassau street became known as the Middle Dutch Church because it was situated between the old Dutch Church (or South Dutch Church) on Exchange Place and the North Dutch Church built in the late 1700s at William and Fulton streets. As Lower Manhattan became increasingly devoted to business activity in the 1800s, families moved northward and all three of the Reformed Dutch Church congregations eventually relocated uptown. In 1839, the Middle Dutch Church moved to a new building at Lafayette Place and Fourth Street; the congregation continues today as the Middle Collegiate Church at Second Avenue in the East Village.
In 1844 the Middle Dutch Church building at Nassau Street was leased to the United States government and converted into a post office. The following year, the church obtained permission from the city’s Board of Aldermen to remove remains from the churchyard to their new property at Lafayette Street, but it is unclear if removals were actually made at this time. When the U.S. government sought to purchase the Nassau Street property in 1860, the title was disputed because many of the vaults surrounding the building were still tenanted and owners were actively using them for interment of family members. Some families were surprised to find that their vaults had been emptied without their permission and accused church trustees of boxing up and removing remains “stealthily and at night to a distant part of the city.”
Coffins and human remains were found in several of the old burial vaults in 1877 when the post office (the former Middle Dutch church building) was converted into shops. Workers removed 49 boxes of human remains from the site between November 1882 and January 1883 when the building and vaults were demolished to make way for the Mutual Insurance Company building; these remains were transferred to a plot at Greenwood Cemetery. Most of these burials could not be identified, but coffin plates recovered from one vault in November 1882 named three of those interred there. One plate read “Gerrard Steddiford, died 3d April 1820, aged 67 years, 7 months, and 7 days;” another was inscribed “Louisa Matilda Von Antwerp, died 1st March 1822, aged 3 years 11 months;” and the third was marked “Peter Kemble, Jr. died 19th November, 1813, aged 26 years.”Today One Chase Manhattan Plaza stands atop their former burial ground.
Sources: Taylor-Roberts 1797 New and Accurate Plan of the City of New York; A History of the Churches of All Denominations in the City of New York from the First Settlement to the Year 1846 (Greenleaf 1846); Ecclesiastical Records, State of New York, Vol 4; The Iconography of Manhattan Island: 1498-1909 (Stokes 1915-1928), Vol 1; Bodies in Transit Register X:1881-1894, Municipal Archives, City of New York; “John Van Der Spiegel,” New-York Journal, Aug 30, 1770; “Ann Low,” New-York Journal, Oct 8, 1772; “Nicholas Gouverneur,” Daily Advertiser, Nov 18, 1786;“Died,” New-York Weekly Chronicle, Feb 26, 1795; “Brigade Orders,” Commercial Advertiser, Mar 26, 1798; “The Middle Dutch Church,” Evening Post, Jan 17, 1845; Journal and Documents of the Board of Assistant Aldermen of the City of New York, Vol XXV Dec 2 1844 to May 12 1845; “Efforts to Establish a Title for the Sale of the Dutch Church,”New York Herald, Aug 8, 1860; “Removal of the Dead,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sep 18, 1860; “The Post Office,” New York Herald, Aug 30, 1875; “Among the Forgotten Dead,” New York Tribune, Jul 6, 1877; “Found at the Old Post Office,” New York Times, Nov 21, 1882; “Five Skeletons Discovered,” New York Times, Nov 24, 1882; “The Old Post Office Building,” New York Times, Nov 26, 1882; “City and Suburban News,” New York Times, Nov 28, 1882; “Demolishing an Old Church,” New York Tribune, Mar 27, 1887