In 1839, an act of the New York State legislature authorized the town of Flushing, Queens, to tax its inhabitants for the “purpose of purchasing a suitable piece of land for a public burial ground.”The sum of $500 was to be collected to purchase property for the cemetery, which was to be deeded to the supervisor of the town of Flushing and “used as a public burial ground for said town.”A roughly triangular area of farmland in the southeastern part of Flushing was acquired for this purpose and was used as a public cemetery until 1898, when Flushing consolidated into the City of New York and the site became city property.
Located north of present-day 46th Avenue between 164th and 165th Streets, Flushing’s three-acre public cemetery served as a burial ground for the indigent and unknown and for those dying of contagious diseases. When first established, it likely also served as a general community cemetery where any local resident without a private family burial ground or church plot could be buried; this use was superseded in 1853 by the opening of the large, privately-owned Flushing Cemetery immediately opposite the public burial ground, on the south side of 46th Avenue. By the late 19th century, Flushing’s town cemetery was used primarily as a potter’s field and as a burial ground for the local African American community.
At a meeting of the Town of Flushing’s board of trustees in May 1895, a committee described their visit to the town cemetery, where they found it “sadly in need of attention.” Fences were down, the grounds were overgrown with weeds, and graves were dug haphazardly “wherever the gravedigger happened to first strike his spade.” Coffins were found two or three in a grave and sometimes no more than three feet beneath the surface.A year later, the Long Island Democrat reported that conditions in the town cemetery had “by no means improved…Bodies are indiscriminately buried only 6 to 12 inches below the ground just as in previous years.”In 1914, the abandoned cemetery site was acquired by the Parks Department and later converted into a public park and playground known as Martin’s Field.
Though an estimated 1,000 individuals were interred in Flushing’s town cemetery between 1840 and 1898, only four gravemarkers were found at the site in 1919 when it was surveyed by the Queens Topographical Bureau. Identifying the site as the “Colored Cemetery” the Topographical Bureau recorded the inscriptions on the marble tombstones of Willie Curry (d. 1874), Alfred Bunn (d. 1876), George Bunn (d. 1887), and James Bunn (d. 1890). The Bunns were of Native American ancestry and were members of Macedonia A.M.E. Church, a hub for Flushing’s nineteenth-century African American community.
There is no evidence that the burials in the Flushing town cemetery were removed when the site was converted into a public park, but human remains have been disturbed during the process of building facilities there. In 1936, “bones galore” were uncovered during excavations for a children’s wading pool, when neighbors “saw workmen pulling bones out of the ground.”In addition to human remains, the workers found pennies placed on the eyes of the dead—a burial practice also observed in excavations of the African Burial Ground in lower Manhattan.
Rediscovery of the Flushing town cemetery began in the 1990s during planned renovations at Martin’s Field, when local activist Mandingo Tshaka drew attention to its previous history. Documentary research confirmed the park was a former public burial ground and that human remains likely were still present at the site. The Parks Department, spurred by community involvement, took steps to protect and recognize the former cemetery. Renovations completed in 2006 included a paved area with a central stone inscribed with the site’s history, and a recreated historic wall engraved with the names from the four headstones remaining here in 1919. The park was officially renamed “The Olde Town of Flushing Burial Ground” in 2010, and has since been listed on the New York State and National Register of Historic Places. In October 2018, city officials unveiled a $1.6 million plan to reconstruct the commemorative plaza and other features of the site, to better honor those laid to rest here.
Sources: Beers 1873 Atlas of Long Island, Pl 78; Laws of the State of New York, 62nd Session (1839), Chap. 205; Description of Private and Family Cemeteries in the Borough of Queens (Powell & Meigs 1932), 46-47; Report on Phase 1A Archaeological Documentary Research in Advance of the Reconstruction of the Martins Field Playground, Flushing, Queens, New York (Stone 1996);“Not a Pauper,” Newtown Register, Feb 7, 1884, 7; “A Public Disgrace: The Town Cemetery Shamefully Neglected,” Flushing Journal, May 24, 1895; Long Island Democrat, Sep 1896, 3; “Flushing Residents Object to Local Potter’s Field,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 4, 1910; “Coins from Dead Men’s Eyes Are Sold by WPA Workers,” Long Island Daily Press, Jun 19, 1936, 1; “Old Burial Grounds Now Used as Modern Play Area,” North Shore Daily Journal, Jul 15, 1936, 3; “Forgotten Cemetery to Be Restored,” New York Times, Jun 22, 1997; “Above, an Old Playground; Below, Graves for the Poor,” New York Times, Apr 2, 2000; “At Last, Justice,” Whitestone Times, Jun 3, 2010; “Mayor Wants Flushing Burial Ground Revamped,” QNS.com, Nov 30, 2017; “Mayor de Blasio Visits The Olde Towne of Flushing Burial Ground,” Office of the Mayor—News, Oct 26, 2018; The Olde Towne of Flushing Burial Ground (NYC Parks); Olde Towne of Flushing Burial Ground Conservancy
In 1811, the African Methodist Society in Flushing acquired land on the north side of Liberty Street (later 38th Avenue) just west of Union Street, to establish a church. Erected in 1837, the Macedonia African Methodist Episcopal Church became the nucleus of a historic African American enclave that flourished in downtown Flushing into the mid-20th century.
Part of the Macedonia A.M.E. Church property was used as a burial ground that served the local black community throughout much of the 19th century. By the early 1900s, the small graveyard had fallen into disuse and burials were disturbed during church construction work on at least two occasions. When an extension was added to the church in 1903, burials were uncovered to the east of the existing building; these were reinterred in a corner of the churchyard.
In 1931, church officials removed some 200 bodies from the burial ground at the rear of the church when a new wing was added for a social hall and gym; at the same time, unsuspected burials were encountered during foundation work underneath the church. Church officials planned to transfer the remains from the church property to a plot at Flushing Cemetery; however, the transfer was not permitted because the church did not have proper documentation for the deceased. The remains from the burial ground were subsequently reinterred below the church building.
Little is known about specific individuals who were laid to rest in the Macedonia A.M.E. cemetery since church burial records were lost in the early 20th century. One newspaper, reporting on the 1931 disinterments at the site, said many were “the remains of prominent figures in the history of Flushing’s colored population of the past century.” Still in the collective memory in 1931 was the grave of Jesse Major, whose tombstone, carved in the shape of an open bible, once stood next to the graveyard’s front entrance. “Violets and buttercups grew on Jesse’s grave when they grew on none other,” said members of the congregation who recalled seeing the grave and its flowers around the turn of the century, when “no boy would dare tread on the grave overshadowed by the ‘Good Book.’”
Among the prominent figures likely interred in the Macedonia A.M.E. Cemetery was Rev. Edward C. Africanus, a pastor at Macedonia and a teacher at Flushing’s Colored School. As noted in the Cyclopedia of African Methodism, many considered Africanus “the most talented minister in the New York conference” of the A.M.E. Church. When he died in Flushing in 1853 at age 33, Africanus was described as as one who “towered high as scholar and pulpit orator.”
When the city decided in the 1950s to create a large municipal parking facility in the area surrounding Macedonia A.M.E., the church was allowed to stay at its site largely because its demolition would have further disturbed the human remains interred at the site. Though the church was spared, it became an island in a sea of cars—much of the black community that had surrounded Macedonia since the early 19th century was displaced to make way for the parking field that encircled the church. Still standing at its original location, today Macedonia A.M.E. is the third oldest church in Flushing. The parking facilities surrounding the church are currently being redeveloped into Flushing Commons and Macedonia Plaza.
Sources: Beers 1873 Atlas of Long Island, Pl 70;“Civil Rights of the Dead,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jun 15, 1866; “200 Skeletons Unearthed: Remnants of Bodies Buried in Flushing Exhumed to Make Way for Church Building,” North Shore Daily Journal, Sep 12 1931, 1, 5; “Graveyard Under Flushing Church Revealed As Reason for Fight on Parking Lot Project,” Long Island Star-Journal, July 13, 1949, 13; Phase 1A Archaeological Assessment Report for the Flushing Center Project, Queens, New York(Historical Perspectives, Inc., 1988); Cyclopedia of African Methodism (Wayman 1882), 13; History of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (Payne 1891), 303-304; City of Gods: Religious Freedom, Immigration, and Pluralism in Flushing, Queens (Hanson 2016), 55-56, 167-169
Several cemeteries in Queens have intriguing features hidden within them—small burial grounds that predate the cemeteries in which they are nestled. These earlier graveyards were on family estates acquired by religious and non-denominational corporations that assembled swathes of land to form new, large-scale cemeteries in the second half of the 19th century.
Estate owners tried to protect their family burial grounds with covenants in wills and deeds that exempted them from property transfers and directed that they be preserved intact. Three of these early burial grounds are located within the boundaries of Calvary and Mount Zion cemeteries in western Queens, and hold the remains of some of the pioneer settlers of Newtown, the historic township that comprised much of the area. These are the burial places of the Alsops, Cumbersons, and Betts, families of English origin who had neighboring farms in Newtown and were prominent in local events and public life during the colonial period and later, but disappeared from the area as their estates were broken up and sold off.
Alsop Family Burial Ground
In 1691, Richard Alsop inherited a sizeable estate along Newtown Creek upon the death of his uncle, Thomas Wandell. Wandell created the estate through acquisition of a 100-acre plantation originally granted to Richard Brutnell in 1643, and adding to it 50 acres patented in 1652 to Richard Colfax. Succeeding his uncle, Richard Alsop resided on what became known as the Alsop farm until his death in 1718, living in the home his uncle had built on the north shore of Newtown Creek. Alsop was buried on the crown of a hill near the house—the same spot where his uncle had been laid to rest in 1691, and a site where Alsop’s descendants would be buried for over 170 years.
Richard Alsop’s offspring became distinguished in the legal profession and mercantile life; his son Richard (1695-1764), a justice of the peace, took over the paternal farm at Newtown. One of Richard Alsop II’s sons, also Richard (1730-1790), a highly respected and influential citizen of Newtown who served in the magistracy for many years, inherited the estate next. Richard III’s son, John Alsop (1779-1837), succeeded as owner of the Alsop farm; in 1845, his widow sold the property—then consisting of about 115 acres—to the Trustees of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The Trustees secured the land to establish a new cemetery for Manhattan’s Roman Catholic population. The Alsop farm became the original section of Calvary Cemetery, known as Old Calvary, bounded today by the Long Island Expressway, Laurel Hill Boulevard, Review Avenue, and Greenpoint Avenue. When Mrs. Ann Alsop sold the farm to the Trustees, the agreement provided that the Alsop family burial ground would remain inviolate and the Trustees have maintained it to this day.
The Alsop Family Burial Ground is situated in the southeastern part of Old Calvary where it is enclosed—and separated from the consecrated grounds that surround it—by a metal fence. Some two dozen gravemarkers still stand in the 75×54 foot plot, including several brownstone monuments with the winged death’s head motif common on colonial gravestones. The oldest headstone in the plot marks the grave of the first Richard Alsop (d. 1718), the progenitor of the Newtown Alsops; his wife Hannah, who survived him by 39 years, rests beside him. A large granite obelisk commemorates the final family members interred here: William Alsop (d. 1883), the last known direct descendant, and his wife Sarah Leaird Alsop, who died in 1889. The old Alsop mansion, built by Thomas Wandell ca. 1651, stood within the boundaries of Old Calvary until 1880, when it was demolished as Calvary laid out the grounds for gravesites.
Cumberson Family Burial Ground
By the 1870s, much of Old Calvary Cemetery was full and church authorities began purchasing large parcels of land east of the original cemetery to accommodate more burials; these tracts would come to form New Calvary Cemetery, which stretches from Queens Boulevard to 55th Avenue in three divisions. Among the land that became part of the north end of New Calvary is a portion of an estate established by Thomas Cumberson in 1761 on the west side of the Road to English Kills (58th Street), near present-day Queens Boulevard. The Cumberson farm is the scene of a vivid account in Riker’s 1852 Annals of Newtown, which details an attempted robbery of Thomas Cumberson’s home by deserting British soldiers during the military occupation of Newtown from 1776 to 1783. The episode ends with Cumberson mortally wounding one of the robbers, who soldiers buried in the woods at the north end of the farm. The Cumberson home was rebuilt after the Revolution, and stood at today’s 58th Street near 43rd Avenue until it was torn down in 1915.
Thomas Cumberson’s son and successor to the estate, the second Thomas Cumberson (1775-1849), seems to have created the small burial ground just south of the Cumberson home that was used by his family during the first half of the 1800s. In 1848, Cumberson authorized in his will that his heirs could sell his farm but not the graveyard at the southern end of the property; he devised and bequeathed the burial ground to his children and grandchildren, and to their heirs and assigns, to be kept and used by them as a burial place and for no other purpose.
An 1887 article in the Newtown Register describes a visit to the “lonely little cemetery” of the second Thomas Cumberson, who was “remembered by his neighbors as a man of cultivated mind and of singular powers of memory in treasuring up the traditions of Newtown.” The handful of tombstones included those to “Thomas Cumberson, who died March 31, 1849, aged 74,” “Hannah Cumberson, wife of Thomas Cumberson, who died November 1, 1847,” “In memory of Jane Cumberson, who died October 25, 1829, aged 16 years, 8 months, 21 days,” “Frances Jane Cumberson, daughter of Peregrine and Frances Cumberson, died July 24, 1848, aged 13 years,” and “Sacred to the memory of Peregrine Cumberson, who departed this life October 29, 1834, aged 34 years.”
Today, no tombstones remain in the Cumberson Family Burial Ground, located at the southwest corner of 58th Street and Queens Boulevard. The descendants of the first Thomas Cumberson, who established the farm in 1761, held a reunion in the late 1880s; of the 200 present, only one bore the Cumberson name. The Cumberson’s are now extinct in the area and those at rest in the tiny, unmarked preserve at the northeast corner of New Calvary Cemetery are the only link to the family’s history in old Newtown.
Betts Family Burial Ground
Just south of the Cumberson farm, on the opposite side of today’s 58th Street, was the 120-acre estate founded by Captain Richard Betts in 1656. Betts built his home on the east side of the Road to English Kills and north of the Road to Newtown (later Penny Bridge Road and then Borden Ave), at what is now the northeast corner of 58th Street and 54th Avenue. An extensive landholder active in public affairs, Capt. Betts was an influential figure in Newtown’s history. A zealous revolutionist against the Dutch, he held a number of provincial government positions under English rule, including a 1678 commission as “High Sheriff of Yorkshire upon Long Island.” He left large landed possessions to his children and his descendants occupied portions of the paternal estate into the early 20th century.
Capt. Betts was 100 years old when he died in 1713; legend has it a few days before he died he dug his own grave in the family burial ground near his home. Both the site of the old Betts house and the family graveyard are now within Mount Zion Cemetery, part of land purchased by developers in the 1890s to establish a cemetery to accommodate the burial needs of the city’s burgeoning Jewish immigrant population. The Betts house is long gone, but the burial ground lies secluded on a gently sloping hill in the southwestern part of Mount Zion.
About 30 headstones survive in the roughly 85×65 foot plot, which includes an old right-of-way (no longer used) to 54th Avenue. No headstone is here for the grave of the illustrious Capt. Betts, its absence possibly accounted for by the fact that his sons were members in the Society of Friends and early Quakers didn’t allow tombstones. Three rough stones containing only initials and dates are the oldest in the burial ground—these identify the graves of Capt. Betts’ grandson Daniel Betts (d. 1759), his wife Mary Betts (d. 1757), and their son Daniel Betts (d. 1762). Most of the graves in the plot are marked with white marble tombstones commemorating family members who occupied the estate in the 19th century, the most recent marker dating to 1885.
Sources: Riker’s 1852 Map of Newtown Long Island; Beers 1873 Atlas of Long Island, Pl 52 ;The Annals of Newtown (Riker 1852), 212-214, 334-338, 373-378; History of Queens County (Munsell 1882, 340); Description of Private and Family Cemeteries in the Borough of Queens (Powell & Meigs 1932), 66-68, 70-71 & Supplement 1975, 5-7; 300 Years of Long Island City (Seyfried 1984), 76, 179, 183; Woodside: A Historical Perspective (Gregory 1994), 5-9; “The Catholic Cemeteries of New York,” Historical Records and Studies 1 (1899), 375-377; Wills of Real Estate, Queens County, Liber, 1845-1849 (Case 1940), 65; “Personal—Alsop,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jan 26, 1880; “Relics of Long Ago,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Apr 25, 1880, 1; “The Last of the Alsops,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Mar 1, 1889, 6; “A Protestant Burial Ground Maintained by Catholics,” New York Times, Apr 12, 1950; “Walks Through Old Cemeteries in Newtown,” Newtown Register, Nov 11, 1875; “Walks Through Old Cemeteries,” Newtown Register, March 15 1877, 4; “Old Newtown and Its Confines,” Newtown Register, Jun 30, 1887, 8; “Many Points of Interest in Queens Co.,” Daily Star, Oct 3, 1917, 8.
In October 2011, construction workers uncovered a human body during the process of redeveloping a 1.4-acre property at Corona Avenue and 90th Street in Elmhurst, Queens. Thought to be a possible crime scene, forensic anthropologists from the Medical Examiner’s Office were called to the site. They determined that the remains were of a young African American woman who died in the early 1850s. Her body had naturally mummified in the iron coffin she was buried in, which had broken open during the excavations. Inquiries confirmed that the property was used as an African American cemetery in the 19th century, and archaeologists subsequently recovered tombstone and coffin fragments from the site, as well as bone fragments representing at least nine other individuals.
The Iron Coffin Lady, as she has been dubbed, was recovered from the site of a cemetery associated with the United African Society of Newtown, later known as St. Mark’s A.M.E. Church. In 1828—a year after the abolition of slavery in New York—a white farmer, William Hunter, and his wife Jane, deeded two acres to the United African Society for the purpose of building a church and parsonage. This property was on the north side of Dutch Lane (later Union Avenue, and now Corona Avenue), between what is now 90th Street and 91st Place. A cemetery was perhaps already in use on the site—some sources say the property had been set aside as a “Negro burial ground” in 1818. Services for black worshippers were offered for nearly 100 years at the church built at the site, but the congregation was continuously torn by struggles between a Presbyterian faction and another preferring the Methodist ritual. In 1907, the United African Society joined the African Methodist Episcopal Church and reemerged as St. Mark’s A.M.E. Church.
Throughout the 19th century, members of Newtown’s earliest African American church were buried in the cemetery on Corona Avenue, which likely also served as a general burial ground for the black community of Newtown Village (today’s Elmhurst). Over 300 burials had been made in the graveyard by 1886, when the church appealed for assistance in enclosing the cemetery and making necessary repairs. The improvements had been made by 1891, when the Newtown Register reported that a “neat fence” surrounded the entire church grounds, and the graves, previously “covered with underbrush and sadly neglected,” were “entirely cleared and neatly fixed over,” presenting “a sightly and pleasing appearance.” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle described one of the burials made in the restored cemetery:
Fesius Hoff was a negro who lived in the village of Newtown for many years, dying in April 1892. He made his living by doing chores about the village and was universally liked. He lived in a tumbledown, one-story house that many times needed the necessaries of life. But no matter how hard-pressed he was no one ever heard him complain. He took life easy and if he had anything to eat he was glad, and if he had not it was all right. He trusted to luck, and many times it deserted him. To the small boys of the village, Fesius was an oracle. If a question was to be decided, to him the boys went and always abided by his decision. In all matters Fesius was their counselor and guide, and when they grew up they had always a kindly word for the old negro. Friday afternoon, in the burying ground attached to the colored church, where Fesius’s body had been laid to rest, a monument was set up over his grave … The Rev. J.W. Van Zandt, the pastor of the colored church, delivered an oration and prominent citizens made addresses. The little churchyard was crowded and flowers were laid upon his grave…
The Queens Topographical Bureau surveyed the “Colored Cemetery” on Corona Avenue in 1919. No inscriptions or locations of graves were recorded during the survey, but information was obtained from Mr. John Ferguson of Brooklyn, “one of the oldest members of the church.” Mr. Ferguson said that no one had kept a record of burials in the cemetery and interments there had ended by the beginning of the 20th century. In 1929, St. Mark’s A.M.E. sold the property at Corona Avenue and moved to a new church at 95th Street and 32nd Avenue in East Elmhurst. Before the move, in April 1928 the New York Amsterdam News reported that St. Mark’s had applied for a permit to remove all the remains from the burial ground at Corona Avenue and reinter them in a plot purchased at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Maspeth, Queens, but the application had been refused by the city. Mount Olivet’s burial register records the remains of 20 individuals from the Corona Avenue cemetery that were transferred to two graves at Mount Olivet in May 1928. Why only these 20 were moved is unknown. It seems most of the burials at the Corona Avenue burial ground were left in place and built over when the property was sold. By the 1940s, the Peerless Instrument factory and other structures had been built on the site.
The body discovered during construction at the site in 2011 was a 5-foot-3-inch-tall mummified African American woman, buried in an elaborate and expensive Fisk Metallic Burial Case shaped like an Egyptian sarcophagus. Her long hair, falling over her shoulders, was preserved, as were the chemise, shroud, bonnet, and stockings she was wearing. Lesions on her skin suggested she died of smallpox.
After five years of testing, investigation, and research by a diverse team of experts, in 2016 the Iron Coffin Lady was reburied at Mount Olivet Cemetery, where she was laid to rest near the 20 individuals who were reinterred there from the Corona Avenue cemetery in 1928. The discovery of her body in 2011 fascinated scientists and historians and spurred local interest in this forgotten African American burial ground and Newtown’s historic black community. At the 2016 reburial ceremony held at the St. Mark’s A.M.E. successor church located at 95‐18 Northern Boulevard in Queens, the church’s pastor Kimberly Detherage stated, “It was no accident that her body was found…God ordained that we should have another opportunity to know and discover our history and how important our history is to the building of New York and this nation as African Americans.”
When English Quakers arrived in New Amsterdam in 1657, they were unwelcome among the Dutch but found acceptance in some of the English settlements on Long Island, especially at Flushing in present-day Queens. Soon many were holding Quaker meetings in their homes, attracting the attention of Dutch civil authorities. When Governor Peter Stuyvesant issued an order forbidding colonists to allow Quakers into their houses, Flushing town leaders delivered the Flushing Remonstrance, one of the earliest documents proclaiming religious freedom in America. In 1662, Stuyvesant arrested John Bowne, a prominent figure in Flushing’s Quaker community, for holding services in his home. Bowne successfully appealed to the Dutch West India Company and Stuyvesant was ordered to permit all faiths to worship freely. With religious toleration now the law of the colony, Flushing’s Quakers could hold their services without fear of disturbance and continued to meet at Bowne’s house twice a week for thirty years.
In 1676 Bowne provided land for a burial ground for Flushing’s Quaker community, and in 1694 a meetinghouse was built on land adjacent to the Quaker cemetery. For more than 300 years, the Flushing Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends has worshipped at this old meetinghouse, situated at 137-16 Northern Boulevard in what is now a bustling commercial area in downtown Flushing. The cemetery, located behind the wood-shingled meetinghouse, is the oldest Quaker burial ground in New York City and is the final resting place for many early Quakers and prominent local families, including the Bownes, Hicks, Farringtons, and Lawrences.
No one knows how many are buried in the one-acre graveyard since there are no burial records and the early Quakers didn’t allow tombstones—their unmarked graves in keeping with the faith’s principle of humility. When markers began to be used in the 19th century, they were designed to be simple and modest—typically small, plain stones with little more than a name or initials. About 130 tombstones are visible in the graveyard today, recording individuals who died between the 1820s and the 1890s, when the cemetery closed to new interments. After a period of neglect, the graveyard is now nicely maintained and blooms with indigenous flowers and bushes. Old elm trees and oaks shade the perimeter and help set the place apart from the teeming urbanism that surrounds it. This peaceful oasis is a reminder of a time when Flushing was a leading center of American Quakerism and the nation’s struggle for religious freedom.
In 2014 the gravestone of Wilson Rantus, a prominent African American figure in pre-Civil War Queens, mysteriously turned up in the backyard of a Queens College professor’s home. How or why the 153-year-old marble tombstone ended up in the professor’s yard near the college’s Flushing campus was never ascertained, but it is known that it originally stood in the Rantus Family Cemetery that was nearby. In 1853, Troy Rantus established a burial ground on the family farm that was located in a community called “Head of Vleigh,” just south of today’s Queens College. The cemetery was actively used by the descendants of Troy Rantus into the early 20th century, and was referred to by a number of names including “The Burying Ground of the Family of Troy Rantus the First,” “Troytown Cemetery,” and “The Colored Burying Ground of South Flushing.” The last known burial in the cemetery was in 1911, when James A. Brooks, a 37-year old Queens mail carrier and son of Sarah Rantus, was interred there.
Although records show the family burial ground was the final resting place of at least a dozen members of the Rantus family, when the Queens Topographical Bureau surveyed the cemetery in 1919 only two headstones were present—those of Wilson Rantus (d. 1861) and James Rantus (d. 1903). Wilson Rantus was an educated African American farmer and activist who had large landholdings in both Flushing and Jamaica, Queens, in the mid-1800s. He took part in the struggle for equal voting rights in New York State, fought for educational rights for black children, and was a financial backer of Thomas Hamilton’s Anglo-African magazine and newspaper. The inscription on his gravestone was partially transcribed in 1919:
WILSON RANTUSDied May 13, 1861Aged 55 yearsJesus, lover of my soul, let me to Thy bosomFly, while the raging billows roll…O, receive my soul at last
In 1952, a home building company obtained permission from the Rantus heirs to remove the bodies from the family cemetery so the company could have clear title to develop the land. At that time, no gravestones remained in the 52-by-84-foot plot, which was described as a “a long-forgotten Negro burial ground” at the southwest corner of 149th street and Gravett Road. The company reportedly removed the human remains “with care and respect” and transferred them to a plot in the Terrace Hill section at Evergreens Cemetery in Brooklyn. The Mainstay Cooperative Apartments now stand on the former site of the Rantus Family Cemetery.
Sources: Beers 1873 Atlas of Long Island, Pl 57; Fairchild Cemetery Manual (1910), 164; Description of Private and Family Cemeteries in the Borough of Queens (Powell & Meigs 1932), 60-61; “New York City Municipal Deaths, 1795-1949,” FamilySearch, James A. Brooks, 10 Jun 1911; “Builders Seek to Remove Bodies from Burial Ground in Flushing,” Long Island Star-Journal, Oct 24, 1952, 26; “Wilson Rantus, Negro Leader,” Long Island Forum 25(7) July 1962, 143-144; African-American Leaders in Pre-Civil War Queens (Queens Public Library 2008), 12-15; “Queens College Professor Discovers Tombstone of Abolitionist,” New York Daily News, Jun 9, 2014; “Tombstone of 19th century Queens Abolitionist Will Be Placed at His Burial Site, New York Daily News, Jun 11, 2014; “Historic Headstone of 19th Century Abolitionist Will Be Reviewed by Conservationist at Evergreens Cemetery,” New York Daily News, Jun 12, 2014; NYCityMap
Beginning in the 1850s, a number of Jewish organizations began to acquire large tracts of land along Fresh Pond Road and Cypress Hills Road in Queens to create what would become four cemeteries situated on present-day Cypress Hills Street and Cypress Avenue in the Glendale-Ridgewood area. Jointly, these cemeteries—Machpelah Cemetery, Union Field Cemetery, New Union Field Cemetery, and Hungarian Union Field Cemetery—now cover about 60 acres where over 60,000 individuals have been interred. Although each of these cemeteries has its own entrance and is separately owned today, early in their history they were managed cooperatively by Machpelah Cemetery Association. This shared history can be seen in the fact that there are no fences separating the cemeteries from one another—the grounds run together and a visitor entering the gate of one cemetery may wander down a path and suddenly find him or herself in one of the adjoining cemeteries without realizing it. The communal nature of the four cemeteries has frequently led to mix-ups in burial records, obituaries, and other accounts regarding which cemetery an individual was actually interred in. Newspaper reports and property records often confuse the cemeteries and their ownership as well.
An 1881 cemetery guide describes Machpelah Cemetery, which was established around 1855, as “a Jewish burial place of age and renown,” located “on high, sandy ground, that is well wooded and shaded,” “a handsome place and well laid out, and well cared for.” By the late 1980s, the cemetery had been abandoned to the state because its board had run out of money and its grounds had become a neglected “impassable jungle.” Today the six-acre cemetery is administered by David Jacobson, who operates several of the city’s smaller Jewish burial grounds, and is well kept though timeworn and frequently deserted—burials are now rare at Machpelah Cemetery. Machpelah’s imposing 1928 entrance building on Cypress Hills Street deteriorated with the cemetery’s decline, its offices ransacked and the cemetery’s records scattered around the inside, and was demolished in 2013. Machpelah is distinguished as the burial place of master magician Harry Houdini (Erich Weiss). Since his death on October 31, 1926, thousands of magicians and fans have made the pilgrimage to Houdini’s gravesite at Machpelah where the Society of American Magicians and the Houdini Museum hold memorial services for the famed escape artist and help care for his grave.
New Union Field/Beth-El Cemetery
North of Machpelah Cemetery on Cypress Hills Street is the 10-acre New Union Field Cemetery, which was established around 1875 by Manhattan’s Temple Beth-El, one of New York’s wealthiest Jewish congregations at that time. In 1893 they erected the cemetery’s grand entrance building at a cost of $20,000; designed by architect Louis Korn, the two-story stone structure is 60 feet wide by 30 feet deep and was designed to accommodate a receiving vault, offices, and keeper’s apartment. New Union Field Cemetery is the final resting place of actor Edward G. Robinson and was the original burial place of businessman Isidor Straus, the co-owner of Macy’s department store who perished with his wife on the Titantic in April 1912 (he was later moved to Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx). In 1928 Temple Beth-El merged with Manhattan’s Congregation Emanu-El; Congregation Emanu-El operates New Union Field today as Beth-El Cemetery. Nowadays, Beth-El Cemetery primarily caters to the city’s Jewish community from the former Soviet Union, and in 2005 opened a Russian Community Memorial Garden that pays tribute to Jewish Russian war veterans, their families and loved ones lost during World War II. At the center of the garden is a monument representing the Star of David, topped with an obelisk and a sculpture of an eternal flame. The memorial provides the estimated 300,000 Russian Jews living in New York City with a place to gather and remember their loved ones.
Union Field Cemetery
To the rear of Machpelah and New Union Field is Union Field Cemetery, a 35-acre, irregular L-shaped swathe that stretches from its entrance on Cypress Avenue to its northern boundary along 59th Street near 80th Avenue. Manhattan’s Congregation Rodeph Sholom established Union Field around 1855 and expanded it in 1878. Concurrent with the Congregation’s move to its present location on West 83rd Street in 1926, they erected the gatehouse designed by architect Charles B. Meyers that stands at the Cypress Avenue entrance. Union Field is the location of a number of kivrei tzaddikim, “graves of the righteous,” and is a pilgrimage site for many Orthodox Jews. One of the most important graves here is that of Rabbi Jacob Joseph, the first and only chief rabbi of New York. Rabbi Joseph was brought to New York from Europe in 1888 by a group of 17 Orthodox synagogues; he served for only a short time before dying of a stroke in 1902. Thousands visit his gravesite each year, including Hassidic rabbis and their congregants and Talmudical teachers and their students, to light candles and offer prayers around his tombstone. Among the less holy notable figures interred at Union Field Cemetery are actor Bert Lahr, best known for his role as the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz, and controversial attorney Roy Cohn, who rose to fame as Senator Joseph McCarthy’s chief counsel during the 1950s Communist investigations.
Hungarian Union Field Cemetery
In 1903, the First Hungarian Sick and Benevolent Society purchased a two-acre parcel of land just east of Union Field Cemetery that became known as Hungarian Union Field Cemetery. Besides obtaining burial grounds, the society, which was later called the Hungarian Society of New York, was founded for “mutual self-protection, philanthropy, the fostering of patriotism and the furtherance of humanitarianism.” The Hungarian Society eventually acquired an additional four acres so that the grounds of Hungarian Union Field Cemetery came to fill the area between Machpelah and Union Fields at the corner of Cypress Hills Street and Cypress Avenue. In 1937, the society constructed a large stone building on the cemetery grounds to house their offices. Joe Weber, a vaudevillian who, along with Lew Fields, formed the comedy team of Weber and Fields that was popular at the turn of the 20th century, is among the prominent individuals interred at Hungarian Union Field Cemetery; his remains were placed in the Weber-Friedman mausoleum near the cemetery’s entrance when he died in 1942. In recent years the Hungarian Union Field Cemetery was acquired by Mount Carmel Cemetery, the large Jewish cemetery located opposite it on Cypress Hills Street, and is now a division of Mount Carmel.
Sources: Hyde’s 1913 Atlas of the Borough of Queens Vol 2, Pl 19; The Cemeteries of New York (Judson 1881), 13; The Leonard Manual of the Cemeteries of New York and Vicinity (1901), 51, 63, 90-91; Fairchild Cemetery Manual (1910), 86, 106-107, 165, 167; “Our Public Cemeteries,” New York Herald, Jun 2 1867, 8; “Machpelah Cemetery Association,” Jewish Messenger, Dec 12, 1879, 2; “Thinking Ahead,” New York Times Oct 13, 1996; “Vandals Hit Glendale Cemetery,” Queens Chronicle, July 20, 2000; “Houdini’s Final Trick, a Tidy Grave,” New York Times, Oct 31, 2008; “Among the Cemeteries,” Jewish Messenger, Jun 16, 1893, 2; “The Funeral of Isidor Straus,” American Hebrew & Jewish Messenger, May 10, 1912, 36; The Cemeteries of Emanu-El (Congregation Emanu-El); “Beth-El Cemetery Opens New Russian-Jewish Memorial,” YourNabe.com, May 26, 2005; “Dedication of a Burial Ground,” Jewish Messenger, Sep 6, 1878, 2; “Graves of the Righteous,” Jewish Action, Fall 2010, 50-54; “Thousands Attend Gravesite of Rabbi Yaakov Joseph,” Vos Iz Neias, July 16, 2009; “First Hungarian Sick and Benevolent Society in U.S.,” YIVO News, No. 2013 Summer 2007, 21.