When Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe arrived in the United States at the turn of the last century, they sought community resources that would provide social and financial support and help them maintain their cultural and religious traditions. Most joined mutual aid societies that, among other services, provided cemetery plots and traditional religious burials for its members. However, there were many Jewish immigrants who were unable to sustain society membership or through various other circumstances found themselves without connections that would ensure a traditional Jewish burial upon death.
Indigent Jews in New York City who were unaffiliated with a burial society or synagogue at the time of death risked burial in a communal grave on Hart Island, the city’s public burial ground, which contravened all aspects of Jewish religious law. Burial in accordance with traditional burial practices is central to Jewish faith and the threat of mass interment in a common grave among strangers posed an existential crisis in the Lower East Side Jewish community during the late 19th and early 20th century. In response, a group of Jewish businessmen founded Chebra Agudas Achim Chesed Shel Emeth (The Society of the Brotherhood of True Charity) in 1888, specifically to bury the unaffiliated Jewish indigent of the Lower East Side with religious observance. Later known as the Hebrew Free Burial Association (HFBA), this organization grew to serve the broader metropolitan area of New York City and is currently the largest free burial society outside of Israel.
Silver Lake Cemetery
Early in its history, HFBA arranged for burials wherever plots were available, usually at Bayside Cemetery in Queens. To meet rapidly increasing need, in 1892 the society purchased its first burial ground, Silver Lake Cemetery on Staten Island. This six-acre cemetery is situated between two older cemeteries—Silver Mount Cemetery and Woodland Cemetery—on the east side of Victory Boulevard in the Grymes Hill area of Staten Island. Approximately 13,600 impoverished, marginalized men, women, children and infants were given traditional religious burial here until the cemetery’s capacity was met in 1909.
Though most of the cemetery was used for burying indigent Jews, several small sections were purchased by other Jewish burial societies and synagogues for the interment of their members. Among them is Congregation B’nai Jeshurun of Staten Island, the first Jewish congregation of Staten Island. While the HFBA stopped burying individuals at Silver Lake in 1909, these other groups continued to sporadically use their portions of the cemetery until about 1950. Today Silver Lake is inactive and is available to visitors only by appointment; however, the HFBA is in the process of restoring the cemetery to open it as a historic site and in 2017 it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Mount Richmond Cemetery
After Silver Lake Cemetery was filled in 1909, HFBA began burials in its second cemetery about five miles south of Silver Lake in the Richmond area of Staten Island. Known as Mount Richmond Cemetery, this 23-acre burial ground is situated on the south side of Clarke Avenue east of Arthur Kill Road adjacent to United Hebrew Cemetery. At Mount Richmond, the HFBA has provided dignified burials to 55,000 of the Jewish poor and continues to bury about 400 each year. The neat rows of graves tell the story of the history of Jews in this country over the last century—the earliest graves those of Lower East Side immigrants, 22 victims of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, veterans of the wars, and, in recent years, immigrants from the former Soviet Union, many of whom were unable to observe their religion in their homeland but expressed the desire for a traditional Jewish burial.
Many of those laid to rest at Mount Richmond have no headstones, but the HFBA is working to place some type of marker at each grave. Granite markers engraved with personal identification and the Hebrew abbreviation for “here lies the soul” have been placed at thousands of these unmarked graves, creating vast fields of uniform headstones throughout the cemetery. Honoring the less fortunate of the Jewish community with a proper burial and maintaining their resting places with dignity is considered an important obligation and truest act of charity because it cannot be repaid.
Sources: Fairchild Cemetery Manual (1910), 99, 125; Hebrew Free Burial Association—History; Hebrew Free Burial Association—Silver Lake Preservation;National Register of Historic Places Registration Form—Silver Lake Cemetery (Draft), Sept 2016; “Staten Island’s Silver Lake Cemetery Tells the Tale of NYC Jewish Immigrants,” SI Live, Jan 4 2013; “At Mount Richmond Cemetery, Hebrew Free Burial Association Maintains Dignity in Death,” SI Live, Nov 23, 2014; “On Staten Island, a Jewish Cemetery Where All Are Equals in Death, New York Times, Mar 31, 2009; “Who’ll Weep for Me?” Jewish Week, Feb 8, 2002; NYCityMap
Beginning in the 1850s, a number of Jewish organizations began to acquire large tracts of land along Fresh Pond Road and Cypress Hills Road in Queens to create what would become four cemeteries situated on present-day Cypress Hills Street and Cypress Avenue in the Glendale-Ridgewood area. Jointly, these cemeteries—Machpelah Cemetery, Union Field Cemetery, New Union Field Cemetery, and Hungarian Union Field Cemetery—now cover about 60 acres where over 60,000 individuals have been interred. Although each of these cemeteries has its own entrance and is separately owned today, early in their history they were managed cooperatively by Machpelah Cemetery Association. This shared history can be seen in the fact that there are no fences separating the cemeteries from one another—the grounds run together and a visitor entering the gate of one cemetery may wander down a path and suddenly find him or herself in one of the adjoining cemeteries without realizing it. The communal nature of the four cemeteries has frequently led to mix-ups in burial records, obituaries, and other accounts regarding which cemetery an individual was actually interred in. Newspaper reports and property records often confuse the cemeteries and their ownership as well.
An 1881 cemetery guide describes Machpelah Cemetery, which was established around 1855, as “a Jewish burial place of age and renown,” located “on high, sandy ground, that is well wooded and shaded,” “a handsome place and well laid out, and well cared for.” By the late 1980s, the cemetery had been abandoned to the state because its board had run out of money and its grounds had become a neglected “impassable jungle.” Today the six-acre cemetery is administered by David Jacobson, who operates several of the city’s smaller Jewish burial grounds, and is well kept though timeworn and frequently deserted—burials are now rare at Machpelah Cemetery. Machpelah’s imposing 1928 entrance building on Cypress Hills Street deteriorated with the cemetery’s decline, its offices ransacked and the cemetery’s records scattered around the inside, and was demolished in 2013. Machpelah is distinguished as the burial place of master magician Harry Houdini (Erich Weiss). Since his death on October 31, 1926, thousands of magicians and fans have made the pilgrimage to Houdini’s gravesite at Machpelah where the Society of American Magicians and the Houdini Museum hold memorial services for the famed escape artist and help care for his grave.
New Union Field/Beth-El Cemetery
North of Machpelah Cemetery on Cypress Hills Street is the 10-acre New Union Field Cemetery, which was established around 1875 by Manhattan’s Temple Beth-El, one of New York’s wealthiest Jewish congregations at that time. In 1893 they erected the cemetery’s grand entrance building at a cost of $20,000; designed by architect Louis Korn, the two-story stone structure is 60 feet wide by 30 feet deep and was designed to accommodate a receiving vault, offices, and keeper’s apartment. New Union Field Cemetery is the final resting place of actor Edward G. Robinson and was the original burial place of businessman Isidor Straus, the co-owner of Macy’s department store who perished with his wife on the Titantic in April 1912 (he was later moved to Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx). In 1928 Temple Beth-El merged with Manhattan’s Congregation Emanu-El; Congregation Emanu-El operates New Union Field today as Beth-El Cemetery. Nowadays, Beth-El Cemetery primarily caters to the city’s Jewish community from the former Soviet Union, and in 2005 opened a Russian Community Memorial Garden that pays tribute to Jewish Russian war veterans, their families and loved ones lost during World War II. At the center of the garden is a monument representing the Star of David, topped with an obelisk and a sculpture of an eternal flame. The memorial provides the estimated 300,000 Russian Jews living in New York City with a place to gather and remember their loved ones.
Union Field Cemetery
To the rear of Machpelah and New Union Field is Union Field Cemetery, a 35-acre, irregular L-shaped swathe that stretches from its entrance on Cypress Avenue to its northern boundary along 59th Street near 80th Avenue. Manhattan’s Congregation Rodeph Sholom established Union Field around 1855 and expanded it in 1878. Concurrent with the Congregation’s move to its present location on West 83rd Street in 1926, they erected the gatehouse designed by architect Charles B. Meyers that stands at the Cypress Avenue entrance. Union Field is the location of a number of kivrei tzaddikim, “graves of the righteous,” and is a pilgrimage site for many Orthodox Jews. One of the most important graves here is that of Rabbi Jacob Joseph, the first and only chief rabbi of New York. Rabbi Joseph was brought to New York from Europe in 1888 by a group of 17 Orthodox synagogues; he served for only a short time before dying of a stroke in 1902. Thousands visit his gravesite each year, including Hassidic rabbis and their congregants and Talmudical teachers and their students, to light candles and offer prayers around his tombstone. Among the less holy notable figures interred at Union Field Cemetery are actor Bert Lahr, best known for his role as the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz, and controversial attorney Roy Cohn, who rose to fame as Senator Joseph McCarthy’s chief counsel during the 1950s Communist investigations.
Hungarian Union Field Cemetery
In 1903, the First Hungarian Sick and Benevolent Society purchased a two-acre parcel of land just east of Union Field Cemetery that became known as Hungarian Union Field Cemetery. Besides obtaining burial grounds, the society, which was later called the Hungarian Society of New York, was founded for “mutual self-protection, philanthropy, the fostering of patriotism and the furtherance of humanitarianism.” The Hungarian Society eventually acquired an additional four acres so that the grounds of Hungarian Union Field Cemetery came to fill the area between Machpelah and Union Fields at the corner of Cypress Hills Street and Cypress Avenue. In 1937, the society constructed a large stone building on the cemetery grounds to house their offices. Joe Weber, a vaudevillian who, along with Lew Fields, formed the comedy team of Weber and Fields that was popular at the turn of the 20th century, is among the prominent individuals interred at Hungarian Union Field Cemetery; his remains were placed in the Weber-Friedman mausoleum near the cemetery’s entrance when he died in 1942. In recent years the Hungarian Union Field Cemetery was acquired by Mount Carmel Cemetery, the large Jewish cemetery located opposite it on Cypress Hills Street, and is now a division of Mount Carmel.
Sources: Hyde’s 1913 Atlas of the Borough of Queens Vol 2, Pl 19; The Cemeteries of New York (Judson 1881), 13; The Leonard Manual of the Cemeteries of New York and Vicinity (1901), 51, 63, 90-91; Fairchild Cemetery Manual (1910), 86, 106-107, 165, 167; “Our Public Cemeteries,” New York Herald, Jun 2 1867, 8; “Machpelah Cemetery Association,” Jewish Messenger, Dec 12, 1879, 2; “Thinking Ahead,” New York Times Oct 13, 1996; “Vandals Hit Glendale Cemetery,” Queens Chronicle, July 20, 2000; “Houdini’s Final Trick, a Tidy Grave,” New York Times, Oct 31, 2008; “Among the Cemeteries,” Jewish Messenger, Jun 16, 1893, 2; “The Funeral of Isidor Straus,” American Hebrew & Jewish Messenger, May 10, 1912, 36; The Cemeteries of Emanu-El (Congregation Emanu-El); “Beth-El Cemetery Opens New Russian-Jewish Memorial,” YourNabe.com, May 26, 2005; “Dedication of a Burial Ground,” Jewish Messenger, Sep 6, 1878, 2; “Graves of the Righteous,” Jewish Action, Fall 2010, 50-54; “Thousands Attend Gravesite of Rabbi Yaakov Joseph,” Vos Iz Neias, July 16, 2009; “First Hungarian Sick and Benevolent Society in U.S.,” YIVO News, No. 2013 Summer 2007, 21.
On a hilltop near the intersection of Flushing and Metropolitan Avenues in Ridgewood, Queens, are two small garden-like cemeteries created in the mid-nineteenth century. Linden Hill Methodist Cemetery is a 21-acre burial ground situated along Woodward Avenue between Starr and Stanhope streets. Established in 1842 by the Second Street Methodist Episcopal Church in Manhattan, in 1852 the cemetery was acquired by the First German Methodist Episcopal Church of Manhattan who operated it until 1977, when it was transferred to the New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Although owned by Methodist entities throughout its history, Linden Hill Cemetery has always been a nonsectarian, multi-ethnic burial ground. The humble gravestones that fill its grounds mark the final resting place of more than 30,000 people and reflect the area’s shifting demographics—many of the earlier monuments are for German, Italian, and Eastern European immigrants, while more recent graves are predominately Hispanic and African American.
In 1875, Ahawath Chesed, a prosperous German Jewish congregation now known as Central Synagogue and located on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, acquired a tract of land adjacent to Linden Hill Methodist Cemetery for a Jewish burial ground. Linden Hill Jewish Cemetery occupies 10 acres on the northwest side of the Methodist cemetery, and has its gatehouse at the corner of Metropolitan Avenue and Grandview Avenue. A number of prominent members of New York’s Jewish community lie buried beneath monuments and in mausoleums here, including U.S. Congressman Jacob Javits and businessman Joseph Bloomingdale. In 2008, Central Synagogue sold Linden Hill Jewish Cemetery to David Jacobson, who operates several of the city’s Jewish burial grounds, and today the cemetery primarily is used by recent Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
Among the notable individuals interred at Linden Hill Jewish Cemetery is theatrical producer and playwright David Belasco, whose family mausoleum occupies a central position at the end of the cemetery’s entrance drive. Designed by Tiffany Studios, the domed structure is of heavy, rough-hewn granite with marble interiors. Belasco built the mausoleum in 1913 in memory of his daughter Augusta, who died three years earlier at age 22. During her life, it was said, Augusta Belasco dreaded the dark; when she was interred in the mausoleum David Belasco and his wife installed a bronze lamp that was kept burning day and night to insure “that beside their dead daughter there shall be kept an eternal vigil of light.” David Belasco was interred next to his wife and daughter in the mausoleum when he died in 1931.
“The expectation that cemeteries shall afford a permanent resting place to the bodies interred in them is conclusively discredited by experience,” wrote civic leader Louis Windmüller in 1898, declaring that “of all American cities, New York—where about a hundred graveyards have been destroyed or partially abandoned since it became a city—offers the most striking examples of the changeableness of ‘resting places.’” Burial grounds were scattered throughout lower Manhattan in the early 1800s to such an extent, says Windmüller, “that a splenetic Englishman who came to visit our shores speedily returned when he found every street lined with headstones.”
Graveyards that surrounded many Manhattan churches were removed or covered over as development encroached and congregations relocated. Some churches established new burial grounds further north of the dense downtown area where they thought they would be safe from disturbance. These cemeteries, often common burial grounds used by several congregations of the same denomination, were in turn overtaken by the ever-growing city. Such was the case with a cluster of six church cemeteries used by the Society of Friends (Quakers), Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, and Dutch Reformed Church, that were created between 1796 and 1822 on or near North Street (today’s East Houston Street) just east of Bowery. After the city banned interments below 86th Street in 1851, these burial grounds were sold and the remains relocated to cemeteries in Brooklyn, Queens, and elsewhere. The cemetery lands were redeveloped during the second half of the 19th century, typically subdivided into lots where multi-story brick tenement buildings and other structures were erected.
In 1796, the Society of Friends purchased land “well out in the country” on the south side of East Houston Street, between Bowery and Chrystie, to serve as its new burial ground. Among the approximately 2,300 persons interred here were members of the earliest Quaker group to worship in Manhattan—the Green Street congregation, who built a meetinghouse in 1696 at today’s Liberty Place. Remains from the graveyard attached to that meetinghouse were transferred to a vault at the new Houston Street cemetery in 1825.
The Friends Burying Ground on Houston Street operated until about 1846, when the Friends Cemetery located within the present-day boundaries of Prospect Park in Brooklyn opened. By 1874, all interments at the Houston Street cemetery had been removed to the Westbury Meeting House grounds in Long Island or to the Quaker Cemetery in Brooklyn. The cemetery property was sold to Trinity Church, who built St. Augustine’s Chapel on the site. In 2004 the area was redeveloped as part of the Cooper Square Urban Renewal Project, and the 14-story Avalon Chrystie Place retail/residential building sits atop the Friends Cemetery site today. Archaeological testing conducted prior to the redevelopment project unearthed some small fragments of human bone likely left behind during the process of relocating the graves in the 19th century; these remains were reinterred at the Quaker Cemetery in Prospect Park.
Across Chrystie Street from the Friends Cemetery was a burial ground used by three Presbyterian congregations. In 1803 the First Presbyterian Church, Brick Presbyterian Church, and Rutgers Street Church acquired 24 lots on the south side of East Houston Street for use as a cemetery. The three churches, founded in lower Manhattan between 1716 and 1797, removed some bodies from their churchyards to the Houston Street cemetery and used it as their primary burial ground after interments in those graveyards ceased. In 1865, the remains from the Presbyterian Cemetery on Houston Street were removed to Evergreens Cemetery, Woodlawn Cemetery, and Cypress Hills Cemetery, the property was sold, and by 1867 had been subdivided and developed. The city acquired the former Presbyterian Cemetery site in 1929 to form the northern portion of Sara Delano Roosevelt Park.
Reformed Dutch Cemetery
Just east of the Presbyterian Cemetery on the south side of Houston was the Reformed Dutch Church Cemetery. What little is known about this cemetery is gleaned from an 1868 article in the Evening Post announcing that the consistory of the Collegiate Reformed Dutch Church intended to remove the bodies interred in their burial ground, bounded by Houston, Forsyth and Eldridge streets, to Cypress Hills Cemetery that March. The 1868 announcement says:
This cemetery was laid out early in the present century and was about two hundred feet square. No attempt was made to ornament it, and the space was not entirely taken up with bodies. A few years ago a part of the front on Houston Street was used for the construction of the German Evangelical Mission Church, and two or three lots on the corner of Forsyth and Houston streets were sold for business purposes. There are a number of vaults on the corner of Eldridge and Houston streets, and several hundred graves in the remaining lots on Forsyth and Eldridge streets.
The cemetery was in operation by 1821, when the Common Council of the City of New York passed an ordinance to fill in sunken lots “fronting on Eldridge Street and Forsyth Street adjoining the Dutch Church Burial Ground.” The Reformed Dutch Church Cemetery likely was used by several congregations of the Collegiate Church, which formed in Manhattan in 1628. By the late 1870s, tenement buildings covered most of the old cemetery site. The German Mission Church that was located in the front part of the cemetery on Houston Street became the site of a Yiddish vaudeville theater in the early 1900s and more recently was home to Sunshine Cinema. In 2017 it was sold to developers who plan to demolish it.
On the north side of Houston, opposite Forsyth Street, between First and Second Avenues was a Baptist Cemetery that opened around 1815. This burial ground belonged to the First Baptist Church, which originated on Gold Street in 1762; other Baptist congregations may have used the cemetery as well. In 1861, the First Baptist Church gave notice of their intention to remove the bodies from the cemetery and sell the ground. The remains were likely removed to Cypress Hills Cemetery, where the First Baptist Church acquired 20 lots ca. 1860. The Baptist Cemetery lands were subdivided and developed by 1867; in the mid-20th century, a subway station was built beneath the site and it was partially covered by the widening of East Houston Street. A small park is now located at what is left of the Baptist Cemetery site.
Methodist Episcopal Cemetery
One block north of Houston, at the corner of First Street and Second Avenue, was a cemetery established by the Trustees of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1805. It may have been a general Methodist burial ground during its early years; from 1836 until 1851 it was primarily used by the five churches who formed th the Methodist Episcopal Church East Circuit—the Forsyth Street, Seventh Street, Allen Street, Willett Street, and Second Street Methodist Episcopal Churches founded in Manhattan between 1789 and 1832.
In 1853 the Trustees of the Methodist Episcopal Church East Circuit received permission from the New York State Supreme Court to remove the bodies from their cemetery and sell the property, a decision that incensed the family and friends of those interred there. The New York Times reported on public meetings held by those opposed to the removal of the dead from the cemetery, events that were “very largely attended.” The Trustees’ actions were regarded as “scandalous,” induced by the desire for financial gain, and done “so secretly that their rascality was not found out until 360 of the corpses had been removed.” In the end, the Trustees proceeded with the cemetery removal, a slow process “on account of the large number of dead buried there” (the number is unknown but was said to be “thousands”). The bodies were reinterred at Cypress Hills Cemetery. Between 1857 and 1862 the former cemetery was subdivided into 13 lots and developed with commercial/residential structures. In 2008 the area was redeveloped as part of the Cooper Square Urban Renewal Project; the seven-story Avalon Bowery Place 2 retail/residential building now stands at the Methodist Episcopal Cemetery site.
Methodist Society Cemetery
One block directly east of the Methodist Episcopal Cemetery was a cemetery used by a group that broke off from the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1820 and formed the independent Methodist Society of New York. The Methodist Society established their cemetery—sometimes known as “Stillwell’s Cemetery” for the Society’s first pastor William M. Stillwell—in 1822 in the center of the block bounded on the east and west by First and Second avenues and on the north and south by First and Second streets. They subsequently built a church adjacent the cemetery, fronting on First Street. The later history of Methodist Society Cemetery is obscure. It is still recorded as a Methodist Cemetery in 1852, but by the 1870s a public school was at the site of the Methodist church that stood along First Street bordering the cemetery, and a Presbyterian church had been built next to the school on an eastern portion of the original cemetery property. In 1874, the Board of Education received permission to remove “all remains of persons now buried in the grounds or deposited in the vaults of the First Presbyterian Church, located between 1st and 2d sts. and between 1st and 2d avs.” The New York Times, reporting on the removals, said:
The entire cemetery, a part of which only is to be removed, is rather extensive, occupying the interior of the entire block bounded on the east and west by First and Second avenues and on the north and south by First and Second streets and extending under a portion of the school building on First street, and the whole of the City Mission on First Avenue…The bodies to be removed number several hundred, 108 of which are to be taken from the school-yard, a space 60 feet by 70, planked over and used as a playground by the children. Under these planks lie some eighty tombstones, face upward, within eight or ten inches of the surface. Under the school [the former Methodist church] are four large vaults, entirely filled with dead bodies. A more incongruous sight than the hundreds of gleeful children romping and playing immediately over the thickly huddled army of the dead can hardly be imagined.
In 1891, the Board of Education received permission to remove the rest of the “human remains buried in the old burying-ground, between First and Second streets and First and Second avenue”—those that had been left in the western portion of the original cemetery property. It is not known where the remains were reinterred in either of the removals. The large facility—Grammar School No. 79—that the Board of Education built over much of the site in 1886 and expanded in the 1890s is still present, converted into apartments.
Sources: Randel’s 1820 Farm Maps; Dripps’ 1852 Map of the City of New-York extending northward to Fiftieth St; Perris’ 1853 Maps of the City of New York; Perris’ 1859 Maps of the City of New York; Bromley’s 1879 Atlas of the Entire City of New York; “Graveyards as a Menace to the Commonweal,” The North American Review 167:211-222; A History of the Churches of All Denominations in the City of New York from the First Settlement to the Year 1846 (Greenleaf 1846); The Graveyard Shift: A Family Historian’s Guide to New York City Cemeteries (Inskeep 2000); Cooper Square Community Development:Historical Overview and Assessment (Parsons Engineering 2000); Archaeological Investigations…within the Cooper Square Urban Renewal Area (John Milner & Assoc 2003); Second Avenue Subway Phase 1A Archaeological Assessment (Historical Perspectives, Inc. 2003); Phase 1B Archaeological Investigation:Block 457, Lot 28 (Former Methodist Episcopal Cemetery) (John Milner & Assoc 2005); Methodist Episcopal Cemetery Intensive Documentary Study, Second Avenue (Historical Perspectives Inc. 2003); Lower East Side Rezoning…Phase IA Archaeological Assessment (Bergoffen 2008); Friends of the City of New York in the Nineteenth Century (Wood 1904), 22-23; “Remains of Friends Now at Rest in Prospect Park Cemetery,” Spark Jan 2004 35:1; [Removal Notice], New York Herald, March 20 1865, 3; “Gravestone Inscriptions from the Burial Ground of the Brick Presbyterian Church,” NYG&BR, 60:1, Jan. 1929, 8-14; “City Intelligence—The Cemetery of the Reformed Dutch Church,” Evening Post Feb 27, 1868, 4; Minutes of the Common Council of the city of New York, 1784-1831 (City of New York 1917), 12:119, 141; “Supreme Court, City and County of New York,” New York Daily Tribune, Aug 11 1861; The Cypress Hills Cemetery, 1863 [catalog & list of lot holders]; Lost chapters recovered from the early history of American Methodism (Wakeley 1858); Annals of New York Methodism (Seaman 1892); “Legal Notices,” New York Times Jan 2 1854, “The Burial Ground Excitement,” New York Times Jan 26 1854; “To Whom It May Concern [Notice], New York Times Jan 12 1874; “Removal of an Old Cemetery,” New York Times Jan 14, 1874; Laws of the State of New York Passed at the 114th Session of the Legislature (1891) Ch. 137
In 1825, a group of members of Shearith Israel—the only Jewish congregation in New York City at that time—broke off to form B’nai Jeshurun (Sons of Israel). Most of the 32 founding members of B’nai Jeshurun were immigrants from England, Holland, Germany and Poland, and they incorporated as New York’s first Ashkenazic congregation, holding services according to the German and Polish ritual rather than the Sephardic mode of worship practiced by the Spanish and Portuguese Jews of Congregation Shearith Israel. The new congregation established its synagogue at 119 Elm Street, near Canal Street, in a building previously owned by the First Coloured Presbyterian Church. Elm Street was B’nai Jeshurun’s home for 25 years; by the time they moved to a new synagogue in 1850, the congregation had grown to 150 members. Four synagogues followed Elm Street, their locations reflecting the northward move of the city’s Jewish population. The congregation’s present home is at 88th Street between Broadway and West End Avenue.
When B’nai Jeshurun was founded, the congregation’s property included not only its synagogue on Elm Street but also its burial ground, which was acquired in 1826, even before the house of worship had been established. This land, consisting of four lots situated on 32nd Street near 7th Avenue—then on the outskirts of the city—was purchased for the sum of $600. Soon after the acquisition of the burial ground, a metaher house, which served as a chapel and place for washing and preparing bodies, was established at the site. Some of the congregation’s founding members were buried there, including Daniel Jackson, who signed B’nai Jeshurun’s charter of incorporation and was an original trustee.
The 32nd Street Cemetery served as B’nai Jeshurun’s burial ground until 1851, when a City ordinance banned burials below 86th Street. That year, B’nai Jeshurun and Shearith Israel together purchased land along the Brooklyn/Queens border near Cypress Hills to form Beth Olom Cemetery. Once B’nai Jeshurun’s burial ground at Beth Olom was incorporated, it’s 32nd Street Cemetery gradually deteriorated. Surrounding tenements and factories made it increasingly difficult to keep the old cemetery in proper condition; The Jewish Messenger provided an account of it in 1875:
One of the few old Jewish cemeteries which are still within the limits of the City of New York is that belonging to the B’nai Jeshurun congregation. It is situated in Thirty-second Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, being within several doors of the latter avenue. It has a frontage on the street of about thirty feet, and a depth of one hundred feet, being bounded on the west by some old and rickety wooden shanties, used for stables and other purposes, and on the east and north by a large furniture manufactory. Two years ago, the writer was informed, the ground was in an orderly and nice condition, the place being slightly embellished with flowers, giving it a pretty, if not a handsome, appearance, and one thoroughly in keeping with its sanctity. Up to the period aforesaid, probably no rubbish had been allowed to accumulate . . .
At present the cemetery is in a sad state . . . Bits of glass, old and broken bottles, shavings from the furniture factory, pieces of iron wire and hoops, sticks of wood, gravel stones covered with tar, and tarred roofing material, blown from the roofs of contiguous buildings, and other rubbish unnecessary to enumerate, are strewed upon the earth in all directions. In those spots where debris has not chanced to accumulate, the ground, except in two or three instances, is in a rough and uncared for condition . . . There are about fifty tombstones still standing, most of which are in a good state of preservation . . . Here is a list of some of the persons buried in this cemetery, copied from the portion of the tombstones that is decipherable, with the date of death: Salomon Van Praag, 1829; Esther, wife of Joseph Levy, 1845; Judah, son of T. A. Meyer, 1845; Isaac Moses Cohen Peixotto; Samuel Barnett, 1845; J. M. Dyer, 1842; Benjamin F. Lewin, 1842; Moses H. Lowenstein, 1841; Leopold E. Lewin, 1837; Daniel Jackson, 1841; Michael Davis, 1841; Henry M. Lyons, 1845; Marcus Josephi, 1847; Simon Saroni, 1847; Joseph A. Michael, 1851; Rebecka Maria Jackson, 1847; Samuel Goldsmith, 1851; Hannah S., daughter of Sampson and Rebecka Levy, 1848; Henry Joseph, 1834; Levy B. Boruck; Isaac I. Salomon, 1845.
In 1887, B’nai Jeshurun sold the 32nd Street Cemetery for $20,000 and moved the bodies to Beth Olom. Today the Hotel Pennsylvania, built in 1919, stands on the 32nd Street Cemetery site that was the original burial place of the City’s oldest Ashkenazic congregation.
Sources: A Century of Judaism in New York: B’nai Jeshurun, 1825-1925 (I. Goldstein 1930); “A History of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, 1825-2005” (S. Brawarsky 2005); “Jewish City Cemeteries. I.,” The Jewish Messenger Jul 2, 1875, 5; “Bodies to be Removed,” New York Times Feb 23, 1887, 8; “B’nai Jeshurun Cemetery,” The Jewish Messenger, Apr 1, 1887, 2; Colton’s 1836 Map of the City and County of New-York; Perris’ 1854 Maps of the City of New York Vol 7 Pl 93: Bromley’s 1920 Atlas of the City of New York, Borough of Manhattan Pl 21; NYCityMap
An early 20th century guide to New York City cemeteries describes Calvary Cemetery in Queens as “by far the most important burial ground in the vicinity of New York, and, in fact, in the United States in point of interments, extent and the number of monuments and headstones that go to make it a wilderness of rising tombstones.” With an estimated three million burials, today it is America’s largest cemetery in number of interments and is renowned for its dramatic setting—a vast necropolis tucked in among the chaotic surroundings of highways, industrial buildings, and businesses, with views of Manhattan rising as a backdrop.
The Archdiocese of New York established Calvary Cemetery in 1848 after the closure of their burial grounds at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral and on 11th Street in Manhattan. Located in the Long Island City/Woodside area of Queens and managed by the Trustees of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Calvary served as the main burying ground for Manhattan’s Roman Catholic population for many years and burials are still made there. By the early 1900s, it had over 750,000 interments and handled 18,000 burials a year—almost half the annual deaths in the city at that time. Calvary’s 365 acres hold five times as many bodies as the more famous and spacious Green-Wood Cemetery in nearby Brooklyn and are divided into two expanses: Old or First Calvary, the cemetery’s earliest parcel, bounded by the Long Island Expressway, Laurel Hill Blvd, Review Ave, and Greenpoint Ave; and New Calvary, three divisions stretching from Queens Blvd to 55th Ave and cut by the Long Island Expressway and Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.
Calvary’s scenic power results from the magnitude of graves and tombs and the surrounding presence of urban life rather than from its design; however, Old Calvary does contain several significant monuments and features. The charming red brick, Queen Anne-style gatehouse at the main entrance (Greenpoint Ave at Gale Ave) is an architectural gem, one of the last of its kind in the area. At the center of the grounds is the cemetery’s chapel, which was declared the “most remarkable mortuary chapel in America” when it was erected in 1908. Designed by architect Raymond F. Almirall, it features a beehive-shaped concrete dome crowned with a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Crypts below the building are for the burial of priests of the Archdiocese.
In the southeastern part of Old Calvary, a Civil War monument erected by the City of New York in 1866 honors 21 Roman Catholic Union soldiers interred in a 40×40 foot plot that is a city-owned park within Calvary. The 50-foot-high granite obelisk is surmounted by a bronze figure representing peace that was sculpted by Daniel Draddy. Draddy also created the four life-size bronze figures depicting Civil War soldiers that stand on pedestals surrounding the column (identical figures border the Soldiers’ Monument at Green-wood Cemetery, which was erected three years later). Adjacent to Calvary’s Civil War monument is a memorial to New York City’s famed Fighting 69th Infantry Regiment of the New York Army National Guard. Formed in 1849, this Irish-heritage unit gained notoriety for its members’ bravery and valor in the Civil War.
Near the Civil War/69th Regiment plot is a metal fence enclosing a “cemetery within a cemetery”—a small burial ground that predates Calvary Cemetery. When the Trustees of St. Patrick’s Cathedral were assembling land to form Calvary in 1845, they purchased a tract from Mrs. Ann Alsop, part of a farm that had been in the Alsop family for generations and included the old family graveyard. When the property was sold, the agreement provided that the Alsop family burial ground would remain inviolate and the Trustees have maintained it to this day. About 30 gravestones stand in the old burial ground, dating from 1743 to 1889.
The showpiece at Old Calvary is the massive Johnston mausoleum that sits atop a hill near the cemetery’s eastern edge. Built of huge granite blocks, this domed neo-Baroque chapel and tomb has a figure of Christ holding a cross at its summit and sculpted angels at each corner of the roof, gazing heavenward. Magnificent but blackened by age and pollution, with a decaying marble frieze above its fragmented bronze ornamental doors, it has an atmosphere of neglect and dissipation that is a visible symbol of the rags-to-riches-to-rags story of the family that reposes within.
John Johnston, head of the dry goods firm J. & C. Johnston, was one of the city’s most successful merchants when he built the mausoleum in 1873, reportedly at a cost of $200,000 (roughly equivalent to $4 million today). Born in Ireland in 1834, Johnston came to New York in 1847 and worked his way to the top of the mercantile trade. His successful dry goods firm included brother Charles Johnston, who died in 1880. John bore a deep affection for his brother Charles and never recovered from the latter’s death; he died in 1887, leaving the family fortune and business in the hands of his younger brother, Robert Johnston. The once-thriving firm closed a year after John’s death and Robert gradually lost the family millions as well as his palatial home along the Hudson River in Riverdale. He spent his final years in poverty, living as a recluse in a barn on his former estate. Robert was found there in 1904, sick with pneumonia and insane, and died in the hospital at Ward’s Island. He was interred alongside his brothers in the family crypt.
A number of notable individuals are also buried at both Old Calvary and New Calvary, including Olympic gold medalist Martin Sheridan, considered the greatest all-around athlete of his time; Annie Moore, the first immigrant processed through Ellis Island; Joseph Petrosino, a trailblazing NYPD detective who was a pioneer in the fight against organized crime; and four-time New York governor Al Smith, the first Roman Catholic to run for United States president (in 1928). Moreover, Calvary is legendary as the fictional burial site of Vito Corleone in The Godfather. One determined urban explorer has identified the exact spot in the cemetery where the burial scene was filmed for the 1972 Mafia classic: Old Calvary, Section 1W, Range 18, Plot P, Grave #17.
Amid rows of modern tract houses on a quiet street in Staten Island is a graveyard that is regarded as one of the country’s most significant African American burial grounds. Rossville AME Zion Church Cemetery memorializes the history of Sandy Ground, one of the oldest continuously inhabited free black settlements in the United States. This African American enclave was founded near the towns of Rossville and Woodrow on the South Shore of Staten Island. Its history begins in 1828 when Capt. John Jackson bought land here shortly after slavery was abolished in New York in 1827. Capt. Jackson, an African-American ferryboat owner-operator, was the first black landowner on Staten Island. Other freedmen followed him to Sandy Ground, including oystermen from New Jersey, Delaware, Virginia, and Snow Hill, Maryland, who were attracted by the rich oyster beds in the area.
The settlement was centered at the junction of present-day Woodrow and Bloomingdale Roads and acquired its name from the sandy soil of the area. Sandy Ground grew and prospered through the early 20th century and at its peak in the 1880s-1890s encompassed almost two square miles and had about 200 residents and over 50 homes. After oystering in the waters off Staten Island was banned in 1916 due to pollution, the Sandy Ground community gradually declined. The community suffered a further blow in 1963 when about half Sandy Ground’s remaining 25 homes were razed in a brush fire that destroyed a large portion of Staten Island’s South Shore. Today, 10 families who trace their roots to the original settlers still live in Sandy Ground.
The Zion African Methodist Episcopal congregation at Sandy Ground was incorporated in 1850, and in 1852 they purchased land on Crabtree Avenue where they built their church and established a cemetery. By 1890 the congregation had outgrown its original church and constructed a new building on Bloomingdale Road where descendants of Sandy Ground settlers still worship today. The cemetery on Crabtree Avenue has continued as the church and community burial ground.
Rossville AME Zion Church Cemetery occupies 1.6 acres on the south side of Crabtree Avenue, west of Bloomingdale Road. About 100 modest tombstones can be found in the graveyard and a recent ground-penetrating radar survey located more than 500 unmarked graves here. Dates on the tombstones range from 1860 to the present and represent over 40 families. Capt. John Jackson’s tombstone is here, as are markers for members of other early Sandy Ground families such as Bishop, Harris, Henry, Landin, Purnell, and Stevens.
Distinguished Sandy Ground resident George H. Hunter (1869-1967) also has a marker in the cemetery. Hunter was the son of a Virginia slave who escaped to her freedom in New York State just before the Civil War and who brought young George to Sandy Ground around 1880. Hunter went on to establish a successful cesspool building and cleaning business and was a longtime steward of the AME Zion Church and caretaker of its cemetery. In a classic New Yorker article published in 1956, legendary writer Joseph Mitchell profiled Hunter and chronicled the history of Sandy Ground and its residents.
Visiting the AME Zion Church Cemetery with Mitchell, Hunter remarked, “Most of the people lying in here were related to each other, some by blood, some by marriage, some close, some distant. If you started in at the gate and ran an imaginary line all the way through, showing who was related to who, the line would zigzag all over the cemetery.” Hunter’s “imaginary line” symbolizes the cemetery’s significance in representing Sandy Ground’s history. The family plots and markers offer a visible record of the network of relationships that constituted the community of Sandy Ground and provide a tangible and visible link to Sandy Ground’s long and continuous existence that has shaped and molded the lives of the people who lived there, and their descendants, in many powerful ways.