Anshe Chesed Cemeteries

A ca.1979 photo of Anshe Chesed’s Norfolk Street Synagogue; built in 1849, it is the oldest surviving synagogue in NYC (MCNY)

Anshe Chesed (People of Kindness) was New York City’s third Jewish congregation, formed in 1828 by a group of German, Dutch, and Polish Jews that seceded from B’nai Jeshurun. First meeting in rented quarters on the Lower East Side, in 1849 they built a synagogue on Norfolk Street and by the 1850s were the largest Jewish congregation in the United States. The ability to meet burial needs was crucial for fledgling synagogues to retain their members and attract new congregants; accordingly, Anshe Chesed made acquisition of burial grounds for its congregation a priority. In 1830 they acquired a lot on Sixth Avenue, just north of 45th Street, for their first graveyard; in 1846 they purchased land for a second graveyard on the south side of 89th Street, near present-day Madison Avenue. 

Anshe Chesed’s 45th Street Cemetery, denoted as “Jews’s Burial Ground” on this 1859 map

In the 1850s, both of Anshe Chesed’s Manhattan cemeteries closed to new interments and the congregation acquired new burial grounds at Union Field Cemetery in Queens. By this time their Manhattan graveyards were in poor condition. In 1853, a committee of the congregation’s trustees found four coffins partially uncovered at the 45th Street Cemetery and the fence surrounding the graveyard “in a very bad state.” In 1856, the trustees again alluded to “the poor state of our burial places in [45th] and 89th Street” when suggesting that “removing the corpses from those places to our new cemetery would be a good deed as the would not be disturbed there.” They let the matter drop after making inquiries to rabbinical advisors in London, who instructed them that “removal of the dead from the burial place was prohibited” by Jewish law.

An 1871 map shows the lots (delineated in red) Anshe Chesed acquired in 1849 for its second burial ground on 89th Street

In 1874, Anshe Chesed merged with another group, Adas Jeshurun, to form congregation Beth-El. Following the consolidation, Beth-El trustees decided to finally give up the old Anshe Chesed graveyards on 45th and 89th Streets. Beth-El notified relatives in March of 1875 “that the proper permit from the Health Department had been obtained, and that unless they removed their dead in due time, the Trustees would see to such removal.” Representatives of several families who had relatives interred in the grounds received a temporary injunction to stop the removals, but the courts eventually decided in favor of the trustees.

Remains from the 45th Street cemetery were removed to Union Field Cemetery in May 1875, as reported by The Jewish Messenger: 

The work of the exhumation has been conducted with some decorum. Excepting the few graves that, from their location, were recognized by relatives, there was nothing to distinguish the remains that were dug out—the tombstones having been thrown down and piled up against the wall of the adjoining houses—and the bystanders were shocked to see skulls and scattered bones, the sole remains of people who had once lived and moved on earth.

In March 1880, Beth-El proceeded with removing graves still present at the 89th Street cemetery. The New York Herald described the work of exhuming “the Hebrew dead” from the burial ground: 

The plot is only 104 by 100 feet, being a portion of the original cemetery, and is almost hidden from view by squalid shanties and squatters’ huts. Within this narrow limit, however, it is estimated that upward of two hundred interments were made; but, owing for the lapse of time (for after 1852 there were no burials) it is not probable that the names of more than one-half of the dead can be ascertained. The graves not marked with tomb stones have been carefully numbered, and where it is impossible to ascertain the names these numbers will mark the remains in their new resting places in Union Fields. 

Today, Anshe Chesed’s heritage continues at two Manhattan congregations: Emanu-El, which absorbed  Beth-El in 1928, and Ansche Chesed, formed in 1876 by a group that broke off when the original Anshe Chesed became Beth-El in 1874. Anshe Chesed’s 1849 Norfolk Street Synagogue, now the Angel Orensanz Center, is the oldest surviving synagogue in New York City.  Americas Tower is now at the site of Anshe Chesed’s 45th Street cemetery; Saint David’s School and other residential and commercial buildings occupy the site of the congregation’s 89th Street graveyard.

2018 aerial photos showing the Anshe Chesed cemetery sites today (NYCThen&Now)

Sources: Perris’ 1859 Maps of the City of New York,Vol 6, Pl 97;  Map of that part of the Harlem Commons east of the 5th Ave. & Central Park : copied from the original map made by Joseph F. Bridges, City Surveyor, January 1826… (Holmes 1871); New York County Conveyances, Vol 266, p471-472, Vol 475 p630-632, “United States, New York Land Records, 1630-1975,” FamilySearch; Bodies in Transit Register IX:1874-1880, Municipal Archives, City of New York; “Removal of Jewish Cemeteries,” New York Times, March 22, 1875; “Removing the Dead,” The Jewish Messenger, Mar 26, 1875; “A Congregational Controversy,” New York Times, Mar 29, 1875; “The Health Report,” New York Times, Apr 14, 1875; “The Right to a Grave,” New York Tribune, Apr 17, 1875; “Our Gossip,” The Jewish Messenger, May 28, 1875; “Reinterring Jewish Dead,” New York Times, Feb 28, 1880; “Exhuming Hebrew Dead,” New York Herald, Mar 11, 1880; “Temple Beth-El,” The Jewish Messenger, Mar 12, 1880; Rise of the Jewish Community of New York (Grinstein 1945), Appendix 8; Anshe Slonim Synagogue (originally Anshe Chesed Synagogue) Designation Report (Landmarks Preservation Commission 1987); The American Synagogue: A Historical Dictionary and Sourcebook (Olitzky & Raphael 1996); Dust to Dust: A History of Jewish Death and Burial in New York (Amanik 2019); Prepare for Death and Follow Me:”An Archaeological Survey of the Historic Period Cemeteries of New York City (Meade 2020)

Shaar Hashomayim Cemetery, 89th Street

Removal notice for Shaar Hashomayim’s 89th Street cemetery that appeared in the New York Herald in 1875

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.

Though not identified as a cemetery, this 1871 map shows the five lots (delineated in red) Shaar Hashomayim acquired in 1849 for use as a burial ground

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.

A 2018 aerial view shows the site of the former Shaar Hashomayim Cemetery on 89th St (NYCThen&Now)

Sources:  Map of that part of the Harlem Commons east of the 5th Ave. & Central Park : copied from the original map made by Joseph F. Bridges, City Surveyor, January 1826… (Holmes 1871); New York County Conveyances, Vol 525, p214-216, “United States, New York Land Records, 1630-1975,” FamilySearch; “Shaar Hashomayim,” New York Herald, Nov 21, 1875; “Special Notices—Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, New York Herald, Nov 22, 1875; “Disturbing the Dead,” The Jewish Messenger, Nov 26, 1875; Dust to Dust: A History of Jewish Death and Burial in New York (Amanik 2019)

Shaar Hashomayim Cemetery, Williamsburg

The Shaar Hashomayim Cemetery on South Third Street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, 1868

In 1860, one of New York City’s Jewish newspapers published the following announcement: 

To the Jewish Congregations in this City – A Burial ground in Williamsburgh, L.I., belonging to one of the Congregations of this city, is to be sold for assessment arrearages. As it is the resting place of a number of departed Israelites, immediate efforts should be made to avert the threatened sale.

The burial ground in question occupied a lot on South Third Street, between Tenth and Eleventh streets (today’s Keap and Hooper streets) in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It was owned by Congregation Shaar Hashomayim (Gates of Heaven), a group of German Jews that broke off from Manhattan’s B’nai Jeshurun, first meeting for worship in a building on Attorney Street and later having a synagogue on Rivington Street in the Lower East Side. Five days after Shaar Hashomayim was incorporated on June 24th, 1839, the congregation purchased the 120 x 25 foot lot in Williamsburg from Abraham Remsen for $400 and subsequently used it as a cemetery. Unpaid assessment notices for the property—denoted as “Jews’ Burying Ground”—appear in Brooklyn newspapers throughout the 1860s, but this issue must have been resolved as Shaar Hashomayim retained ownership of the property.

An 1868 insurance map shows the location of the Shaar Hashomayim Cemetery between Tenth (Keap) and Eleventh (Hooper) streets

In 1874, The Jewish Messenger described the “old Hebrew burying ground” on South Third Street, which “has been used by the juveniles of the neighborhood for the past few years as a playground. They have shamefully defaced some of the gravestones, and even carried away several. It is now over 20 years since a burial has been made there, and it seems strange that no one apparently having an interest in this ground ever visits or makes any repairs.” By the 1880s, the cemetery had become “a wilderness of weeds” and “a dumping ground for refuse and filth,” according to reports in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

An excerpt from the deed for the 1839 purchase of the property by Congregation Shaar Hashomayim

The disposition of remains from the South Third Street cemetery is unclear, but it’s likely Shaar Hashomayim removed them to burial plots acquired at Cypress Hills Cemetery for remains exhumed in 1875 from another cemetery the congregation owned at 89th Street and Madison Avenue in Manhattan. In 1889 Congregation Shaar Hashomayim sold their former burial ground in Williamsburg to Westcott Express Company and the property was redeveloped; today a boutique condominium building is on the site. In 1898 Shaar Hashomayim merged with another Manhattan congregation, Ahawath Chesed; the combined congregation subsequently renamed itself Central Synagogue and continues today at 55th Street and Lexington Avenue.

A 2018 aerial view shows the site of the former Shaar Hashomayim Cemetery (NYCThen&Now)

Sources: Higginson’s 1868 Insurance Maps of the City of Brooklyn, Pl 82; Brooklyn Land Conveyance Abstracts, Section 8 Block 2424 (Center for Brooklyn History); Kings County Conveyances, Vol 148 p125-126, Vol 298 p262-264, “United States, New York Land Records, 1630-1975,” FamilySearch; “To the Jewish Congregations in this City,” The Jewish Messenger, Jun 1, 1860; “Corporation Notices—Tenth Street Opening,” Brooklyn Times Union, Jun 6, 1860; “Corporation Notices—Assessment Notice,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jan 5, 1864; “Local Items,” The Jewish Messenger, Jul 31, 1874; “Disturbing the Dead,” The Jewish Messenger, Nov 26, 1875; “Skeletons in the Eastern District,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jul 20, 1883; “The Aldermen,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Feb 28, 1887; “Cong. Shaar Hashomajim,” The Jewish Messenger, Sep 20, 1889; The American Synagogue: A Historical Dictionary and Sourcebook (Olitzky & Raphael 1996), Central Synagogue—Our History

Mount St. Mary’s Cemetery

View of Mount St. Mary’s Cemetery, Jan 2016 (Mary French)

The consecration of the new Mount St. Mary’s Cemetery, Flushing, Long Island, by the Right Rev. Rev. Dr. Loughlin, Bishop of Brooklyn, on Sunday, 12th inst., is perhaps one of the most solemn and interesting rites we have had occasion for some time to record. The ceremonies commenced by a procession of St. Michael’s Catholic Schools of the village, and the St. Vincent of Paul and St. Michael’s Benevolent Societies attached to the parish, from the convent grounds of the Sisters of St. Joseph. The girls in white, with blue sashes, and the boys in white pants and blue jackets, made a most attractive appearance in marching to the cemetery, nearly two miles distant. (Metropolitan Record July 25, 1863)

Mount St. Mary’s Cemetery was founded in 1862 when the trustees of St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church of Flushing—the oldest Catholic parish in Queens—acquired six acres of land on the south side of North Hempstead Turnpike (today’s Booth Memorial Avenue). Originally established as a parish burial ground, the cemetery grew to 55 acres that were open to Catholics throughout Queens and Brooklyn. Mount St. Mary’s Cemetery still serves the Catholic community of the diocese, handling about 1,000 interments per year in in-ground burials and above-ground community mausoleums.

An 1891 map shows Mount St. Mary’s original six acres on the south side of North Hempstead Turnpike (today’s Booth Memorial Ave)

Among the estimated 80,000 people laid to rest at Mount St. Mary’s are several U.S. congressmen; mafioso Louis DiBono; punk rockers Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan; and Bishop Edmund J. Reilly, a native of College Point, Queens, who served as auxiliary Bishop of Brooklyn from 1955 to 1958. Victims of great tragedy are here as well. Six members of the Polish Catholic Fliss family—father, mother, and four children—were interred at Mount St. Mary’s after a fire consumed their home on Alley Pond Road in Bayside, Queens, on March 24, 1930. (See the heartbreakingly similar story of the Sanders family in my Mount Lebanon post).  More recently, retired NYPD officer Cesar Borja was buried at Mount St. Mary’s Cemetery on January 27, 2007. Once seen as a symbol of September 11 rescue workers’ health problems, Borja died from a lung ailment he believed was caused by his service at the World Trade Center site.

The Fliss family arrives for burial at Mount St. Mary’s on March 26, 1930. Eleven-year-old Stanley Fliss, the sole survivor of the fire causing the death of his parents and four siblings, is at left, with head bowed (Daily News)

Old tombstones in the original section at Mount St. Mary’s Cemetery, May 2011 (Mary French)

2018 aerial view of Mount St. Mary’s Cemetery (NYCThen&Now)

View more photos of Mount St. Mary’s Cemetery

Sources: Wolverton’s 1891 Atlas of Queens County, Long Island, Pl 29; “A Brief History of Mount St. Mary Cemetery in Flushing, New York,” The Promise 11(1), May 2009; Mount St. Mary Cemetery (Catholic Cemeteries, Diocese of Brooklyn); The Leonard Manual of the Cemeteries of New York and Vicinity (1901); Annual reports of the Board of Health of the City of New York, 1900-1925; “Notice,” Long Island Farmer, Oct 28, 1862; “Consecration of Mount St. Mary’s Cemetery, Flushing, L.I.,” Metropolitan Record, July 25 1863; “St. Michael’s Cemetery Question,” Newtown Register, June 29, 1899; “Cemetery Desecrated,” Brooklyn Times Union, Apr 22, 1904;  “Boy Escaping Fire, Sees 6 Kin Buried,” Brooklyn Times Union, Mar 27, 1930; “His Saddest Day,” Daily News, Mar 30, 1930; “Weeks After a Death, Twists in Some 9/11 Details, New York Times, Feb. 13, 2007; The 9/11 Encyclopedia, 2nd ed. (Atkins 2011)

Watt-Pinkney Family Burial Ground

An 1849 map shows Archibald Watt’s Harlem estate

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.

Watt-Pinkney mansion at 139th Street near 7th Ave, ca. 1910 (MCNY)

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.

The 14-month old daughter of Thomas Watt, Mary Pinkney Watt’s 1858 burial record notes her place of interment as “Vault in her grandfather Archibald Watt’s garden”

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.

View of Watt-Pinkney farm, ca. 1900. The mansion can be seen in the background (MCNY)

This 1909 map shows the Watt-Pinkney mansion on north side of 139th street near 7th Ave and the grounds and outbuildings that occupied the remainder of the block.

A 2018 aerial view of the former Watt-Pinkney block in Harlem, where the family burial ground was located (NYCThen&Now)

The Watt-Pinkney plot at Woodlawn Cemetery, Sept 2021 (Mary French)

Sources: Sidney’s Map 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)

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