A large granite marker sits atop a rise in the northwest section of Cypress Hills Cemetery, where it marks the reburial ground for bodies exhumed from a Brooklyn cemetery during the winter of 1874-1875. The cemetery was located on Humboldt, Withers, and Frost streets in Williamsburg, on land acquired in 1844 by the trustees of the Cannon Street Baptist Church of Manhattan. Founded in 1840, the Cannon Street Baptist Church was near Broome Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
The Cannon Street Church used their Williamsburg cemetery as a burial ground for their congregation which, at 700 members in 1846, was one of the largest and most powerful in Manhattan. They also opened it up as a burial place for other Baptist churches and, according to an 1874 Brooklyn Daily Eagle article, “the graves were quickly bought, and it became a popular place of interment. Indeed, it became such a favorite that in the poor ground they had to pile in corpses from seven to twelve feet high in each grave.” By the late 1850s, the cemetery was full and interments were discontinued. As it was no longer a source of revenue for them, the Cannon Street Church let the cemetery go to ruin and it became a pasture ground for neighborhood animals.
In 1864, Cannon Street Baptist Church acquired property for a new church at Madison and Gouverneur streets and decided to sell their Williamsburg cemetery. In that same year, they were authorized by an act of the New York State legislature to remove the dead interred in their cemetery, “and deposit the same in any cemetery in the county of Kings or in the county of Queens authorized by law to make interments.” However, it was not until a decade later, when Cypress Hills Cemetery was awarded the contract for the removal project, that bodies were disinterred from Cannon Street Baptist Church Cemetery. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle had a reporter observe the exhumations and published a list of about 200 names identified from headstones and coffin nameplates, including some of those found in the cemetery’s 100-x-75-foot “colored” section. The rest of the hundreds of graves in the cemetery were unidentifiable (no burial records having been located) and the bones exhumed from them were “huddled into the same box with the ones in the next grave, there being in many instances the remains of twenty human beings in one box.”
The cemetery property was quickly redeveloped after the disinterment process was completed and the remains reburied at the one-acre ground at Cypress Hills. In the following years, excavations for cellars during housing construction at the site uncovered at least 12 more bodies that had been overlooked during the 1874-1875 removal. The Cannon Street congregation, which renamed itself East Baptist Church when it relocated to Madison and Gouverneur streets, disbanded in 1896. Their former cemetery property is covered by residences today.
Sources: Map of the city of Williamsburgh and town of Bushwick (Field 1852); Kings County Conveyances, Vol 125 p135-139, “United States, New York Land Records, 1630-1975,” FamilySearch; [East Broome Street Baptist Church], Baptist Advocate, Aug 15, 1840; “Cannon Street Church,” Baptist Advocate, Feb 13, 1841; A History of the Churches of All Denominations in the City of New York from the First Settlement to the Year 1846 (Greenleaf 1846); “Careless Burial,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Aug 10, 1858; [Legislature], Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jun 1, 1864; “Board of Health,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Nov 21, 1874; “An Old Burial Ground to Be Sold,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec 1, 1874; “Desecration,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec 3, 1874; “Human Remains Exhumed,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jan 24, 1878; “Thrice from the Tomb,” New York Herald, Dec 22, 1878; “Incomplete Removal of a Cemetery,” New York Tribune, Aug 13, 1879; “Skeletons,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Aug 12, 1879; “Skeletons in the Eastern District,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jul 20, 1883; “East Baptist Church to Go,” New York Times, Aug 9, 1896; Cypress Hills Cemetery (Duer & Smith 2010)
Citizens of New York City readied to protect their dead in 1842 when the Hudson Insurance Company threatened to remove a cemetery near the corner of Chrystie and Delancey streets in the Lower East Side and convert the property into house lots. Thousands signed a petition that was forwarded to the state legislature, asking for a prohibition of the digging up of the dead. A large group of women watched the cemetery day and night—one lady, armed with a pistol, guarded the grave of her husband and children. And when the company’s agent arrived at the burial ground with workmen carrying shovels and spades, “it was the Ladies,” the New York Herald reports, “who over-powered and over-awed this wonderful agent with his men of war, and made them quit the battlefield.”
The scene of this excitement was the burial ground belonging to Bethel Baptist Church. The second oldest Baptist congregation in the city, Bethel Baptist organized in the year 1770 and had its first house of worship on Rose Street in downtown Manhattan. By the early 1800s the congregation had grown to more than 400 members and in 1819 their pastor, Rev. Johnson Chase, purchased eight lots of ground at the corner of Chrystie and Delancey streets for a new church, parsonage, and burying ground. They erected a 65×85-foot brick church on the lots along Delancey Street and used the four lots adjoining the building for the graveyard.
A circular prepared in 1844 by friends and relatives of those interred in the cemetery provides a description of the site: “The said four lots, constituting the Bethel Baptist Burying Ground, contain a square of one hundred feet of ground, fronting on Christie st. In this ground, the remains of about 5,000 human beings are supposed to have been interred since said purchase. On an average the coffins are understood and believed to be at least five deep. The lowest tier of coffins are about fourteen feet below the surface. The surface of the grave yard is now five or six feet above what it originally was, having been filled up with coffins, graves, etc.”
Beset by difficulties (including claims that church trustees used the cemetery as a money-making enterprise, selling the same plots over and over), Bethel Baptist disbanded in 1840 and sold their property. Thwarted in their attempts to remove the burial ground, Hudson Insurance Company suspended their plans for the site. The abandoned cemetery became an enclosure for hogs that tore up the ground and uprooted headstones. The city took over the property in 1856 and built a public school at the site. In the 1930s, the school was demolished and the site became part of Sara Delano Roosevelt Park.
Although remains from the burial ground may have been removed before the site was redeveloped for a public school and later a public park, it seems likely the cemetery was simply built over since evidence of burials has been discovered over the years. In 1891, workmen excavating beneath the basement of the public school unearthed a large quantity of human remains under the northwest corner of the building—including 25 skulls and “a miscellaneous assortment of bones of arms, legs, and thighs.”
In 1964, decades after the site had been incorporated into the park, construction workers digging for foundation piles for a new senior recreation center were astounded when bones of what appeared to be at least 200 individuals were uncovered. Several engraved silver coffin plates were also found. The plates bore the names of Elizabeth Morrell and Emma Buchler, who died in 1821, and Martha Darby, who died in 1823. The foundation walls of the former school were visible in the excavation where the skeletons were found and had apparently been sunk down through burial vaults in the old cemetery. Following the 1964 discovery, the senior center was built and still stands at the site today. The disposition of human remains encountered during construction at the site is unknown.
Sources: City of New-York (Burr 1832); Robinson’s 1893Atlas of the City of New York 4:13; A History of the Churches of All Denominations in the City of New York from the First Settlement to the Year 1846 (Greenleaf 1846); “Board of Aldermen,” New York Daily Express, Nov 30, 1841, “Corporation Notice,” Evening Post, Feb 9, 1842, “Protect Your Dead,” New York Tribune, Feb 23, 1842; “Protect the Dead,” New York Tribune, Feb 26, 1842; “Bethel Baptist Burying Ground,” New York Tribune, Mar 22, 1842; “Disturbing the Dead,” New York Herald, Mar 31, 1842; “Legislature of New York,” Spectator, Apr 2, 1842; “Digging Up the Dead,” New York Herald, Apr 13, 1842; “Removal of the Dead,” New York Herald, Apr 4, 1844; [Letter to Editor], New York Herald, Apr 5, 1844; “Protect the Dead in Their Graves,” New York Express, May 27, 1844; “Little Better Than Footballs,” New York Herald, Jul 19, 1891; “Bones Under a Schoolhouse,” New York Times, Jul 19, 1891; “Lower East Side Diggers Find Graves on a Construction Site,” New York Times, Dec 18, 1964
The rapid march of improvement, which forms so distinguishing a characteristic of the Manhattanese, is daily removing or transforming the old landmarks that have been to this generation silent reminders of olden days and a Knickerbocker ancestry. The resting places wherein were interred (as was thought for all time) the remains of those of our progenitors who have passed from earth, are no longer yielded up to the silent dead; the increase of business and population rendering the sites of their “narrow houses” more valuable to the mercantile and manufacturing community than when the practice of intramural interments was universal in Gotham…Among the other localities thus transformed, or to be transformed, is the old burying-ground corner of Amity and Wooster streets adjoining the Amity-street Baptist Church.
The “old burying-ground” at the corner of Amity Street (later 3rd Street) and Wooster was established in 1814 by the Fayette/Oliver Street Baptist Church; formed in 1795, the Fayette/Oliver Street church was among Manhattan’s earliest Baptist congregations. They buried some 1,200 congregants in their small Greenwich Village cemetery that was fenced in on the Amity and Wooster streets sides and bounded on the east by the Amity Street Baptist Church, an offshoot of the Oliver Street congregation that constructed their building in 1834 on an unused section of the cemetery land. By 1849, the Amity Street Baptist burial ground was full—so full, in fact, that it closed soon after the City Inspector found, during a visit in July of that year, “the coffin in one grave was only two feet from the surface; another, two feet four inches, and another, one foot ten inches. A child, buried on Monday last, was interred just two feet three inches below the surface; and there were ten new graves, in not one of which was the coffin three feet under the surface.”
In the 1860s, both the Oliver Street Baptist Church and the Amity Street Baptist Church followed the northward migration of residents and moved uptown, and the decision was made to sell the Amity Street property. Trustees of the Madison Avenue Baptist Church, which had consolidated with the Oliver Street Church, purchased lots at Cypress Hills Cemetery and received permission from the city to exhume the bodies from the Amity Street burial ground for reinterment at Cypress Hills.
“Many of the wealthiest and most prominent Knickerbocker families in the City” were said to have ancestors interred in the Amity Street burial ground, and they were none too pleased by the church trustees’ decision to relocate the bodies. “One gentleman pronounced the proceeding disgraceful and unchristian, inhuman and barbarous,” the New York Times disclosed. Another man said “that if he acted on his own natural impulses, he would shoot the first man who attempted to unearth his mother’s remains;” a third declared the trustees “to be a soulless, godless corporation, in which no sentiment of honor or humanity existed.” Despite these protests, the Amity Street Baptist burial ground was emptied of its mortal remains, and the property was redeveloped. NYU’s Stern School of Business occupies the site today.
Sources: Dripps’ 1852 Map of the City of New-York extending northward to Fiftieth St;Minutes of the Common Council of the City of New York, 1784-1831 (City of New York 1917), 9:125; A History of the Churches of All Denominations in the City of New York from the First Settlement to the Year 1846 (Greenleaf 1846), 258-259; “The Cemeteries,” New York Herald, Jul 26, 1849; “More Removing of Dead Bodies,” New York Herald Feb 15, 1863; “Local Intelligence,” New York Times, Feb 16, 1863; “Special Notice,” New York Herald Feb 17, 1863; “Our Fathers—Where Are They? Exhumation of Remains in the Amity-Street Burial-Ground,” New York Times, Feb 17, 1863; “Record of Important Events,” Frank Leslie’s Sunday Magazine, Vol 13, Jan/June 1883, 217; The Cypress Hills Cemetery 1880 [catalog & list of lot holders]; NYC Then&Now
“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