Tag Archives: Bronx cemeteries

Bethel A.M.E. Church Cemetery

An 1868 map of the Town of Westchester shows the Bethel A.M.E. Church and Cemetery located on what is now Unionport Road.

African Americans have been a part of the heritage of the Bronx since 1670, when slaves were brought from Barbados to live and work on the estate of the wealthy and aristocratic Morris family. Free and enslaved blacks were integral to the borough’s development, constituting between 10 and 15 percent of the area’s population during the colonial period. Before the end of slavery in New York in 1827, most blacks in the Bronx were buried in plots set aside for them on the estates of slave-holding families. In 1849, a group of black men formed the first African American church in the Bronx and, alongside it, the only independent African burial ground known to have existed in the borough.

In the 1840 census, 187 African Americans were among the 4,154 residents of the Town of Westchester (now part of the East Bronx). Blacks worshipped, were baptized, married and buried at the town’s St. Peter’s Episcopal Church or elsewhere, but they had no place in the town where they could serve in leadership roles or have their own burial grounds. To remedy this, the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Westchester formed in 1849 and a year later acquired a 1.25-acre parcel on what is now Unionport Road.

The congregation built their church, known as Bethel A.M.E., at the southeast corner of the parcel, and used the land behind the building as a cemetery. The church and adjacent cemetery were situated at a provincial commercial center convenient to a good number of African-American laborers, skilled craftsmen, and service professionals who worked on the estates of the East Bronx or in area businesses. But by the late 1800s, Bethel A.M.E. struggled to survive—although  the congregation reincorporated as Centreville African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1888, in 1894 they sold the property and disbanded. Chang Li Supermarket occupies the site today.

A view of the Bethel A.M.E. plot at Mount Hope Cemetery in Westchester Co. (Google)

At least 58 individuals were interred in the Bethel A.M.E. church cemetery between 1850 and 1894. Prior to disposing of the church property, the trustees had the remains in the cemetery exhumed and reinterred in a plot they acquired at Mount Hope Cemetery in Westchester County. The Bethel A.M.E. plot at Mount Hope is marked with a large monument commemorating the congregation’s history. The memorial is inscribed: “Bethel A.M.E. Church of Westchester, New York. Founded by Rev. Stephen Amos, dedicated Mar 11, 1849. Elders Rev. Ely N. Hall, Rev. Jas. M. Williams. Trustees Uriah Copeland, Thos. Chapman, Jno. G. Mickens, Benj. States, Hy. Jackson, Jno. Francis, Eppenetis Treadwell.” 

Among those buried in the Bethel A.M.E. cemetery were several members of the Mickens family of West Farms. John Mickens, a church trustee, was a laborer originally from Maryland who, with his wife Charlotte, purchased a parcel of land in the Town of West Farms in 1850. John’s son, also named John, was a waiter who lived in separate household in West Farms with his wife Julia, a dressmaker, and their children. The younger John Mickens was interred at Bethel A.M.E. cemetery in 1867; his headstone, standing in the church’s plot at Mount Hope Cemetery, is one of the few intact markers surviving from the original cemetery. 

One of the fragementary tombstones marking the graves of the children of Uriah Copeland, originally buried in the Bethel A.M.E. cemetery (Marie Bonafonte)

Some of the earliest burials in the Bethel A.M.E. cemetery were eight children of Uriah and Zilpah Copeland, interred there between 1849 and 1852. Uriah Copeland, a Virginia native who lived with his family in the Town of Westchester in the 1840s and 1850s, was a founding trustee of Bethel A.M.E. He also is notable as an associate of David Ruggles, the leading African American abolitionist of antebellum New York City. Copeland’s name appears alongside Ruggles’ in notices published in several national anti-slavery newspapers. They were among the men who announced the “National Reform Convention of the Colored Inhabitants of the United States of America” to be held in New Haven, Connecticut, in September 1840 to form “a bond of union the will secure simultaneous action for reform in the hallowed cause of human freedom.” Later that same year, Copeland was on the committee “introducing to favorable notice” the Mirror of Liberty, an African-American magazine edited and published by Ruggles.

Uriah Copeland made his living as a farmer and carpenter and in the late 1850s he managed the Benjamin S. Collins estate in the Town of Pelham. In the 1860s, Uriah and Zilpah Copeland relocated to Providence, Rhode Island, with their surviving children. Broken tombstones marking the gravesites of the children they lost when they lived in the Bronx remain in the Bethel A.M.E. plot at Mount Hope Cemetery. These poignant relics mark short lives and convey loss, but also serve as reminders of the family’s role in local history and provide links to the early African American church and cemetery that they helped establish.

Uriah Copeland, one of the founders of Bethel A.M.E. church, was among the African American activists who announced this meeting in 1840
Monument at the Bethel A.M.E. plot, Mount Hope Cemetery
A 2018 aerial view shows the former site of the Bethel A.M.E. Church and Cemetery on Unionport Road in the East Bronx

Sources: Beers’ 1868 Atlas of New York and Vicinity, Pl. 16; Cemeteries of the Bronx (Raftery 2016), 24-27; Blacks in the Colonial Bronx (Ultan 2012); “Plants and People, Remembering the Bronx River’s African-American Heritage,” Bronx River Sankofa, March 6, 2014; “National Reform Convention of the Colored Inhabitants of the United States of America,” The Liberator, Jul 10, 1840, 2; “The Mirror of Liberty,” National Anti-Slavery Standard, Nov 5, 1840, 87; “Country Seat to Let or For Sale” New York Times, Apr 15, 1858; Ancestry.com

West Farms Soldier Cemetery

A view of the West Farms Cemetery and the Presbyterian church building, ca. 1885 (MCNY)

A keen-eyed observer passing by one of the buildings of the Lambert Houses, a massive, low-income residential complex near the Bronx Zoo, will find an odd detail. Bolted to the 1970s-era, orange-brick structure at the corner of Boston Road and East 180th Street is a mangled metal sign, its faded hand-painted lettering offering guidance to “West Farms Soldier Cemetery, Bronx Landmark, 1 Block West.”  How and why this marker was placed on one of the megastructures at this troubled complex is a mystery—and one that will be lost as the Lambert Houses are currently being demolished and redeveloped. In any case, this curious public notice offers a delightful link between the modern, urban Bronx neighborhood of West Farms and the old rural village that is its namesake.

Located at the corner of East 180th Street and Bryant Avenue, the burial ground known today as West Farms Soldier Cemetery is an oasis of calm near the edge of the Lambert Houses. Although 40 veterans of four wars—the War of 1812, the Civil War, the Spanish American War, and World War I—are interred here, the soldiers are only a part of a long a varied history of this cemetery, which served as a churchyard and a community cemetery beginning in the early 19th century.  

In 1814, the trustees of the First Presbyterian Church of West Farms—then a “flourishing little village” of about 300 inhabitants, located 12 miles from New York City at the head of the Bronx River—acquired two parcels of land on Samuel Street (now 180th Street) to establish a church. The church, surrounded by a graveyard, was built in 1815 atop a hill on the north side of Samuel Street, about 200 feet west of the old Boston Post Road. The trustees designated part of the second parcel of land, located on the south side of Samuel Street, “a graveyard for strangers and black slaves.”

Detail from an 1868 map showing properties on Samuel Street (today’s 180th Street) owned by the West Farms Presbyterian Church

As West Farms began to grow in the 1820s, John Butler acquired a parcel on the east side of the Presbyterian churchyard to establish a larger cemetery to serve the West Farms community. Butler subdivided this parcel into burial lots that he sold directly to buyers. Though originally two separate burial grounds, over time Butler’s cemetery and the adjoining Presbyterian graveyard came to be seen as one site. By the early 20th century, some 200 individuals had been buried in the West Farms Cemetery, including 35 Civil War veterans. Most distinguished of these is Captain William J. Rasberry, who led his men into the Battle of Cedar Creek, Virginia, and died there, in 1864. The Rasberry family lived along what is today East 178th Street in West Farms.

West Farms Presbyterian Church and the adjoining cemetery are depicted in this 1901 map

The area surrounding West Farms Cemetery had developed into a bustling urban community by the early 1900s. With the changing times, the West Farms Presbyterian Church abandoned its hilltop sanctuary and moved to a new building constructed on the church-owned lot on the opposite side of 180th Street. This building, Beck Memorial Presbyterian Church, still stands today.  The original church building was used as a gymnasium and recreation hall until it was destroyed by fire in 1948. 

Grading and widening of streets in West Farms during the first decade of the 20th century disturbed graves in the cemetery next to the old Presbyterian church building as well as in the forgotten paupers’ burial ground on the south side of East 180th Street. When the public learned that soldiers graves were being neglected and desecrated in the West Farms Cemetery, a committee was founded to protect the site. The committee re-dedicated the cemetery as the West Farms Soldier Cemetery in 1910, and raised funds to improve the property, erect a Civil War monument, and have soldiers’ remains transferred to West Farms from burial grounds at Fort Schuyler and from the Potter’s Field at Hart Island. The final interment at the West Farms Cemetery, of World War I veteran Valeriano J. Tolosa, took place in 1929. The city assumed possession of the cemetery in 1954 and designated it a historic landmark in 1967.  Today the roughly one-acre site, surrounded by an eight-foot-high iron fence, is under the care of the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation.

West Farms Cemetery after the Civil War soldier’s monument was dedicated in 1910; the tombstone of William Rasberry can be seen to the right and below the soldier monument (NYPL)
A view of the Civil War monument at West Farms Cemetery, June 2014. The bronze statue that stood atop the monument was stolen in 1976 (Mary French)
Stones marking veterans’ graves at the West Farms Cemetery, June 2014 (Mary French)
The Sun Apr 27 1882 p1 copy
West Farms Cemetery was a churchyard and community cemetery as well as a burial place for veterans. “Queer Old Miss Hullin” was interred here in 1882 (The Sun, Apr 27, 1882)
2018 Aerial
A 2018 aerial view of the West Farms cemetery. Part of the Lambert Houses complex is located just to the east; Beck Memorial Presbyterian Church is opposite the cemetery on 180th St

View more photos of West Farms Soldier Cemetery

Sources: Beers’ 1868 Atlas of New York and Vicinity, Pl. 13; Hyde’s 1901 Atlas of the borough of the Bronx, Vol. 2, Pl. 8; The Story of The Bronx (Jenkins 1912), 281, 392; The Borough of the Bronx…(Cook 1913), 143-145; “Description of West-Farms,” Daily National Intelligencer, Apr 28, 1813;“Workmen Unearth Skeletons,” New York Times, Jun 19, 1900; “Harlem and the Bronx,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jun 26, 1900; “Dug Up Human Bones,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Aug 16, 1900; “Harlem and the Bronx,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sep 14, 1900; “Cutting Through a Cemetery,” New York Times, Sep 16, 1900; “Robbed of His Grave,” New York Times, Mar 5, 1909; “Veterans at Unveiling,” New York Tribune, May 30, 1910; “Take Soldier Dead from Pauper Field,” New York Times, May 29, 1916; “134 Year Old Building of Bronx Church Burns,” New York Times, Jan 11, 1948; “City Will Acquire Soldier Cemetery,” New York Times, May 6, 1954; Old West Farms Soldier Cemetery Designation Report (Landmarks Preservation Commission 1967); Archaeological Monitoring at the Old West Farms Soldier Cemetery (Parsons Engineering 2000); “What Lies Beneath: Cemeteries of the Bronx,” Bronx County Historical Society exhibit, Oct 2017; Cemeteries of the Bronx (Raftery 2016), 267-280

Underhill Family Burial Ground

A view of the Underhill burial ground featuring the tombstone of Nathaniel Underhill (1690-1775), August 1901 (Underhill Society)

And my son Israel shall allow and set apart a piece of ground 4 rods square, lying in the field, called Hedden field, for a burying ground for myself and family forever, and I do except and reserve the same as I have showed him, and do order him and his to grant the liberty to pass and repass through my farm to the same.

With this clause in his last will and testament of February 25, 1775, Nathaniel Underhill (1690-1775) instructed his son Israel to preserve the family burial ground on their farm in what is today the Williamsbridge neighborhood of the Bronx. Nathaniel was a grandson of Captain John Underhill, an early English settler and soldier in New England noted for his role in the Pequot War (1636-37), who eventually settled in Long Island. Nathaniel’s father, also Nathaniel (b. 1663), was the founder of the Westchester branch of the family, moving from Long Island and establishing a farm in what was then a southern part of the county. The elder Nathaniel is thought to have been the first to set aside land as a family burial ground on the Underhill farm at Williamsbridge, and may have been buried there.

An 1881 map showing the Lorillard-Spencer Estate, formerly Underhill land. Arrow indicates the approximate location of Underhill burial ground.

In 1812, the Underhills conveyed their lands at Williamsbridge to the Lorillard family and by the late 19th century the burial ground, largely forgotten and “going to decay from neglect,” was part of what was known as the Lorillard-Spencer Estate. Interest in the family cemetery at Williamsbridge was revived with the creation in 1892 of the Underhill Society of America by descendants of John Underhill. In August 1901, members of the Society visited the burial ground, where they located 16 graves in a plot measuring 60 feet on its west and east sides and 57 feet on its north and south sides. The oldest gravestone was that of Nathaniel Underhill, who earmarked the cemetery in his 1775 will. His tombstone, which featured a winged cherub’s head, was inscribed, “Here Lyes the Body of Nathaniel Underhill Was Born August the 11 1690 And Departed This Life November The 27 1775 Aged 85 Years, 3 Months, and 16 Days.” The most recent tombstones were those of Nathaniel’s son Israel and his wife Abigail, both of whom died in 1806. Society members took three photographs of the burial ground during their 1901 visit—the only known images to document the site.

Members of the Underhill Society of America stand among tombstones in the family burial ground, August 1901 (Underhill Society)

The City of New York seized most of the Underhill burial ground property in 1913 for the extension of 205th Street (today’s Adee Avenue), with financial compensation paid to an Underhill family association. Members of the Underhill Society, incorporated as Underhill Westchester Burying Ground, Inc., acquired a 100’ x 40’ lot at the northwest corner of Adee Avenue and Colden Avenue that contained what was left of the burial ground. In 1916, in anticipation of the street extension, the Underhill Society reported that graves in the portion of the burial ground that had been taken by the city would be moved to the lot at Adee and Colden avenues. A history of the Underhill family compiled in the 1930s states that remains from the burial ground were removed to the cemetery at St. Paul’s Church in Mount Vernon, where some Underhill family members worshipped in the 18th century. However, local historians and preservations believe that, although tombstones from the site were moved to St. Paul’s ca. 1920, the graves are still in the parcel at Adee and Colden avenues.

The grave markers of Abigail and Israel Underhill in the Underhill burial ground, August 1901 (Underhill Society)

Three sandstone burial markers from the old family cemetery—those of Nathaniel Underhill and his son Israel (both mentioned above), as well as that of Anne Underhill, who died in 1786—are preserved at St. Paul’s Church National Historic Site, where they are mounted to the exterior southern wall of the bell tower. Since 1989, the city’s Department of Citywide Administrative Services has owned the parcel at Adee and Colden avenues. A chain-link fence encloses the site but there is nothing to indicate it is “the burying ground forever” of a prominent colonial-era family.

A 2016 aerial view of the plot at Adee and Colden avenues that contains the Underhill burial ground (nyc.gov)
A view of the Underhill burial ground site in 2017 (Google)

Sources: Bromley’s 1881 Atlas of Weschester County, Pl 44-45; Abstracts of Wills on File in the Surrogate’s Office, City of New York, Vol 8, 1771-1776 (NY Historical Society 1899), 320-321; Annual Reports of the Underhill Society of America, 1897-1916; Underhill Genealogy, Vol 2 (Frost 1932), 64-65, 87-89, 119-121; Burial Markers from the 18th Century Installed at St. Paul’s Church in the 20th Century, St. Paul’s Church National Historic Site, December 2014; Cemeteries of the Bronx (Raftery 2016), 247-255

Ferris Family Burial Ground

Bronx historian John McNamara stands at the fence of the Ferris family burial ground in 1932 (BCHS)

In his 1848 history of Westchester county, Robert Bolton describes the village of Westchester, the town seat of the old Westchester township that included much of the present-day East Bronx:

The village of Westchester is situated at the head of navigation, on Westchester creek, twelve miles from the city of New York; it contains about four hundred inhabitants, fifty dwellings, an Episcopal, a Roman Catholic, a Methodist church and two Friends’ meeting houses, three taverns, a post office and four stores . . . [It] is by several years the oldest village in the county, its first settlement (by the Puritans), being coeval with Throckmorton’s purchase, in 1642.

Bolton also mentions the “Ferris burying ground,” that was located in the village near St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. The Ferris family presence in the area goes back to the 17th century, as does their old family cemetery that can be found today on the south side of Commerce Avenue, east of Westchester Avenue, in the modern Bronx neighborhood of Westchester Square. John Ferris, an Englishman who was one of the five patentees of Westchester township in 1667, reserves the burial ground by his last will in 1715: “Provided always there shall be a rod square free for all friends and friendly people to bury their dead in the place where they formerly buried without any let, hindrance, or molestation whatsoever.” Benjamin Ferris likewise reserves the family cemetery in his 1777 will, excluding “a place four rods square, where the burying place is” from the Westchester lands to be sold by his executors.

The Ferris family burial ground was located near the southern boundary line of the Ferris property shown on this 1881 map of Westchester Village (Bromley 1881)

In August 1905, members of the Underhill Society of America visited the Ferris burial ground, where they found about 30 gravestones (most dating to the 19th century) and two family vaults—the James Ferris family vault on the north side of the graveyard and that used by the Benjamin Ferris line on the east side. Remains from the James Ferris vault were removed around 1890 and transferred to Woodlawn Cemetery and Trinity Churchyard. Among those moved to Woodlawn were James Ferris (1734-1780) and his wife Charity Thomas Ferris (1734-1809), Revolutionary War patriots whose Throgg’s Neck home was occupied by British Admiral Richard Howe in October 1776. James Ferris was kept in the notorious British prison ships, and died in 1780 as a result of the hardships he endured. Legend has it that Charity Ferris, who stayed in the homestead during the British occupancy, directed one of her servants to memorize the conversations he overheard when waiting on Lord Howe and his officers, and transmitted this information to General Washington, who was with his army at White Plains.

This view across Commerce Ave shows the Ferris cemetery overgrown with weeds and tall grass in July 1928. The spire of St. Peters Episcopal Church on Westchester Ave can be seen in the background (NYPL).
The monument to Cornell Ferris, who died June 13, 1864, is one of the few gravestones left in the Ferris burial ground today (Mary French)

Various Ferris branches maintained the family burial plot for two centuries, but it was increasingly neglected after Charles Ferris, who lived near the burial ground when the Underhill Society had visited in 1905, died in 1908. The site became overgrown, gravemarkers were destroyed or taken by vandals, and even the fencing was stolen. In 1928, vandals broke into the Benjamin Ferris vault, cut open the lead caskets and desecrated the remains; subsequently, the bodies of 15 family members were removed and reinterred at Kensico Cemetery in Westchester, leaving about 16 bodies and gravestones in the Ferris burial ground. The site experienced periods of neglect and restoration throughout the 20th century (Parkchester Kiwanis Club removed 198 tons of debris from the site in 1973), but has been kept in good condition in recent years through the efforts of local Boy Scouts and other civic groups. Only a handful of gravestones still stand in the old burial ground, and its once bucolic surroundings are now a gritty industrial area.

An aerial view of the Ferris burial ground and surroundings in 1924 (NYCityMap)
An aerial view of the Ferris burial ground and surroundings in 2012 (NYCityMap)
A view of the Ferris Family Burial Ground, July 2017 (Mary French)

View more photos of the Ferris Family Burial Ground

Sources: A History of the County of Westchester (R. Bolton 1848), Vol. 2, 178-179, 227; Bromley’s 1881 Atlas of Weschester County Pl 41; Early Wills of Westchester County (W.S. Pelletreau 1898), 34-35, 360-361; Partial Geneaology of the Ferris Family (C.E. Crowell 1899); “Ferris Burying Ground 1700,” The Underhill Society of America, Sixteenth Annual Report, 1908, 24-25; May Ferris Doherty notes, 1928 & n.d., Ferris Cemetery file, Bronx County Historical Society; “To Be Exhumed from Debris Itself,” Bronx Press Review, Aug 9, 1973; History in Asphalt (J. McNamara 1978), 47, 83, 290-291; “New York, New York City Municipal Deaths, 1795-1949,” FamilySearch, Charles Coleman Ferris, 09 Apr 1908; “What Lies Beneath: Cemeteries of the Bronx,” Bronx County Historical Society exhibit, Oct 2017; NYCityMap

Pelham Cemetery

Pelham Cemetery overlooking Long Island Sound, June 2014 (Mary French)

One of the best views in City Island, that scenic village off Pelham Bay Park in the north Bronx, is from the cemetery on the island’s east side. There’s no hint that you’re in New York City here in Pelham Cemetery, where tombstones overlook boats bobbing rhythmically in the waters of Long Island Sound. The people of City Island have always had strong ties to the water. Once home to oystermen and shipmakers, today the island is a haven for those who seek recreation and refuge in its Cape Cod-like environment.

Throughout the cemetery there are vivid reminders of the island’s past as a hub of maritime production and signs that the water is the community’s soul—numerous tombstones are marked with nautical ranks of those who made their living on the water or are decorated with images of ships, sailboats, anchors, compasses, fish and other animals, all emphasizing the aquatic connection, whether commercial or recreational. An inscription on one gravemarker perfectly captures the spirit of the place:  Rest in peace on this island where you were born and raised; home again on the shores of these waters you loved.

Pelham Cemetery in 1868 (Beers 1868)
Gravesite of Orrin Fordham at Pelham Cemetery, June 2017 (Mary French)

A fire that destroyed the cemetery’s records before 1922 obscures its early history, but it seems it was established as the village graveyard by the mid-19th century. An 1868 map depicts the cemetery at is current location along the shore, and many of the early tombstones in the graveyard date to this time period when large numbers of settlers moved to City Island. The island was isolated and sparsely populated until Connecticut shipbuilder Orrin Fordham established an oyster planting business on the island’s east side around 1830, a concept that revolutionized the American oyster industry and ushered in settlers and a period of prosperity for City Island. The oyster business thrived here through the 1890s and oystermen became some of the island’s wealthiest residents. Many of these early settlers and their descendants are represented in family plots at Pelham Cemetery.

In 1881, the three-acre cemetery was officially incorporated as Pelham Cemetery Association, so named because City Island was within the boundaries of the town of Pelham in Westchester County until New York City annexed it in 1895. According to City Island legend, remains from an early burial ground on Fordham Street were transferred to Pelham Cemetery when Public School 17 was built  on the old burial site at 190 Fordham Street in 1897-98.

Also buried in Pelham Cemetery are men and women who worked in the shipyards and sailmaking lofts that opened on the island in the 1860s and flourished until the mid-20th century. Among the shipbuilding pioneers interred at the cemetery is Augustus B. Wood (1831-1902), a lawyer, yachtsman, and boatbuilder whose City Island shipyard developed a national reputation for building very durable, light boats, including oyster skiffs and the famed Hell Gate pilot boat.

Nautical themes are common on tombstones in Pelham Cemetery, illustrating the maritime connections of its inhabitants (Mary French)

The Hell Gate Pilots Association had their headquarters at City Island and in the 19th and early 20th centuries many of the island’s men made their living piloting vessels through the East River’s treacherous Hell Gate passage. A number of Hell Gate pilots are buried at Pelham Cemetery, including “Dynamite” Johnny O’Brien (1837-1917), a daredevil sea captain and gunrunner revered as a hero of the Cuban people for his expeditions supporting their revolution. Capt. Edward Sadler, a City Island icon who died in 2011 at age 95, is here at Pelham Cemetery, too. Sadler, a Hell Gate pilot and FDNY fireboat captain, was a lifelong islander and community activist; he died in the same home where he was born in 1916.

Gravesite of Pietro Vaini at Pelham Cemetery, June 2017 (Mary French)

Pelham Cemetery is a nondenominational burial ground and more than 2,000 people are buried here; most spent their lives on the mile-and-a-half-long island or have strong connections here. One exception is Italian artist Pietro Vaini, whose life on City Island was a brief and tragic one. Vaini came to New York City from Rome in 1872 and had a studio in Manhattan, where his talents attracted attention and he was considered to have great promise. On August 31st, 1875, Vaini came to City Island to attend a picnic at a gathering of local politicians and Hell Gate pilots. At one point during the afternoon, Vaini rose to recite a poem in Italian; his intense and earnest delivery riveted his audience, although most didn’t understand his words. At the close of his recitation, he announced, “Dio è il giudice di tutti i giudici, ed è il giudice di questo, mio atto,” (“God is the judge of all judges, and is the judge of this, my act”); he then drew a small revolver from his pocket and fired into his right temple. The spectators, imagining his act was simply the denouement of a dramatic performance, broke into applause before realizing what had happened. Vaini died without regaining consciousness; subsequent inquiries determined that friends were worried about his mental state for some time before the incident. The story of Pietro Vaini’s suicide became part of City Island lore, with many variations and embellishments over the years. Two weathered wooden crosses just inside the cemetery’s main gate mark his grave.

Depiction of Pietro Vaini’s suicide at City Island, engraving from L’Illustrazione Italiana, Nov 7, 1875 (Scala Archives)

Today, City Island’s days of oystering, boatbuilding, and sailmaking are long gone. Gone too are the Hell Gate pilots, who were absorbed by the Sandy Hook Pilots Association in 1967. But the island is still alive with nautical pleasures and a walk through Pelham Cemetery tells the story of its rich maritime heritage, and of those who are still lured to the island and its waters.

View of Pelham Cemetery from Long Island Sound, July 1928 (NYPL)
Old wooden arch and fence at the entrance to Pelham Cemetery in 1923, later replaced by a wrought iron arch and fence (NYPL)
Location of Pelham Cemetery on King Ave between Ditmars and Tier streets, City Island (NYCityMap)

View more photos of Pelham Cemetery

Sources: Beers’ 1868 Atlas of New York and Vicinity, Pl 35; City Island:Tales of the Clam Diggers (A. Payne 1969); City Island and Orchard Beach (C. Scott 2004); The Other Islands of New York City (Seltz & Miller 2011), 106-128; The Bronx, in Bits and Pieces (B. Twomey 2007), 92-94; A Strange Suicide,” New-York Tribune, Sep 2, 1875, 1; “Causes of Pietro Vaini’s Suicide,” New-York Tribune, Sep 3, 1875, 8; “Funeral of Pietro Vaini,” New-York Tribune, Sep 4, 1875, 12; “’Dynamite Johnny’ O’Brien to be Buried Wednesday,” New-York Tribune, Jun 25, 1917, 7; “Shaft to Rise from Lonely Grave of ‘Dynamite Johnny,’ Liberator,” New York Herald, Jun 27, 1924, 17; “City Island Mourns the Loss of Captain Ed Sadler,” Bronx Times, Nov 23, 2011; NYCityMap; Barbara Harrison Kaye & Darrell Smith, personal communication, July 3, 2017