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 1893 Atlas 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