Founded in the mid-1830s by African American entrepreneurs, the historic village of Weeksville, in what is now the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, became one of the largest free black settlements in the United States. This independent African American community established all that was needed to support its citizens, including a school, churches, an orphanage, a home for the elderly and, in 1851, a cemetery. On September 1, 1851, Alexander Duncan, Robert Williams and Charles Lewis (described as “respectable colored men”) purchased 29.5 acres of land at the eastern edge of Weeksville; 12 acres of this became the Citizens’ Union Cemetery, and the rest was set aside for building lots. Situated on high ground on Buffalo Avenue between today’s Sterling Place and Eastern Parkway, the cemetery was enclosed with a wooden fence, had an entry gate at the northwest corner of Sterling Place and Buffalo Ave and had an underground vault for the temporary reception of the dead.
Although intended as “a burial place for the colored,” the founders of Citizen’s Union Cemetery advertised that it had no “rule which excludes any person from sepulture within its border, on account of complexion.” The cemetery offered free burials to the poor, charging only to open and close the grave, a policy that contributed to the financial hardships the cemetery experienced throughout its history. Investors received a poor return, which caused many stockholders to sell their shares. The cemetery reorganized in 1854 under the Mount Pleasant Cemetery Association but continued to struggle. By 1870, Mount Pleasant owed the city of Brooklyn $4,000 dollars in back taxes and the city intended to construct new streets through the cemetery lands. With permission from New York State, Mount Pleasant sold the cemetery in 1872 for $25,000 with the condition that they remove their dead from the site.
With some of the proceeds of the sale, Mount Pleasant’s trustees bought an acre of land at Cypress Hills Cemetery to receive the exhumed bodies from Mount Pleasant Cemetery. How many individuals were buried in Citizens’ Union/Mount Pleasant Cemetery during its twenty-year history is unknown. Ninety-four bodies are known to have been reburied in the Mount Pleasant grounds at Cypress Hills Cemetery, and many in unmarked graves were reportedly placed in a common trench there. A Brooklyn Daily Eagle reporter who witnessed the exhumations at Mount Pleasant described the chaos that occurred during the process, because many people had been buried in unmarked graves that weren’t recorded in the cemetery’s books. As a result, the contractors removing the remains had no idea where to look for them and bodies were often caught by the steam shovel and “carried off to the dump before anything can be done.”
Sources: Sidney’sMap of Twelve Miles around New-York, 1849; Dripps’ 1869 Map of the City of Brooklyn Sheet 3; Bedford-Stuyvesant (Kelly 2007), 66; Brooklyn’s Promised Land: The Free Black Community of Weeksville, New York (Wellman 2014), 70-72; A History of the City of Brooklyn (Stiles 1870), Vol 3, 633; “Citizens Union Cemetery Association,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sept 10, 1851, 3; “Our Public Cemeteries,” New-York Herald Jun 2 1867, 8; “Notice—The Mount Pleasant Cemetery Association,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle May 25 1870, 4; “Mount Pleasant Cemetery,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 22, 1871, 2; “Desecration of the Dead,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Aug 26, 1872, 3; NYCityMap
The passage of the Rural Cemetery Act by the New York legislature in 1847 spurred the creation of new large-scale cemeteries throughout the state, including over a dozen developed from farmland situated along the Brooklyn-Queens border. The first of these was Cypress Hills Cemetery, organized in 1848 as a non-sectarian cemetery that “might furnish extraordinary facilities for the vast and rapidly increasing population of this region.” Dubbed “the people’s graveyard” in a late 19th century guidebook for its inclusiveness and egalitarian principles, Cypress Hills offered a place “where every church and society may consecrate its own grounds according to its ideas of duty or feeling, and embellish them as its own means or taste may dictate.” Today Cypress Hills Cemetery is remarkable for the number of ethnic, religious, and social groups represented within its borders, and the resonance of their unique histories and cultural values.
The cemetery’s 225 acres of rolling terrain extend from Jamaica Avenue in Brooklyn to Cooper Avenue in Queens. Its open policies and affordable lots attracted many religious, fraternal, and benevolent associations, and by the 1880s some 50 organizations owned ground within its boundaries. Groups such as the Metropolitan Police Benevolent Burial Association, New York Press Club, and Society of Mechanics & Tradesmen acquired extensive plots of ground, as did churches and religious societies of many denominations, and numerous immigrant mutual aid societies. The U.S. Government owns a three-acre parcel in the cemetery that was set aside for burial of Civil War dead, and in 1879 Mount Sinai Hospital acquired a sizeable plot to provide free burial for patients who died in the institution and were not claimed by relatives or friends.
Cypress Hills has interred approximately 380,000 individuals since its inception, including an estimated 35,000 bodies transferred from church cemeteries in Brooklyn and Manhattan and reinterred here. It is the final resting place of a number of celebrated individuals, including iconic sex symbol Mae West, artist Piet Mondrian, and Jackie Robinson, the Brooklyn Dodger who integrated baseball. But what is most striking about Cypress Hills is the large clusterings of stones according to ethnic affiliation that seem to form “neighborhoods of the dead.” Significant among these are Chinese, Greek, Albanian, Japanese, Jewish, and Hispanic sections, each with memorial designs, grave adornments, offerings, and rituals tied to cultural values.
The city’s Chinese community has been burying their dead at Cypress Hills since the 1890s, when an acre of ground at the north end of the cemetery was established as a Chinese section. This was the burial ground used by the Hip Sing and On Leong tongs (secret brotherhoods) that battled one another in the streets of Chinatown during the gang wars that raged for the first three decades of the 20th century. These and other early Chinese graves at Cypress Hills are gone now due to the practice of Jup Gum, by which dead Chinese were disinterred, cleaned and sent back to China for reburial every five to seven years. This custom, which kept a dead person’s ghost from sorrowing in an alien land, faded with the onset of World War II and the rise of communism in China.
Chinese monuments now dominate much of the landscape at Cypress Hills, especially on hillsides where burial is considered auspicious. The Chinese plots are made more distinctive by the elaborate offerings at gravesites, where food is left for the dead and fake money, incense and other items are burned. When purchasing a grave, Chinese frequently bring along a feng shui practitioner for advice on the best placement, and Cypress Hills recently built a trapezoid-shaped section similar to ones in Hong Kong’s cemeteries to appeal to new immigrants.
More than a dozen prominent African Americans are among those buried at Cypress Hills—besides baseball legend Jackie Robinson, there is ragtime-and-jazz great Eubie Blake and Arturo Schomburg, the pioneering historian and scholar who helped lay the foundation for the field of African American studies, as well as lesser-known 19th century trailblazers such as James McCune Smith, the first African American to hold a medical degree in the United States, and Charlotte Ray, the nation’s first black female lawyer. Cypress Hills is the final resting place of Wallace Turnage, an escaped slave who wrote a rare, recently discovered manuscript detailing his experiences, and Gavin Cato, the seven-year-old accident victim whose death ignited the Crown Heights race riots in 1991.
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.
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.
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 he where he was born in 1916.
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.
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.
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
There is a remarkable sight just north of the elevated Long Island Expressway as it travels through Maspeth, Queens—a vast expanse of tall, thickly crowded stone monuments sprawls before two massive, blackened smokestacks that arise from a strange nest of metal and tubes. The towering smokestacks are part of a defunct New York City Department of Sanitation incinerator, and they loom over Mount Zion Cemetery, one of the city’s most fascinating graveyards.
Mount Zion Cemetery began in the early 1890s when a small group of Jewish land developers purchased about 130 acres in rural Queens to accommodate the burial needs of the burgeoning Jewish immigrant populations of urban Manhattan and Brooklyn. Of the original acres, only 73 were approved for burial use and most of the rest of the land was sold for other purposes. By the 1920s, about 250 Jewish burial societies had purchased all the approved acreage. In the 1950s, five more acres were approved for burial use and made available for private and family lots. The original association that managed the cemetery was a religious one, Chevra B’Nai Sholom; in 1929 it became Elmwier Cemetery Association, a not-for-profit corporation that still oversees the cemetery today.
The first burial at Mount Zion was in 1893 and by the 1920s the cemetery interred more than 3,000 individuals per year. Now there are 210,000 graves in the 78-acre cemetery, making it one of the city’s densest graveyards. Most of the graves are organized into gated areas owned by various burial societies founded by Jewish immigrants, usually those from the same town or region in Europe. Because most of these immigrants were poor and their burial societies could not afford to reserve land for landscaping or ornamental features, they would use every inch of space for graves that sold for a few dollars each. Society burial grounds often lack walkways and space between monuments or headstones, and the graves, designed for small, Orthodox-sized caskets, are so closely placed that digging of new graves must be done by hand. This spatial practice and the sense of claustrophobia it creates is often mystifying to modern cemetery visitors but was a familiar environment for those buried here. Most Jewish immigrants of the turn of the 20th century came to the crowded neighborhoods of New York City from compact Jewish ghettos in their European homelands, where the governments restricted both living space and cemetery land. Jewish immigrants had already developed practices for maximizing burial space under these conditions and the burial grounds at Mount Zion mirror a tradition of closeness and communalism that testifies to this history.
A number of celebrated individuals are buried at Mount Zion, including Pulitzer prize-winning composer Marvin Hamlisch, Broadway lyricist Lorenz Hart, novelist Nathanael West, and several prominent Orthodox rabbis. Notorious figures are also interred here, including brothers Morris and Joseph Diamond, who the State of New York executed at Sing Sing prison in 1925 for the robbery-murder of two Brooklyn bank messengers. “Stay away from bad company and love your mother,” was Morris Diamond’s last statement before execution. “She is your dearest friend. If you search all the treasure of the world you will not find a treasure like your mother.”
Mount Zion Cemetery is the final resting place of 44 victims who died in the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York City. The Triangle fire, which claimed the lives of 146 young immigrant workers, is one of the most infamous workplace accidents in American history, a tragedy that brought widespread attention to dangerous factory conditions and set a in motion an era of labor reforms to better protect the safety of workers. In the Workmen’s Circle section at Mount Zion, several monuments honor the fire victims. One early monument surrounds 14 graves with victims’ names inscribed on individual pillars, and carries the message, “In Memory of the young men and women who perished in the fire at the Triangle Waist Company’s shop, Asch building, N.Y. March 25th 1911. Erected November 1911 by their sisters and brothers, members of the Ladies Waist and Dressmakers Union Local Number 25.” Rose Rosenfeld Freedman, the last survivor of the Triangle fire, is also buried at Mount Zion; a lifelong crusader for worker safety, she died in 2001 at 107 years old.
Secluded off Path C in the southwestern part of Mount Zion is another noteworthy feature—a family burial ground dating to Queens’ colonial period. In 1656, Capt. Richard Betts established a homestead and family graveyard at the northeast corner of 54th Avenue and 58th Street, a site now part of Mount Zion. The burial ground holds the remains of Capt. Betts and his descendants, and Mount Zion maintains it for the Queens Historical Society.
The urban features surrounding Mount Zion add to its unique character today and the area has had a distinctive atmosphere since the cemetery’s early days. During the first half the 20th century, the locale was a known desolate spot that was popular for criminal misdeeds; murder victims were frequently found next to Mount Zion’s fences along 58th Street and Maurice Avenue. Also part of the cemetery environs during this time period was a famed shantytown of Ludar Romanian gypsies that stood immediately south of Mount Zion on 54th Avenue from 1922 to 1939.
Mount Judah Cemetery is one of several Jewish burial grounds clustered along the Brooklyn-Queens borderline. Located just off the Jackie Robinson Parkway, the 37-acre cemetery is divided into two sections that straddle Cypress Avenue in Ridgewood, Queens. It was incorporated as Highland View Cemetery Corporation in 1908 and the first burial took place there in 1912. Among the 54,000 individuals buried at Mount Judah are two young men who represent the range of human experience—they led very different lives that, sadly, each ended in violence and turmoil.
In the early 1920s, there were two gangs fighting for domination over the Jewish Lower East Side, one led by Jacob “Little Augie” Orgen and the other by Nathan “Kid Dropper” Kaplan. Their feud was considered one of the bloodiest New York City had known at that time, resulting in at least 20 killings and concluding with Kaplan’s murder in 1923. With Kaplan’s death, Orgen, at just 21 years old, became one of the city’s major labor racketeers and bootleggers.
The sole black sheep in a respectable immigrant family, Orgen’s criminal career began in 1917 as a knife fighter and, later, gunman, for gangster Benjamin Fine. Orgen was arrested 14 times and served four terms in prison over the next decade. On October 15, 1927, three gunmen shot and killed Orgen, and wounded his bodyguard Jack “Legs” Diamond, in a barrage of gunfire near the corner of Delancey and Norfolk streets on the Lower East Side. Over 1,500 people gathered the next day for his funeral, including his grieving family, mob associates who had come to play their last respects, and police detectives looking for his killers (no one was ever convicted of the crime). His grave is in the Krashnosheltz society’s section at Mount Judah, and his mother and father lie nearby.
Just across from the Krashnosheltz society’s gate at Mount Judah is the B’nai Wolf Goodman Family plot, which includes the graves of Andrew Goodman and his parents. Goodman was from an intellectually and socially progressive family who lived on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. During the summer of 1964, when he was a 20-year-old anthropology student at Queens College, Goodman volunteered for the Freedom Summer project, a campaign to register black voters in the Deep South.
On Goodman’s first day in Mississippi, he and two other civil rights workers, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner, disappeared when they went to investigate the burning of Mount Zion Church in Philadelphia, Miss. Their bodies were found six weeks later in a nearby earthen dam. They had been abducted, shot, and killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan. The national outrage in response to their deaths helped bring about the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In 1966, Goodman’s parents created the Andrew Goodman Foundation to encourage social action. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014.
Sources: Mount Judah Cemetery; “‘Little Augie’ Slain by Rival Gangsters,” New York Times Oct. 16, 1927; “Funeral of ‘Little Augie’…,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle Oct. 17, 1927; “Gangland Pays Last Tribute to Little Augie,” New York Herald Tribune Oct. 18, 1927; The Rise and Fall of the Jewish Gangster in America (A. Fried, 1993); “Slain Rights Workers Mourned by Thousands at Services Here,” New York Times Aug. 10, 1964; “Three Who Mattered,” New York Daily News, June 21, 2014; Andrew Goodman Foundation.
The New York Marble Cemetery and New York City Marble Cemetery are the city’s two oldest non-sectarian cemeteries. Perpetually confused with one another since they were created in the early 1830s, these private cemeteries were formed by businessmen seeking to provide alternatives to churchyard and public graveyard interments after burials were prohibited in lower Manhattan by city ordinances in the 1820s. Featuring underground vaults that are the size of small rooms and made of Tuckahoe marble, the two Marble cemeteries were built in the area of Second Avenue between Second and Third streets in the East Village, a neighborhood that developers hoped would soon become a fashionable residential locale.
The two cemeteries were initially popular and members of a number of distinguished families were entombed there; however, by the 1870s rural cemeteries in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx were preferred and the Marble cemeteries primarily were used as storage vaults for bodies awaiting burial at these places. Sporadic entombments continued in the Marble cemeteries until the 1930s; both were designated NYC Landmarks in 1969 and now are open to the public on special occasions.
In 1893, Cedar Grove Cemetery Association acquired the 250-acre Durkee farm in South Flushing, Queens, to establish a nonsectarian burial ground. A portion of the property had formerly been the Spring Hill estate of colonial politician Cadwallader Colden, whose 1763 home was used as the cemetery’s offices until it was demolished in 1930. Colden is believed to have been buried in the 18th century Willett Family Burial Ground that was near Colden’s home on the Spring Hill estate.
When Union Cemetery in Brooklyn was sold in 1897, the remains of approximately 30,000 individuals were reinterred in a 10-acre plot at Cedar Grove Cemetery. In 1909, some of Cedar Grove’s property was used to establish a separate cemetery for the Jewish community, Mount Hebron, which grew to occupy much of Cedar Grove’s original grounds. Now comprising 50 acres, Cedar Grove is a multi-ethnic cemetery that is the final resting place for over 65,000 individuals of diverse nationalities and religions. Mount Hebron, with over 217,000 interments and 200 acres, has become one of New York City’s largest Jewish cemeteries. It is home to a number of famous figures, including photojournalist Alfred Eisenstaedt, comedian Alan King, and mob boss Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, and the Yiddish Theatrical Alliance is among the hundreds of Jewish societies who have burial grounds there. Mount Hebron is also the intended resting place of entertainer Barbra Streisand, who built a family mausoleum there in the 1990s.