Mount Olivet Cemetery is one of over a dozen cemeteries developed along the Brooklyn-Queens border after the New York legislature passed the Rural Cemetery Act in 1847, spurring creation of new large-scale cemeteries throughout the state. In 1850 a group of Episcopalian businessmen from Brooklyn and Manhattan incorporated Mount Olivet and acquired a tract of farmland near the village of Maspeth in the historical Newtown township, Queens. The founding trustees originally intended to allow only Episcopalian funeral services within the cemetery but lifted this restriction by the time the cemetery opened to the public in 1851, making Mount Olivet entirely non-sectarian. In November 1851, Mount Olivet’s trustees ran an ad in the New York Times announcing that the cemetery was ready for interments, enticing buyers with the following description:
It combines all the attractions appropriate to a place set apart for the unmolested repose of the dead and its corporate privileges exclude the possibility of any disturbance in the future. The soil is dry; the surface elegantly diversified with wood and water, lawn and thick; and from some of its eminences, most magnificent views of the Cities of New York, Brooklyn and Williamsburg may be obtained. The rules and regulations adopted by the Trustees are identical to those of Greenwood Cemetery and the prices of lots have been fixed at very moderate rates and less than half those charged at Greenwood.
Mount Olivet’s 71 acres extend from the main entrance on Grand Avenue in Maspeth to the rear entrance on Eliot Avenue, which separates it from Lutheran/All Faiths Cemetery to the south. Its open policies and affordable lots attracted many religious, fraternal, and benevolent associations, and groups such as the American Legion, the Masonic Merchants Lodge No. 709 F.&A.M., the Sociedad Espanola de Beneficencia, and the German Evangelical Home for the Aged acquired plots, as did churches and religious societies of many denominations. The cemetery’s undulating terrain features picturesque buildings, beautiful plantings, and a patchwork of multicultural graves and historical monuments. It is the final resting place of approximately 100,000 people, including colonial settlers, Civil War veterans, African American trailblazers, Russian nobility, fallen comrades of America’s labor and civil rights movements, notorious gangsters, and one of the country’s first self-made female millionaires.
Many families with long ties to historical Newtown acquired plots in Mount Olivet Cemetery after it opened, choosing the modern cemetery over the farmstead burial grounds or churchyard plots used by previous generations. One of these families was the Halletts, who have a large plot along the central road at Mount Olivet. The Hallett clan, led by patriarch William Hallett, emigrated from England and settled in the Astoria area of Newtown in 1652, remaining prominent in local political, business, and social life into the 20th century. In 1905 bodies and tombstones dating back to the 17th century were moved from the old Hallett burial ground at Astoria Boulevard and Main Avenue to Mount Olivet. One of the monuments in the Hallett plot at Mount Olivet carries a bronze plaque denoting the family’s colonial history.
In 1885, Civil War veterans living in and around Newtown organized a Grand Army of the Republic Post, naming it Robert J. Marks Post No. 560 in honor of a local soldier who died of wounds received in battle in 1864. One of the post’s first orders of business was purchasing a fraternal burial plot in the northeastern section of Mount Olivet on which they erected, in 1889, a 12-foot-tall granite monument depicting a Union soldier at parade rest and wearing his overcoat. Among the veterans interred in the Civil War soldiers’ plot is Jeromus Rapelye (1834-1913), known to his Grand Army friends as “Fair Oaks” for injuries he sustained at that Virginia battle site in 1862. Rapelye was a founding member of Robert J. Marks Post, noted for marching at the head of the group during their annual Memorial Day exercises and for personally visiting every soldier’s grave in Newtown to decorate it with flowers.
Members of Newtown’s historic black community also are interred at Mount Olivet Cemetery, as are figures prominent in black fraternal, civic and religious life of Brooklyn and Harlem, and African Americans who pioneered in their fields. Notable are Bessie Buchanan, the first black woman to become a member of the New York legislature; James P. Johnson, influential jazz pianist and composer who wrote “The Charleston;” actor Oscar Polk, known for his role as Pork in Gone With the Wind; renowned Trinidadian calypso singer MacBeth the Great; James Lockley, one of of Harlem’s first African American businessmen, his department store was a local landmark; and several veterans of the Harlem Hellfighters, the most celebrated African American regiment in World War I.
The Japanese Mutual Aid Society, founded in 1907 by Dr. Toyohiko Takami, purchased a plot of land at Mount Olivet Cemetery in 1912 for Japanese immigrants who died in New York without family here to arrange for their burial. Located at the south end of Mount Olivet, this plot is the city’s oldest Japanese burial ground and burials are still occasionally made there. Continuing the legacy of Dr. Takami, the Japanese American Association of New York holds an annual Bosankai, or grave attendance ceremony, at Mount Olivet to honor the ancestors and early Japanese New Yorkers interred there. Each Memorial Day a group attends the ceremony, conducted by Buddhist priests and Christian ministers. After completing the service at Mount Olivet, the group proceeds to Cypress Hills Cemetery where they repeat the ceremony at the Japanese American section there.
The distinctive three-barred cross of Eastern Orthodoxy surmounts many monuments at Mount Olivet Cemetery, marking the graves of immigrants and descendants from former Soviet countries, the Middle East, and the Balkans. New York’s growing Eastern Orthodox community began acquiring extensive grounds at Mount Olivet in the early 1900s, and the Russian Orthodox Church erected a small chapel in the southeast corner of the cemetery. Due to its affiliation with the Eastern Orthodox community, Mount Olivet is the burial place of a number of members of aristocratic families who immigrated to New York when the Russian Empire was overthrown. One of these exiled aristocrats at Mount Olivet is perfumer Prince Georges Vasili Matchabelli, descendant of the royal house of Georgia in the Transcaucasia, interred here in 1935 following a three-hour funeral service at Manhattan’s Russian Orthodox Church of Christ. Just steps from Matchabelli’s grave at Mount Olivet is the burial spot of Polish-born cosmetics tycoon Helena Rubinstein (1872-1965). Famous for rising from Krakow’s Jewish ghetto to become one of the world’s richest businesswomen, Rubinstein rests beside her second husband, Prince Artchil Gourielli-Tchkonia of Georgia.
Three political activists killed in separate altercations with police during labor and and civil rights protests in 1930 are interred at Mount Olivet Cemetery. In January of that year, 400 members of the Communist Party of the United States accompanied the body of Steve Katovis, a Greek vegetable-market clerk shot down in a clash between police and striking market workers in the Bronx, to Mount Olivet for interment. On July 1, 1930, Alfred Luro (a “Negro Communist,” according to news reports) was laid to rest at the cemetery when he died following a scuffle with police during a political protest in Harlem; Mexican organizer Gonzalo Gonzales, killed at a memorial rally for Luro, joined his deceased comrades at Mount Olivet. A monument marking the grave of Katovis and Gonzales is carved with symbols of the International Labor Defense, the legal arm of the Communist Party in the United States. At the bottom of the marker are the words “Martyrs in Labor’s Cause.”
Perhaps the most infamous figure buried at Mount Olivet, Prohibition-era Irish gangster Jack “Legs” Diamond was interred in a hastily-dug grave in a remote corner of the cemetery after church authorities refused his widow’s request to have him buried in consecrated ground at a Catholic cemetery. Nicknamed “the clay pigeon of the underworld” for surviving numerous attempts on his life, Diamond’s luck ran out when he was shot to death in an Albany rooming house in December 1931. His widow Alice was murdered in her Brooklyn apartment two years later. Diamond’s burial spot eludes modern curiosity seekers—he and Alice are buried in unmarked graves at Mount Olivet, and their location is not disclosed to the public.
Sources: Dripps’ 1852 Map of Kings and Part of Queens Counties, Long Island N.Y.; Mount Olivet Cemetery; Mount Olivet Cemetery (1851); “Mount Olivet Cemetery,” New York Times, Nov 12, 1851; The Cemeteries of New York (Judson 1881); “Founding Family’s Monument Updated,” Queens Chronicle, Aug 25, 2011; “Died for the Union,” Brooklyn Citizen, Nov 11, 1889; “Jeromus Rapelye,” Newtown Register, Aug 14, 1913; “Sgt. John L. Davis’ Funeral Impressive,” Amsterdam News, Apr 7, 1926; “‘Gabriel’ Dies,” Amsterdam News, Jan 15, 1949 p5; James R. Lockley, New York Age, Nov 30 1957; “Macbeth the Great, Calypso Singer Dies,” Amsterdam News, Feb 2, 1957; “Bessie A. Buchanan, Ex-State Aide, Dies,” New York Times, Sep 11, 1980; “A Place for All Eternity In Their Adopted Land,” New York Times, September 1, 1997; Japanese American Association of New York; “Russians Open Chapel Closed in 1923 Strife,” New York Tribune May 10, 1937; “Prominent Russians Mourn Matchabelli,” New York Times, Apr 4, 1935; “Helena Rubinstein Dies Here at 94,” New York Times, Apr 2, 1965; “Red Rally Orderly Under Police Guard,” New York Times, Jan 29, 1930; “3 Police Handle Parade of 3,000 Reds at Funeral,” New York Herald Tribune, Jul 2, 1930; “Honor Fallen Red,” Amsterdam News, Jul 9, 1930; Steve Katovis—Steve the Red (Vogias 2016); “Niece, 13, Leads Last Rites for ‘Legs’ Diamond,” New York Herald Tribune, Dec 23, 1931; “Play Pals, Big Shots Shun Diamond Grave,” Daily News, Dec 23, 1931; Resting Places:The Burial Sites of More than 14,000 Famous Persons, 3rd ed. (Wilson 2016); OpenStreetMap