Tag Archives: Elmhurst

Newtown Cemetery

A view of tombstones in Newtown Cemetery, ca. 1900 (Seyfried)

Sometime after English colonists established the village of Newtown in 1652 at what is now Queens Boulevard and Broadway in Elmhurst, Queens, an acre of land about a half-mile east of the settled village was set aside as the community burial ground. Newtown Cemetery stood on a hill near the Horse Brook meadows, situated at today’s southeast corner of 56th Avenue and 92nd Street. Here generations of early and well-known Newtown families were laid to rest, including members of the Moore, Fish, Field, Waldron, Sackett, Coe, and Titus families.

An 1852 map shows Newtown Village and the “Ancient Public Burial Ground” near the Horse Brook meadows

The early history of Newtown Cemetery is obscure, but it likely came into use shortly after the settlement was founded. When a committee from Newtown’s Board of Health examined the burial ground in 1888 they found 105 inscribed tombstones ranging from 1730 to 1864, but more graves were marked with uninscribed fieldstones, a common practice of the early colonial period. The oldest identified burial in the cemetery was that of Content Titus (d.1730), who settled in Newtown in 1672 and was an elder of Newtown’s Presbyterian church. Among the other pioneers interred in Newtown Cemetery were direct ancestors of New York governor and U.S. senator Hamilton Fish (1808-1893).

A record of the stone ordered to mark the grave of Civil War veteran George Ballback in Newtown Cemetery

A reporter for the Brooklyn Times Union visiting the cemetery in February 1889 found one of the graves of more recent interment, that of Civil War veteran George Ballback (d.1875). According to the reporter, Ballback was over seven feet in height and, as “the tallest soldier in the Army of the Potomac,” was recognized by General Grant for this distinction. A plain headstone, erected by the local Grand Army Post, marked Ballback’s grave, which was decorated with a small American flag and a pot of flowers left there from the previous Memorial Day.

During the 19th century, most of Newtown’s families acquired plots in new cemeteries that opened in the area and deserted the old community burial ground, which town officials continued to use as a place to bury the poor and unknown until 1891 when they purchased a plot in Mount Olivet Cemetery for this purpose. With the 1898 consolidation of the towns of Queens County into Greater New York, the disused and neglected Newtown Cemetery became city property. “Nothing has been done since Father Knickerbocker became its owner,” the Times Union reported after revisiting the cemetery in November 1900, and as the site continued in a state of abandonment and encroaching development threatened to disturb graves there, several families and entities took charge of disinterring some burials and moving them to other cemeteries. Among these were the remains and headstones of Content Titus and four other leaders of colonial Newtown’s Presbyterian church; in 1901 the Presbyterian Church of Elmhurst transferred them to their cemetery on Queens Boulevard.

This 1888 newspaper clipping reports the burial of an unclaimed body in Newtown Cemetery

In 1915, local civic groups asked city officials to convert the old Newtown Cemetery into a public park to meet the needs of Elmhurst’s community, which had no place in the neighborhood where children could play. Although the Parks department took possession of the property in 1917, the site was not converted for another decade. In 1927-1928, all the old headstones in the cemetery were laid flat and covered with soil, the ground leveled, and playground apparatus installed. A major reconstruction in 1935 created Newtown Playground essentially as it exists today, disturbing some burials in the process. Renovations to the playground in 1997 and 2019 included careful plantings and contemplative landscaping meant to honor and protect the remains of those still buried beneath the park.

This undated photo shows the rough-hewn granite gravestone of Content Titus (d.1730), the oldest identifiable burial in Newtown Cemetery, which was moved to the Presbyterian church cemetery on Queens Blvd in 1901  (Powell & Meigs)
A 1919 survey of the cemetery identified its boundaries and located 86 tombstones at the site
A 2018 aerial view of Newtown Playground

Sources:  Riker’s 1852 Map of Newtown; “The Old Town Cemetery,” Newtown Register, Jun 21, 1888; “Newtown,” Brooklyn Times Union, Aug 17, 1888; “With the Dead,” Brooklyn Times Union, Sep 14, 1888; “A Visit to Newtown’s Oldest Cemetery,” Brooklyn Times Union, Feb 15, 1889; “An Ancient Burial Ground,” Brooklyn Citizen, Aug 27, 1891; “Over a Century Buried,” Newtown Register, Nov 14, 1901; “In Potter’s Field,” Newtown Register, March 11 1915; “Hamilton Fish in Elmhurst,” Newtown Register, Apr 1, 1915; “Dig Up Bones of Early Settlers In Old Cemetery,” Daily Star, July 22 1915; “Court Street Cemetery,” Newtown Register, Aug 26 1915; “Tells Women About Parks,” Daily Star, Sept 17, 1915; Description of Private and Family Cemeteries in the Borough of Queens (Powell & Meigs 1932), 8-11; Archaeological Documentary Study, Reconstruction of Newtown Playground (Pickman 1995); Elmhurst: From Town Seat to Mega-Suburb (Seyfried 1995); George Ballback, “United States Records of Headstones of Deceased Union Veterans, 1879-1903” (FamilySearch); Newtown Playground; NYC Then&Now

African Burial Ground, Elmhurst

An 1873 map of Newtown showing the African church and cemetery

In October 2011, construction workers uncovered a human body during the process of redeveloping a 1.4-acre property at Corona Avenue and 90th Street in Elmhurst, Queens. Thought to be a possible crime scene, forensic anthropologists from the Medical Examiner’s Office were called to the site. They determined that the remains were of a young African American woman who died in the early 1850s. Her body had naturally mummified in the iron coffin she was buried in, which had broken open during the excavations. Inquiries confirmed that the property was used as an African American cemetery in the 19th century, and archaeologists subsequently recovered tombstone and coffin fragments from the site, as well as bone fragments representing at least nine other individuals.

The Iron Coffin Lady, as she has been dubbed, was recovered from the site of a cemetery associated with the United African Society of Newtown, later known as St. Mark’s A.M.E. Church. In 1828—a year after the abolition of slavery in New York—a white farmer, William Hunter, and his wife Jane, deeded two acres to the United African Society for the purpose of building a church and parsonage. This property was on the north side of Dutch Lane (later Union Avenue, and now Corona Avenue), between what is now 90th Street and 91st Place. A cemetery was perhaps already in use on the site—some sources say the property had been set aside as a “Negro burial ground” in 1818. Services for black worshippers were offered for nearly 100 years at the church built at the site, but the congregation was continuously torn by struggles between a Presbyterian faction and another preferring the Methodist ritual. In 1907, the United African Society joined the African Methodist Episcopal Church and reemerged as St. Mark’s A.M.E. Church.

Obituary for five-year-old George Harris, who was buried in Elmhurst’s African burial ground in 1899

Throughout the 19th century, members of Newtown’s earliest African American church were buried in the cemetery on Corona Avenue, which likely also served as a general burial ground for the black community of Newtown Village (today’s Elmhurst). Over 300 burials had been made in the graveyard by 1886, when the church appealed for assistance in enclosing the cemetery and making necessary repairs. The improvements had been made by 1891, when the Newtown Register reported that a “neat fence” surrounded the entire church grounds, and the graves, previously “covered with underbrush and sadly neglected,” were “entirely cleared and neatly fixed over,” presenting “a sightly and pleasing appearance.” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle described one of the burials made in the restored cemetery:

Fesius Hoff was a negro who lived in the village of Newtown for many years, dying in April 1892. He made his living by doing chores about the village and was universally liked. He lived in a tumbledown, one-story house that many times needed the necessaries of life. But no matter how hard-pressed he was no one ever heard him complain. He took life easy and if he had anything to eat he was glad, and if he had not it was all right. He trusted to luck, and many times it deserted him. To the small boys of the village, Fesius was an oracle. If a question was to be decided, to him the boys went and always abided by his decision. In all matters Fesius was their counselor and guide, and when they grew up they had always a kindly word for the old negro. Friday afternoon, in the burying ground attached to the colored church, where Fesius’s body had been laid to rest, a monument was set up over his grave … The Rev. J.W. Van Zandt, the pastor of the colored church, delivered an oration and prominent citizens made addresses. The little churchyard was crowded and flowers were laid upon his grave…

A 1919 survey of the St. Mark’s A.M.E. Church grounds and the cemetery on Corona Avenue in Elmhurst

The Queens Topographical Bureau surveyed the “Colored Cemetery” on Corona Avenue in 1919. No inscriptions or locations of graves were recorded during the survey, but information was obtained from Mr. John Ferguson of Brooklyn, “one of the oldest members of the church.” Mr. Ferguson said that no one had kept a record of burials in the cemetery and interments there had ended by the beginning of the 20th century. In 1929, St. Mark’s A.M.E. sold the property at Corona Avenue and moved to a new church at 95th Street and 32nd Avenue in East Elmhurst. Before the move, in April 1928 the New York Amsterdam News reported that St. Mark’s had applied for a permit to remove all the remains from the burial ground at Corona Avenue and reinter them in a plot purchased at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Maspeth, Queens, but the application had been refused by the city. Mount Olivet’s burial register records the remains of 20 individuals from the Corona Avenue cemetery that were transferred to two graves at Mount Olivet in May 1928. Why only these 20 were moved is unknown. It seems most of the burials at the Corona Avenue burial ground were left in place and built over when the property was sold. By the 1940s, the Peerless Instrument factory and other structures had been built on the site.

Mummified remains of the woman discovered during construction at the site in 2011 (Bergoffen)

The body discovered during construction at the site in 2011 was a 5-foot-3-inch-tall mummified African American woman, buried in an elaborate and expensive Fisk Metallic Burial Case shaped like an Egyptian sarcophagus. Her long hair, falling over her shoulders, was preserved, as were the chemise, shroud, bonnet, and stockings she was wearing. Lesions on her skin suggested she died of smallpox.

After five years of testing, investigation, and research by a diverse team of experts, in 2016 the Iron Coffin Lady was reburied at Mount Olivet Cemetery, where she was laid to rest near the 20 individuals who were reinterred there from the Corona Avenue cemetery in 1928. The discovery of her body in 2011 fascinated scientists and historians and spurred local interest in this forgotten African American burial ground and Newtown’s historic black community. At the 2016 reburial ceremony held at the St. Mark’s A.M.E. successor church located at 95‐18 Northern Boulevard in Queens, the church’s pastor Kimberly Detherage stated, “It was no accident that her body was found…God ordained that we should have another opportunity to know and discover our history and how important our history is to the building of New York and this nation as African Americans.”

The Fisk Iron Coffin the woman was buried in (Bergoffen)
A 2016 aerial view showing redevelopment of the former church grounds and cemetery site (nyc.gov)

***On October 3, 2018, PBS will air Secrets of the Dead: The Woman in the Iron Coffin, which follows the team of scientists and historians who investigated the remains discovered at Elmhurst’s African burial ground in 2011.

Sources: Beers 1873 Atlas of Long Island, Pl 51; Description of Private and Family Cemeteries in the Borough of Queens: A Supplement (Queens Topographical Bureau 1975), 3; History of Saint Mark A.M.E. Church; “After Freedom in Newtown, Queens: African Americans and the Color Line, 1828-1899,” Long Island Historical Journal, 5(2), 157-167; Elmhurst: From Town Seat to Mega-Suburb (Seyfried 1995), 19, 21, 61, 119; Phase 1A Archaeological Investigation—Documentary Research and Sensitivity Assessment of the 90-15 Corona Avenue Project Area… (McLean 2006); Phase IB Archaeological Field Testing…90-15 Corona Ave…(Bergoffen 2012); “Sexton Ransom’s Charge, The Sun, Aug 30, 1880; “To Restore the House of God,” Newtown Register, May 27, 1886; “Improvements Around a Church,” Newtown Register, Sept 16, 1891; “Notes from Newtown,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jul 30, 1892; “A Monument to a Negro,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sep 11, 1893; “Obituary Notes,” Newtown Register, Oct 26, 1899; “Old Deed Was Useful,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 7, 1913; “Church Members Seek Accounting,” New York Amsterdam News, Apr 18, 1928; “Congregation 111 Yrs. Old, In Anniversary Celebration,” New York Amsterdam News, Apr 1, 1939; “St Mark’s Church In Corona Founded 1828,” New York Age, Nov 27, 1954; “St. Mark AMEC Commemorates and Buries 166-Year-Old Mummy,” Christian Recorder, Dec 29, 2016