Tag Archives: Flatbush

Flatbush Reformed Dutch Church Cemetery

A view of the Flatbush Reformed Dutch Church in about 1890. Part of the cemetery can be seen on the south side of the building (BHS)

In 1654, Governor Peter Stuyvesant ordered that a church be built in the new settlement at Flatbush (then known as Midwout), one of the six original towns of Brooklyn. The site selected for this church was that now occupied by the present Flatbush Reformed Dutch Church, at the southwest corner of Flatbush and Church avenues. This structure, completed in 1798, is the third church on the site.

To the south and west of the church building is the cemetery that contains the graves of members of the early families of Flatbush; names include Lott, Vanderbilt, Martense, Lefferts, Vanderveer, Stryker, Cortelyou, Bergen, Van Sicklen, and Suydam, among others. Nearly 500 tombstones stand in the graveyard, the oldest dating to 1754, but there are many more unmarked graves throughout the property. During the 17th and 18th century the church grounds served as the public burial place for Flatbush, and every inhabitant was entitled to be buried there irrespective of their religious background. Since no burial records were kept, the names and dates of many of those interred in the cemetery are unknown.

This detail from an 1873 map of Flatbush depicts the church and cemetery at the southwest corner of what is now Flatbush and Church Avenues. The parsonage, shown south of the church grounds on Flatbush Ave, was relocated to its current location at the southwest corner of the church grounds in 1920

One of the oldest legible monuments in the cemetery is the headstone of Abraham Lott (1684-1754). Abraham was a grandson of Peter Lott, a French Huguenot who emigrated from the Netherlands and was among the original Dutch settlers of Flatbush. Abraham’s brownstone gravemarker, inscribed in Dutch, has the typical arched shape used in the 18th century and displays a carving of a winged cherub at the top. 

Although Flatbush had an African burial ground located on Reformed Dutch property one block east of the church, there is evidence suggesting some local slave owners may have paid to have their servants buried within the main church cemetery. In her 1881 social history of Flatbush, Gertrude Vanderbilt describes a small fenced enclosure beyond the western boundary of the church cemetery “where lies buried a colored woman by the name of Flora,” who died in 1826 at age 104. Also in the enclosure were two other “colored persons,” who, along with Flora, were domestics in the family of Mrs. A.L. Lloyd. A 1914 inventory of tombstones in the cemetery does not mention these graves, and they are not found at the site today.

This 1923 photo, taken from East 21st Street, shows part of the cemetery to the rear of the church building (NYPL)

Around 1870, the church prohibited new graves in the cemetery because, as pastor Dr. John E. Lloyd later explained, the church grounds “were almost sown with graves and buried bodies and it would be almost impossible to dig in any part without unearthing some of the skeletons.” Burials ceased except for occasional interments in family plots. When 97-year-old Catharine Hart Wyckoff was buried here in 1889, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported it was the first interment in the old church graveyard in more than 20 years.

As Flatbush transformed from a rural village to a suburban neighborhood at the turn of the 20th century, so too was the old Dutch cemetery changed. After grading and paving of Flatbush Avenue was completed in 1892, the level of the cemetery was considerably below that of the street so 400 loads of soil were spread over the graveyard, and the tombstones raised so that they stood in regular order according to the grade. During excavations for installation of cesspools around the church in 1911, graves were disturbed and reportedly plundered by the workmen doing the digging, who were accused of stealing jewelry and other personal ornaments from the graves. In 1920, about 30 graves were relocated when the parsonage—built in 1853 next to the church along Flatbush Avenue—was moved to its current location at the southwest corner of the church grounds, facing Kenmore Terrace. More graves may have been relocated when the church house was erected on the south side of the cemetery in 1923-1924.

Today the landmarked Flatbush Reformed Dutch Church complex remains at the heart of Flatbush, standing at what is now one of the busiest commercial intersections in Brooklyn. Hallowed ground for over three centuries, this historic site is protected from the frenetic activity that surrounds it by a handsome wrought-iron fence.

A view of the Flatbush Reformed Dutch Church Cemetery in April 2016. In the background is the church house erected in 1923-24 (Mary French)
2018 aerial view of the Flatbush Reformed Dutch Church complex (NYCThen&Now)

View more photos of Flatbush Reformed Dutch Church Cemetery

Sources: Beers 1873 Atlas of Long Island, Pl 25; The History of the Town of Flatbush in Kings County, Long-Island (Strong 1842); The Social History of Flatbush (Vanderbilt 1881); Inscriptions from Reformed Dutch Churchyard at Flatbush, Brooklyn, N.Y. (Frost 1914); Between Heaven and Earth: Church and Society in Pre-Revolutionary Flatbush, Long Island (Nooter 1995); “She Lived Long,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Nov 27, 1889; “In the Religious World,” Brooklyn Times Union, Aug 6, 1892; “Ghouls Plunder Graves of Old Dutch Families,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Oct 29, 1911; “Ancient Parsonage Starts on Journey,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jun 20, 1920; “Brooklyn Scenes. Church Graveyard,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec 18, 1938; Flatbush Dutch Reformed Church, Expanded Landmark Site Designation Report (Landmarks Preservation Commision 1979); Stage IB Archaeological Investigation P.S.325-K, Church and Bedford Avenues, Brooklyn (Historical Perspectives, Inc., 2001); Guide to the Lott Family Papers ARC.186 (Brooklyn Historical Society 2021)

African Burial Ground, Flatbush

Detail from an 1855 map showing the Negro Burying Ground situated between District School No. 1 and the Town Pound, at what is now the junction of Bedford and Church avenues in Flatbush

In 1810, the Long Island Star published an obituary for “a negro woman named Eve, aged near 110 years,” who died in the village of Flatbush. At the time of her death, Eve was enslaved to Lawrence Voorhes, one of the largest slaveholders in Flatbush as well as in all of Kings County. Slavery was widespread among the Dutch families of Kings County who depended heavily on enslaved black laborers to work their land. At the first U.S. census in 1790, slaves accounted for one-third of the total population of Kings County and two-fifths of Flatbush’s population. Eve might have been among the 13 slaves enumerated in Lawrence Voorhes’ household in the 1800 census, which did not list slaves individually by name.

Obituary of the enslaved woman Eve, who was buried in Flatbush’s African burial ground in 1810

Eve’s obituary notes that “her remains were piously interred in the African burying ground of the village of Flatbush, attended by a great concourse of the people of colour.” An 1855 map of Flatbush depicts the “Negro Burying Ground” at what is now the junction of Bedford and Church avenues. It was just east of the main village that centered around the Flatbush Reformed Dutch Church—still standing one block to the west on Flatbush and Church avenues—and was adjacent to the Town Pound where horses, cattle, and other animals were confined. Little more is known of this burial ground, which may have been established soon after the arrival of slaves in Flatbush in the 17th century and used by Flatbush’s African American community into the mid-19th century. 

An 1873 map of Flatbush shows the Reformed Dutch Church property north of Holy Cross Cemetery where remains from the African burial ground might have been relocated.

In his 1884 history of Kings County, Brooklyn historian Henry Stiles writes that the “colored people’s burying-ground” of Flatbush, located on property owned by the Reformed Dutch Church, was removed when Bedford Avenue was laid out in 1865 and the remains reinterred at “a new burying-ground in another section of the Reformed Church land, at the northeast corner of the cemetery of the Holy Cross.” Some have interpreted Stiles’ statement to mean that the remains were reinterred in Holy Cross Cemetery, the Catholic cemetery founded in Flatbush in 1849. However, Holy Cross Cemetery has no record that remains from the African burial ground were interred there and it’s unlikely that they would have been removed to this Catholic burial ground. It’s more likely Stiles’ statement refers to Reformed Dutch Church property that is shown adjacent to the northern boundary of Holy Cross Cemetery on several 19th-century maps, and that the remains might have been reburied somewhere on this land. Whatever the case may be, no evidence of a reburial site can be found today.

1904 newspaper clipping reporting the discovery of a skeleton that may have been associated with Flatbush’s African burial ground

It’s possible that traces of Flatbush’s African burial ground still exist at the junction of Church and Bedford avenues, where human remains have been discovered on several occasions. Workmen unearthed skeletons at the site during sewer construction in 1890 and again in 1904.  Local historians have also suggested that the Flatbush District School No.1, erected in 1842 at the southwest corner of Bedford and Church avenues, was built on part of the African burial ground and that graves were disturbed when the school was constructed. This site was later occupied by Public School 90, which the city demolished in 2015 for safety reasons. When the city was considering reusing the then-vacant school building in the early 2000s, archaeologists conducted test excavations to determine if any evidence of a cemetery could be found on the school grounds; although they located no graves, they did recover four human teeth and fragments of a mandible that might have been associated with the African burial ground. The P.S. 90 school site is currently slated for development into an affordable housing and community space; a task force has been established to handle any remains that may be discovered and to consider potential memorialization of the history of the site.

A 2018 aerial view of Bedford and Church avenues in Flatbush; arrow indicates approximate location of the African burial ground; the vacant lot at the southwest corner of Church and Bedford avenues is the former P.S. 90 site slated for redevelopment; the historic Flatbush Reformed Dutch Church can be seen one block west at Flatbush Avenue

Sources: Map of part of the town of Flatbush, made for the commissioners for assessing expenses on the opening of Flatbush Avenue (Bergen 1855); Beers 1873 Atlas of Long Island, Pl 20; “Died,” Long Island Star, Mar 29, 1810; United States Census, 1800, FamilySearch; The Civil, Political, Professional and Ecclesiastical History and Commercial and Industrial Record of the County of Kings and the City of Brooklyn, New York, From 1683 to 1884. Vol. 1 (Stiles 1884); “Flatbush News,” Brooklyn Citizen, Dec 6, 1890; “Skeleton Makes Sport for the Boys of No. 90,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Nov 18, 1904; “Dug Up Skeleton,” Brooklyn Times Union, Nov 18, 1904; “Irreverent Schoolboys Capture a Skeleton and Play Pranks with the Bones,” New York Sun, Nov 19, 1904; “Skull in the Attic, A Flatbush Mystery,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Oct 27, 1935; “Flatbush Village School,” Flatbush Magazine, Sept 1938; Of Cabbages and Kings County: Agriculture and the Formation of Modern Brooklyn (Linder & Zacharias 1999); Stage IA Archaeological Assessment, Beth Rivka School, Flatbush, Brooklyn (Historical Perspectives, Inc., 2000); Stage IB Archaeological Investigation P.S.325-K, Church and Bedford Avenues, Brooklyn (Historical Perspectives, Inc., 2001); Flatbush District No. 1 School Designation Report (Landmarks Preservation Commission 2007); Mayor de Blasio and Council Member Eugene Announce Plans to Transform Flatbush Site into Affordable Housing (Office of the Mayor—Press Release, Oct 9, 2020);  Prepare for Death and Follow Me:”An Archaeological Survey of the Historic Period Cemeteries of New York City (Meade 2020); NYC Then&Now

Kings County Cemetery

BDE Oct 21, 1888In October 1888, a Brooklyn Daily Eagle reporter visited an apartment on the fourth floor of a tenement building near the Brooklyn riverfront. “In a corner sat a young woman with an old face,” writes the reporter, “not an unusual sight to be seen in the more thickly-settled or poorer parts of Brooklyn.” The woman’s daughter, a girl a little over a year old, had died the night before and was lying on a bed nearby, where her body was tended by a group of neighbor women. The mother’s “grief was not of the distressing kind, yet she stared into vacancy and was apparently oblivious of what was passing around her.” Her husband was in prison serving a sentence for assaulting a man while drunk; she had been supporting herself and her daughter by taking in washing. When her child died she was destitute, so she applied to the Commissioner of Charities for a permit to have her daughter buried by Kings County. Soon the county undertaker came with a little pine box and the mother was asked to take leave of her child, which she did in an undemonstrative way. The neighbors went home and the mother was left alone in her apartment as the coffin was carried off for burial at the Kings County potter’s field in Flatbush. “It was nothing new, this scene,” our witness remarks. “Such episodes are of daily occurrence in a great city like Brooklyn.”

A listing for the Kings Co potter’s field from a 1910 directory of NYC cemeteries

Until 1824, individual towns within New York State were required to care for their residents who did not have the means to support themselves financially. In 1824, this changed when the legislature passed an act requiring the care of the indigent poor be addressed at the county level. In 1830, the Kings County Board of Supervisors purchased land at Flatbush for erecting a poorhouse, or almshouse, for the indigent of Kings County. By the mid-19th century, this property—known as the County Farm—included the almshouse, as well as a hospital, nursery, and lunatic asylum. The buildings stood along Clarkson Avenue, facing toward Canarsie Bay. At the east end of the County Farm was the potter’s field. This was the burial place for those dying in the county’s public institutions, as well as those brought from the city of Brooklyn for burial by order of the of Charities Commissioner.

The Kings County cemetery, originally a few acres at the far eastern end of the 67-acre tract, expanded over time, progressing westward so that the cemetery eventually took up the entire eastern section of the County Farm from about East 45th Street to the property boundary near Utica Avenue. In the 1860s there were over 500 annual interments and the original three-acre burial ground was so overcrowded that the Board of Health was called in to investigate complaints that it posed a danger to the health of the community. Their examination “revealed a condition of things which is disgraceful to Kings County and should not and would not have been tolerated up to this time, had it been generally known.” The manner of burial within the cemetery was “of itself sufficiently revolting to necessitate a reform.” Large pits were dug, each about 12 feet square and 12 feet deep, in which coffins were stacked one on top of another, averaging 250 bodies to each pit. Gravediggers—inmates from the almshouse that were assigned to this duty—sprinkled a thin layer of dirt over the coffins as they stacked them, leaving the pit open until it was full—usually taking four to five months—when it was finally covered with about four feet of earth. The only record kept of those buried in each pit was a numbered ticket corresponding with a number on each coffin for all persons 13 years of age and older. No record was kept of children, whose coffins were unnumbered and their remains unidentified.

An 1890 map shows the potter’s field located in the eastern section of the Kings Co. Farm. Originally confined to the area between 48th St and Utica Ave, the cemetery later extended to E 45th St

Conditions at the potter’s field were no better in 1874, when a committee of the Kings County Board of Supervisors testified, “Nothing occurred in the course of our investigation which more surprised and disgusted us than to learn of the manner in which, for many years past, the dead have been buried at the public burial ground. It is hard to conceive how the minds of public officials could have become so deadened to all sense of decency as to permit the bodies of human beings to be disposed of in the manner which the evidence taken by your Committee proves to have been the case at Flatbush … To say that they are buried like dogs would fall far short of a correct use of language; for, with however little respect these animals are usually buried, they are but rarely consigned in large numbers to the same common pit.”

A view of the Kings Co. cemetery in 1912, from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle

By October 1888, when the above-mentioned Daily Eagle correspondent accompanied the young girl’s body to the King’s County potter’s field to observe her interment, the situation had improved. Pits were no longer used; bodies were buried in graves, each containing three or four bodies, with the top body five feet below the surface. Pine boards were placed above each grave, marked with the numbers of the coffins beneath; each body, including children, had a number to correspond to the burial books kept in the almshouse. In some areas of the graveyard plain white crosses identified the names of those beneath. A single marble headstone stood in the cemetery, marking the grave of a child.

This photo of the Kings Co. potters field, from 1913, shows the numbered boards used to identify the graves, as well as the only marble tombstone that stood in the cemetery

The Kings County cemetery was used until about 1914 when the state acquired the County Farm and its buildings from the city and the complex became known as Long Island State Hospital. In 1917, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that the remains of the estimated 50,000 individuals interred in the potter’s field were disinterred and removed to a burial ground on North Brother Island; hospital buildings and other structures were built over the site, which is now the Kingsboro Psychiatric Center. In August 2017, construction workers repairing sewers near the grounds of the psychiatric center found human remains about 13 feet underground. The skull, arm and leg bones, unearthed at Clarkson Avenue by East 48th Street, are believed to be from the long-forgotten potter’s field.

A 2012 aerial view of the former potter’s field, now the site of the Kingsboro Psychiatric Center. Star denotes the area where bones were unearthed in 2017.

Sources: Robinson’s 1890 Atlas of Kings County Pl 29; Fairchild Cemetery Manual (1910), 77; “Kings County Board of Supervisors,” New York Times, Aug 6, 1862; “Our County Institutions,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Mar 12, 1868; “How Our Paupers are Buried,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jun 11, 1869; “Sick Paupers,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sep 19, 1874; “Our Poor,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec 16, 1874; “Paupers,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sept 16, 1880; “The Burial of a Pauper,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Oct 21, 1888; “Metz Wants Pauper Bodies Cremated,” Brooklyn Standard Union, May 13, 1906; “Potters Field Burials In a Growing Section,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jun 9, 1912; “New Street Invades Paupers’ Graveyard,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Aug 22, 1913; “State Owns Hospital Now,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Aug 14, 1914; “Keeper of God’s Acre Soon to Lose Place, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jul 1, 1917; “Human Remains Found During Sewer Repairs Near Brooklyn Psychiatric Hospital,” Brooklyn Daily Aug 21 2017; “Human Bones Found by Construction Workers in Brooklyn,” amNewYork Aug 23 2017; Phase IA Archaeological Documentary Study, CAMBA Gardens, 560 Winthrop Street, Brooklyn, New York (Historical Perspectives, Inc., 2013)

Holy Cross Cemetery

Officers salute during the burial of slain Poughkeepsie police officer and Brooklyn native John Falcone at Holy Cross Cemetery in Feb 2011 (Associated Press)

By the 1840s, the enormous increase in New York’s Catholic population had exhausted all available space in existing Catholic cemeteries in Manhattan and Brooklyn. To meet the necessity, the Archdiocese of New York opened Calvary Cemetery in Queens in 1848 as a new burial ground for Manhattan’s Catholics and, a year later, established Holy Cross Cemetery to serve the Catholic community of the city of Brooklyn. Since 1822, when the first Catholic church in Brooklyn was founded, Brooklyn’s Catholics had been buried in parish churchyards or in the Catholic section of Wallabout Cemetery, a public cemetery near Fort Greene that had allotments for the different religious denominations. Holy Cross Cemetery began with the purchase of 17 acres in the town of Flatbush in Kings County and had 6,000 interments in its first year of operation. After years of expansion, it now entails 96 acres of land and is the final resting place of over 500,000 people.

An 1873 map of the town of Flatbush showing Holy Cross Cemetery, then about 40 acres in size

Unlike Calvary Cemetery, which is set among the rolling hills along the Brooklyn-Queens border, the landscape of Holy Cross Cemetery is “a surface as level from one end to another as an Illinois prairie,” as it was aptly described by Brooklyn historian Henry Stiles in 1870. Situated today in the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn, the cemetery is a roughly rectangular expanse bordered by Brooklyn and Schenectady Avenues and Snyder Avenue and Cortelyou Road. The grounds are plainly spread out and divided into broad fields of tombstones and greenery. There are many fine, statuesque monuments, but more modest markers are the rule. The main entrance at Brooklyn and Tilden Avenues leads to a small chapel that was built in 1855 and is still used today. The chapel was part of the improvements made when Holy Cross came under the control of Bishop John Loughlin after the Brooklyn Diocese was created in 1853. Some of the pioneer priests of the diocese are interred in catacombs beneath the chapel, and nearby are the graves of some of Brooklyn’s oldest Catholic families.

Deathbed motif on an 1856 marker in the early Irish section of Holy Cross Cemetery (Jackson & Vergara)

Well-known figures can be found at Holy Cross—businessman James (Diamond Jim) Brady, Dodgers great Gil Hodges, and bank robber Willie Sutton among them—but the graves of the lesser known are what give this cemetery its character. The earliest section of the cemetery is rich in mid-19th-century Irish-Catholic markers. Hundreds of tombstones here display traditional Hibernian motifs and record the history of immigrants who fled famine in Ireland and made Brooklyn their home. Later sections are dominated by gravestones of the Italian and Hispanic families who followed.

A listing for Holy Cross Cemetery in a 1910 directory of NYC cemeteries
A 2012 aerial view of Holy Cross Cemetery’s current 96 acres in East Flatbush, Brooklyn

View more photos of Holy Cross Cemetery

Sources: Beers 1873 Atlas of Long Island, Pl 20; Holy Cross Cemetery (Catholic Cemeteries, Diocese of Brooklyn); Tombstones of the Irish Born: Cemetery of the Holy Cross, Flatbush, Brooklyn (Silinonte 1992); Silent Cities: The Evolution of the American Cemetery (Jackson & Vergara 1989), 54; Fairchild Cemetery Manual (1910), 72; The Eagle & Brooklyn: The Record of the Progress of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle… (Howard & Jervis 1893), Vol 1, 360; A History of the City of Brooklyn (Stiles 1870), Vol 3, 633-634, “Our Public Cemeteries,” New York Herald, Jun 2, 1867; “Vandal Topples 63 Headstones and Statues at Historic Brooklyn Cemetery,” New York Daily News, Feb 13, 2018; NYCityMap