Tag Archives: Fort Greene

Prison Ship Martyrs Tombs

Map of Wallabout Bay from 1776 to 1783 illustrating British prison ships and three areas along the shore where prisoner graves were purported to be found (arrows)

During the American Revolution, thousands of American soldiers, sailors, and civilians perished aboard British prison ships anchored near New York City. Captured during the Battle of Brooklyn or in other military engagements fought in what is now the city, Americans were crowded aboard rotting British ships moored in Wallabout Bay, a shallow cove on the Brooklyn side of the East River. Here they endured appalling conditions and died in vast numbers, their bodies then hastily buried on nearby beaches. The actual death toll cannot be reconstructed from surviving records, but it is estimated as many as 12,000 Americans perished aboard the British prison ships during the seven years of the Revolution—almost twice the number believed to have been killed in action during the war. 

Detail from an 1869 map showing the first Prison Ship Martyrs Tomb in the triangular lot on Hudson Ave, adjacent to the Brooklyn Navy Yard

After the war ended, human remains littered the sandy shores of Wallabout Bay, washed out of the shallow gravesites of those who had become known as the prison ship martyrs. Many bones appeared on property owned by John Jackson, a politician and member of the Tammany Society. Jackson donated a piece of land from his estate for a tomb and memorial site for the remains of the prison ship martyrs. On this small triangular lot, situated on what is now Hudson Avenue, between York and Front Streets and adjacent to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the Tammany Society built a burial vault where they interred, in 1808, 13 coffins filled with the remains of the prison ship dead that had been collected from the beaches of Wallabout Bay.

Lithograph depicting the original Prison Ship Martyrs Tomb on Hudson Ave, after it was improved by Benjamin Romaine in the 1830s (NYPL)

Although the 1808 interment was accompanied by great fanfare and public excitement, plans to erect a suitable memorial at the vault never materialized, and the tomb was soon forgotten and allowed to deteriorate. In 1828, Benjamin Romaine—a Tammany leader who had himself been a Revolutionary War prisoner—acquired the site. He erected an ante-chamber over the vault, added decorations and inscriptions, and, in hopes of preventing future desecration, appropriated the tomb as a burial place for himself and his family. However, following Romaine’s 1844 death, the prison ship martyrs tomb again fell into disrepair and obscurity.

Around this same time, nearby Fort Greene (originally Fort Putnam, constructed in 1776), was turned into a public park and in 1867 landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux (designers of Central and Prospect Parks) were engaged to redesign the park and create a new tomb for the remains of the prison ship martyrs. In 1873 workmen quietly transferred the coffins from the original prison ship martyrs crypt to the new tomb built into the middle of a series of terraces created in the northwest part of the park. Facing the corner of Myrtle Avenue and St. Edwards Street, the crypt was surrounded by a granite mausoleum, 10 feet high, 30 feet long, and 15 feet wide and embellished with pillars and fretwork. Though the mausoleum still lacked a monument memorializing the prison ship dead, these patriots were no longer forgotten, as services at the “tomb of the martyrs” in Fort Greene Park became part of Brooklyn’s Memorial Day ceremonies for the remainder of the 19th century.

An early 1900s view of the terrace at Fort Greene Park, with the Prison Ship Martyrs Tomb in the middle (arrow) (NYPL)

In 1905 the renowned architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White was hired to design a new entrance to the crypt and transform the terrace into a wide granite stairway leading to a plaza on top of the hill. At the center of the plaza would be a 149-foot Doric column honoring the prison ship martyrs, designed by esteemed architect Stanford White. On November 14, 1908, some  40,000 people stood in a storm of sleet and snow in Fort Greene Park as the folds of a massive American flag, more than 200 feet long, fell slowly away from the towering granite shaft during the monument’s dedication ceremony.

The redesigned tomb and grand staircase, with the newly-unveiled monument above, 1909 (NYHS)

At the center of the grand staircase below the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument is the entrance to the crypt where the patriots are entombed. Beyond a bronze door, a short passageway leads to a room lined with 22 bluestone caskets that hold the remains of the prison ship martyrs collected in the early 1800s along Wallabout Bay as well as bones unearthed in later years. Although the crypt is occasionally opened for historic tours, it is generally closed to the public. Speaking at the opening of the new Visitors Center at Fort Greene Park in 2006, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough called the Prison Ship Martyrs Tomb one of the most sacred Revolutionary War sites in the country and, like Arlington National Cemetery, a place that every American should visit.

The Prison Ship Martyrs Monument and Tomb, March 2022 (Mary French)
A view of the interior of the crypt, ca. 2006, shows some of the bluestone caskets that hold the remains of prison ship martyrs (NYC Parks Dept)
2018 aerial view of Fort Greene Park, arrows denote the monument and the entrance to the crypt (NYCThen&Now)

View more photos of the Prison Ship Martyrs Tomb and Monument

Sources: Johnson’s Diagram of the Wallabout Bay &c. from 1776 to 1783; Dripps’ 1869 Map of the City of Brooklyn; A History of the City of Brooklyn including the Old Town and Village of Brooklyn, the Town of Bushwick, and the Village and City of Williamsburgh, Vol 1 (Stiles 1867);  [Yesterday at the Wallabout], Public Advertiser, Apr 7, 1808; “Arrangement for the Grand and Solemn Funeral Procession,” American Citizen, May 24, 1808; “Tomb of the Patriot Prisoners,” Long Island Star, Jul 8, 1839; “Martyrs’ Monument, Brooklyn Union, Apr 11, 1873; “The Prison-Ship Martyrs,” New York Times, Jun 19, 1873; “Revolutionary Martyrs,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jun 18, 1873; “Not Forgotten!” Brooklyn Times Union, May 30, 1887; “Where History Lies Entombed,” Brooklyn Citizen, Feb 27, 1898; “Centenary of First Tomb of Prison Ship Martyrs,” Brooklyn Standard Union, Jun 16, 1907; “Nation Honors Martyred Dead,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Nov 15, 1908; “Resurrecting Patriots, and Their Park,” New York Times, Sep 23, 1995; Encyclopedia of New York City, 2nd ed. (Jackson et al 2010); 1776 (McCullough 2005); Martyrs Monument/Monument Lot, Block 44, Lot 14, Brooklyn: Memo Report on Archaeological Investigations (Geismar 2003); Fort Greene Park Archaeological Assessment (Geismar 2005); Archaeological Documentary Study: Rose Plaza on the River (AKRF 2007); Phase IA Cultural Resources Investigation for Admiral’s Row Section, Former Brooklyn Navy Yard (Panamerican Consultants, Inc. 2008); Prison Ship Martyrs Monument/Fort Greene Park Visitor Center historical panels, New York City Parks & Recreation 

Wallabout Cemetery

Wallabout Cemetery is depicted on this 1834 map of Brooklyn

Just north of Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn is a site in the middle of the superblocks formed by the vast Whitman-Ingersoll public housing developments. Situated between St. Edwards Street, North Portland Avenue, Auburn Place, and Park Avenue, this site contains the Walt Whitman Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, P.S. 67/Charles A. Dorsey School, and the former Cumberland Hospital—the birthplace of sports greats Michael Jordan and Mike Tyson, now a homeless shelter and medical clinic. In the century before these institutions were erected here, this land was the Wallabout Cemetery, a public burial ground for the citizens of the City of Brooklyn.

In the 1820s, the rapidly growing town (later city) of Brooklyn was running out of places to bury its dead. “Where shall I deposit the remains of my friend,” was a frequent question among the town’s citizens, according to the author of a letter published in the Long Island Star. The letter writer further commented that a survey of the “scanty burying grounds among us” was convincing evidence of the need for a public cemetery to be used by all denominations. In 1824 the town appointed a committee to find a suitable property for this purpose, eventually choosing five acres of farmland within a mile of the village, near Fort Greene and Wallabout Bay.

A diagram of the Wallabout Cemetery allotments from an 1835 newspaper article

At a town meeting in April of 1827, the burial ground committee announced that preparation of the public cemetery was almost completed and that some graves had already been made in the allotments assigned to eight denominations—Reformed Dutch, Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal, Friends, Catholic, Baptist, and Universalist—and a ninth, common lot for use by the town for burial of the poor and those unaffiliated with a church. “The different allotments are separated and ornamented with forest trees,” the committee reported, “the fences and gateway are of solid masonry and the passage and road in front of the passage is paved.” Their report on the cemetery further boasts that “no place in the town is now more eligibly situated and better prepared for the purposes of interment, and that it probably contains space enough for each of our citizens who are journeying to this grave yard for a century to come; and that the work will remain a lasting monument of credit to this town.”

Despite these lofty aspirations, a mere 10 years later the Long Island Star lamented that Wallabout Cemetery “is shamefully neglected by its keepers, if such it have, and the cattle, horses and hogs have been allowed to break over its enclosure.” Upkeep of the public cemetery was an ongoing problem, evidenced by regular newspaper reports of its poor condition. In 1849, burials were disturbed when Canton Street (now St. Edwards Street) was constructed along the cemetery’s west side; a year later, the city’s Board of Health reported that Wallabout Cemetery was “densely crowded with bodies” and recommended its closure.

A notice of the Wallabout Cemetery’s closure by the Brooklyn Board of Health in 1854

The City of Brooklyn finally closed the cemetery in 1854. In 1857 the state legislature  passed a bill authorizing  sale of the land and providing for burial plots for each denomination in the new, large cemeteries that opened in Brooklyn and Queens in the mid-19th century. Churches were responsible for removing the remains from their allotments, a process that took several years. In January 1861, Brooklyn Mayor Samuel S. Powell reported that the last of the remains had been removed from the Wallabout Cemetery and deposited in a plot acquired by the city at Evergreens Cemetery in Brooklyn.

As with many 19th-century cemetery removals, some graves in the Wallabout Cemetery were missed during the process and encountered during later construction. In 1867 laborers digging for a cellar on the former cemetery site exhumed a coffin containing human remains; the inscription on the coffin plate was John Switzer, who died in June 1846. Many years later, in March 1924, workers for the Brooklyn Edison Company found human bones when excavating for a conduit at St. Edwards Street along what had been the western boundary of the former cemetery. The bones were reportedly “of both sexes, one wrist bone decorated with a bracelet or arm band of crude iron.” Remains of other 19th-century Brooklynites that may have been overlooked during the removal of Wallabout Cemetery possibly rest today beneath the grounds of the public institutions built on the site in the early 20th century.

Wallabout Cemetery in 1855
A 2018 aerial view of the former Wallabout Cemetery site

Sources: Martin’s 1834 Map of Brooklyn, Kings County, Long Island ; Perris’ 1855 Maps of the City of Brooklyn, Pl 20; Laws of the State of New York, Passed at the 81st Session of the Legislature, Begun January 5th and Ended April 19th, 1858, Chap. 232; “Report,” Long Island Star, Jun 16, 1824; [Letter to Editor—Public Cemetery], Long Island Star, Jan 5, 1825; “Town Meeting,” Long Island Star, Apr 5, 1827; “Brooklyn Cemetery,” Long Island Star, Jul, 30, 1835; “The Violated Grave,” Long Island Star, Jan 11, 1838; “Common Council,” Long Island Star, Dec 30, 1839; “Common Council,” Brooklyn Evening Star, Nov 24, 1841; “The Burial Ground, Once More,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jan 28, 1844; “Burial Grounds,” Brooklyn Evening Star, Oct 24, 1846; “Cemetery at the Wallabout,” Brooklyn Evening Star, Nov 9, 1849; “The Mayor’s Communication of the Wallabout Cemetery,” Brooklyn Evening Star, Nov 16, 1849; “Common Council,” Brooklyn Evening Star, Jan 22, 1850; “Removal of Dead Bodies,” Brooklyn Evening Star, May 22, 1850; “Public Notice,” Brooklyn Evening Star, Jul 24, 1854; “Things at Albany,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Mar 20, 1856; “New York Legislature,” Brooklyn Evening Star, Jan 26, 1857; “Notice to Episcopalians,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Aug 10, 1857; “Office of the Commissioners for Sale of the Burial Ground at the Wallabout,” Brooklyn Evening Star, Dec 15, 1857; “Wallabout Burying Ground,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Apr 27, 1858;  “Great Sale of 11th Ward Property,” Brooklyn Evening Star, Jun 8, 1858; “Burial of the Dead,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Feb 17, 1860; “Common Council Proceedings,” Brooklyn Evening Star, Jan 29, 1861; “Human Remains Found,” Commercial Advertiser, Oct 14, 1867; “Thinks Old Skeletons Are From Ancient Cemetery,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Mar 25, 1924; NYC Then&Now