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Alsop, Cumberson & Betts Family Burial Grounds

View of the Alsop Family Burial Ground, 1922 (NYPL)

Several cemeteries in Queens have intriguing features hidden within them—small burial grounds that predate the cemeteries in which they are nestled. These earlier graveyards were on family estates acquired by religious and non-denominational corporations that assembled swathes of land to form new, large-scale cemeteries in the second half of the 19th century.

Estate owners tried to protect their family burial grounds with covenants in wills and deeds that exempted them from property transfers and directed that they be preserved intact. Three of these early burial grounds are located within the boundaries of Calvary and Mount Zion cemeteries in western Queens, and hold the remains of some of the pioneer settlers of Newtown, the historic township that comprised much of the area. These are the burial places of the Alsops, Cumbersons, and Betts, families of English origin who had neighboring farms in Newtown and were prominent in local events and public life during the colonial period and later, but disappeared from the area as their estates were broken up and sold off.

Detail of an 1852 map of Newtown, showing the locations of the Alsop, Cumberson, and Betts homesteads
Alsop Family Burial Ground
Headstones of Richard Alsop (d. 1718), progenitor of the Newtown Alsops, and his wife Hannah (d. 1757), Oct 2017 (Mary French)

In 1691, Richard Alsop inherited a sizeable estate along Newtown Creek upon the death of his uncle, Thomas Wandell. Wandell created the estate through acquisition of a 100-acre plantation originally granted to Richard Brutnell in 1643, and adding to it 50 acres patented in 1652 to Richard Colfax. Succeeding his uncle, Richard Alsop resided on what became known as the Alsop farm until his death in 1718, living in the home his uncle had built on the north shore of Newtown Creek. Alsop was buried on the crown of a hill near the house—the same spot where his uncle had been laid to rest in 1691, and a site where Alsop’s descendants would be buried for over 170 years.

Richard Alsop’s offspring became distinguished in the legal profession and mercantile life; his son Richard (1695-1764), a justice of the peace, took over the paternal farm at Newtown. One of Richard Alsop II’s sons, also Richard (1730-1790), a highly respected and influential citizen of Newtown who served in the magistracy for many years, inherited the estate next. Richard III’s son, John Alsop (1779-1837), succeeded as owner of the Alsop farm; in 1845, his widow sold the property—then consisting of about 115 acres—to the Trustees of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The Trustees secured the land to establish a new cemetery for Manhattan’s Roman Catholic population. The Alsop farm became the original section of Calvary Cemetery, known as Old Calvary, bounded today by the Long Island Expressway, Laurel Hill Boulevard, Review Avenue, and Greenpoint Avenue. When Mrs. Ann Alsop sold the farm to the Trustees, the agreement provided that the Alsop family burial ground would remain inviolate and the Trustees have maintained it to this day.

View of Alsop Family Burial Ground, 1922 (NYPL)

The Alsop Family Burial Ground is situated in the southeastern part of Old Calvary where it is enclosed—and separated from the consecrated grounds that surround it—by a metal fence. Some two dozen gravemarkers still stand in the 75×54 foot plot, including several brownstone monuments with the winged death’s head motif common on colonial gravestones. The oldest headstone in the plot marks the grave of the first Richard Alsop (d. 1718), the progenitor of the Newtown Alsops; his wife Hannah, who survived him by 39 years, rests beside him. A large granite obelisk commemorates the final family members interred here: William Alsop (d. 1883), the last known direct descendant, and his wife Sarah Leaird Alsop, who died in 1889. The old Alsop mansion, built by Thomas Wandell ca. 1651, stood within the boundaries of Old Calvary until 1880, when it was demolished as Calvary laid out the grounds for gravesites.

Alsop Family Burial Ground, Oct. 2017 (Mary French)
Aerial photo showing the Alsop Family Burial Ground within Old Calvary Cemetery, 2012 (NYCityMap)
Cumberson Family Burial Ground
Undated photo of the Cumberson homestead at 58th Street near 43rd Avenue (Municipal Archives)

By the 1870s, much of Old Calvary Cemetery was full and church authorities began purchasing large parcels of land east of the original cemetery to accommodate more burials; these tracts would come to form New Calvary Cemetery, which stretches from Queens Boulevard to 55th Avenue in three divisions. Among the land that became part of the north end of New Calvary is a portion of an estate established by Thomas Cumberson in 1761 on the west side of the Road to English Kills (58th Street), near present-day Queens Boulevard. The Cumberson farm is the scene of a vivid account in Riker’s 1852 Annals of Newtown, which details an attempted robbery of Thomas Cumberson’s home by deserting British soldiers during the military occupation of Newtown from 1776 to 1783. The episode ends with Cumberson mortally wounding one of the robbers, who soldiers buried in the woods at the north end of the farm. The Cumberson home was rebuilt after the Revolution, and stood at today’s 58th Street near 43rd Avenue until it was torn down in 1915.

Thomas Cumberson’s son and successor to the estate, the second Thomas Cumberson (1775-1849), seems to have created the small burial ground just south of the Cumberson home that was used by his family during the first half of the 1800s. In 1848, Cumberson authorized in his will that his heirs could sell his farm but not the graveyard at the southern end of the property; he devised and bequeathed the burial ground to his children and grandchildren, and to their heirs and assigns, to be kept and used by them as a burial place and for no other purpose.

An 1887 article in the Newtown Register describes a visit to the “lonely little cemetery” of the second Thomas Cumberson, who was “remembered by his neighbors as a man of cultivated mind and of singular powers of memory in treasuring up the traditions of Newtown.” The handful of tombstones included those to “Thomas Cumberson, who died March 31, 1849, aged 74,” “Hannah Cumberson, wife of Thomas Cumberson, who died November 1, 1847,” “In memory of Jane Cumberson, who died October 25, 1829, aged 16 years, 8 months, 21 days,” “Frances Jane Cumberson, daughter of Peregrine and Frances Cumberson, died July 24, 1848, aged 13 years,” and “Sacred to the memory of Peregrine Cumberson, who departed this life October 29, 1834, aged 34 years.”

A survey of the Cumberson Family Burial Ground by the Queens Topographical Bureau in 1927 (Powell & Meigs)

 

Today, no tombstones remain in the Cumberson Family Burial Ground, located at the southwest corner of 58th Street and Queens Boulevard. The descendants of the first Thomas Cumberson, who established the farm in 1761, held a reunion in the late 1880s; of the 200 present, only one bore the Cumberson name. The Cumberson’s are now extinct in the area and those at rest in the tiny, unmarked preserve at the northeast corner of New Calvary Cemetery are the only link to the family’s history in old Newtown.

Aerial photo showing the Cumberson Family Burial Ground preserve at the northeast corner of New Calvary Cemetery, 2016 (NYCityMap)
Betts Family Burial Ground
Undated photo of the Betts homestead at the northeast corner of 58th Street and 54th Avenue (NYPL)

Just south of the Cumberson farm, on the opposite side of today’s 58th Street, was the 120-acre estate founded by Captain Richard Betts in 1656. Betts built his home on the east side of the Road to English Kills and north of the Road to Newtown (later Penny Bridge Road and then Borden Ave), at what is now the northeast corner of 58th Street and 54th Avenue. An extensive landholder active in public affairs, Capt. Betts was an influential figure in Newtown’s history. A zealous revolutionist against the Dutch, he held a number of provincial government positions under English rule, including a 1678 commission as “High Sheriff of Yorkshire upon Long Island.” He left large landed possessions to his children and his descendants occupied portions of the paternal estate into the early 20th century.

Detail of an 1873 map of Newtown showing the old Betts house, then occupied by Mrs. John Hanson, and the Betts family burial ground

Capt. Betts was 100 years old when he died in 1713; legend has it a few days before he died he dug his own grave in the family burial ground near his home. Both the site of the old Betts house and the family graveyard are now within Mount Zion Cemetery, part of land purchased by developers in the 1890s to establish a cemetery to accommodate the burial needs of the city’s burgeoning Jewish immigrant population. The Betts house is long gone, but the burial ground lies secluded on a gently sloping hill in the southwestern part of Mount Zion.

About 30 headstones survive in the roughly 85×65 foot plot, which includes an old right-of-way (no longer used) to 54th Avenue. No headstone is here for the grave of the illustrious Capt. Betts, its absence possibly accounted for by the fact that his sons were members in the Society of Friends and early Quakers didn’t allow tombstones. Three rough stones containing only initials and dates are the oldest in the burial ground—these identify the graves of Capt. Betts’ grandson Daniel Betts (d. 1759), his wife Mary Betts (d. 1757), and their son Daniel Betts (d. 1762). Most of the graves in the plot are marked with white marble tombstones commemorating family members who occupied the estate in the 19th century, the most recent marker dating to 1885.

A view of the Betts Family Burial Ground, July 2010 (Mary French)
Aerial photo showing the Betts Family Burial Ground within Mount Zion Cemetery, 2016 (NYCityMap)
Aerial photo of Calvary and Mount Zion cemeteries; arrows indicate the locations of the Alsop, Cumberson and Betts Family Burial grounds, respectively (NYCityMap)

View more photos of Alsop Family Burial Ground
View more photos of Betts Family Burial Ground

Sources: Riker’s 1852 Map of Newtown Long Island; Beers 1873 Atlas of Long Island, Pl 52 ;The Annals of Newtown (Riker 1852), 212-214, 334-338, 373-378; History of Queens County (Munsell 1882, 340); Description of Private and Family Cemeteries in the Borough of Queens (Powell & Meigs 1932), 66-68, 70-71 & Supplement 1975, 5-7; 300 Years of Long Island City (Seyfried 1984), 76, 179, 183; Woodside: A Historical Perspective (Gregory 1994), 5-9; “The Catholic Cemeteries of New York,” Historical Records and Studies 1 (1899), 375-377; Wills of Real Estate, Queens County, Liber, 1845-1849 (Case 1940), 65; “Personal—Alsop,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jan 26, 1880; “Relics of Long Ago,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Apr 25, 1880, 1; “The Last of the Alsops,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Mar 1, 1889, 6; “A Protestant Burial Ground Maintained by Catholics,” New York Times, Apr 12, 1950; “Walks Through Old Cemeteries in Newtown,” Newtown Register, Nov 11, 1875; “Walks Through Old Cemeteries,” Newtown Register, March 15 1877, 4; “Old Newtown and Its Confines,” Newtown Register, Jun 30, 1887, 8; “Many Points of Interest in Queens Co.,” Daily Star, Oct 3, 1917, 8.

Calvary Cemetery

Birds-Eye View of Calvary Cemetery, 1855, by Endicott & Co. (MCNY)

An early 20th century guide to New York City cemeteries describes Calvary Cemetery in Queens as “by far the most important burial ground in the vicinity of New York, and, in fact, in the United States in point of interments, extent and the number of monuments and headstones that go to make it a wilderness of rising tombstones.” With an estimated three million burials, today it is America’s largest cemetery in number of interments and is renowned for its dramatic setting—a vast necropolis tucked in among the chaotic surroundings of highways, industrial buildings, and businesses, with views of Manhattan rising as a backdrop.

View of Manhattan from Calvary Cemetery (Getty)

The Archdiocese of New York established Calvary Cemetery in 1848 after the closure of their burial grounds at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral and on 11th Street in Manhattan. Located in the Long Island City/Woodside area of Queens and managed by the Trustees of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Calvary served as the main burying ground for Manhattan’s Roman Catholic population for many years and burials are still made there. By the early 1900s, it had over 750,000 interments and handled 18,000 burials a year—almost half the annual deaths in the city at that time. Calvary’s 365 acres hold five times as many bodies as the more famous and spacious Green-Wood Cemetery in nearby Brooklyn and are divided into two expanses: Old or First Calvary, the cemetery’s earliest parcel, bounded by the Long Island Expressway, Laurel Hill Blvd, Review Ave, and Greenpoint Ave; and New Calvary, three divisions stretching from Queens Blvd to 55th Ave and cut by the Long Island Expressway and Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

Detail from an 1873 map, showing Old Calvary and New Calvary (Beers 1873)

Calvary’s scenic power results from the magnitude of graves and tombs and the surrounding presence of urban life rather than from its design; however, Old Calvary does contain several significant monuments and features. The charming red brick, Queen Anne-style gatehouse at the main entrance (Greenpoint Ave at Gale Ave) is an architectural gem, one of the last of its kind in the area. At the center of the grounds is the cemetery’s chapel, which was declared the “most remarkable mortuary chapel in America” when it was erected in 1908. Designed by architect Raymond F. Almirall, it features a beehive-shaped concrete dome crowned with a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Crypts below the building are for the burial of priests of the Archdiocese.

The Civil War & 69th Regiment monuments at Calvary Cemetery, Dec 2017 (Mary French)

In the southeastern part of Old Calvary, a Civil War monument erected by the City of New York in 1866 honors 21 Roman Catholic Union soldiers interred in a 40×40 foot plot that is a city-owned park within Calvary. The 50-foot-high granite obelisk is surmounted by a bronze figure representing peace that was sculpted by Daniel Draddy. Draddy also created the four life-size bronze figures depicting Civil War soldiers that stand on pedestals surrounding the column (identical figures border the Soldiers’ Monument at Green-wood Cemetery, which was erected three years later). Adjacent to Calvary’s Civil War monument is a memorial to New York City’s famed Fighting 69th Infantry Regiment of the New York Army National Guard. Formed in 1849, this Irish-heritage unit gained notoriety for its members’ bravery and valor in the Civil War.

Near the Civil War/69th Regiment plot is a metal fence enclosing a “cemetery within a cemetery”—a small burial ground that predates Calvary Cemetery. When the Trustees of St. Patrick’s Cathedral were assembling land to form Calvary in 1845, they purchased a tract from Mrs. Ann Alsop, part of a farm that had been in the Alsop family for generations and included the old family graveyard. When the property was sold, the agreement provided that the Alsop family burial ground would remain inviolate and the Trustees have maintained it to this day. About 30 gravestones stand in the old burial ground, dating from 1718 to 1889.

The showpiece at Old Calvary is the massive Johnston mausoleum that sits atop a hill near the cemetery’s eastern edge. Built of huge granite blocks, this domed neo-Baroque chapel and tomb has a figure of Christ holding a cross at its summit and sculpted angels at each corner of the roof, gazing heavenward. Magnificent but blackened by age and pollution, with a decaying marble frieze above its fragmented bronze ornamental doors, it has an atmosphere of neglect and dissipation that is a visible symbol of the rags-to-riches-to-rags story of the family that reposes within.

John Johnston, head of the dry goods firm J. & C. Johnston, was one of the city’s most successful merchants when he built the mausoleum in 1873, reportedly at a cost of $200,000 (roughly equivalent to $4 million today). Born in Ireland in 1834, Johnston came to New York in 1847 and worked his way to the top of the mercantile trade. His successful dry goods firm included brother Charles Johnston, who died in 1880. John bore a deep affection for his brother Charles and never recovered from the latter’s death; he died in 1887, leaving the family fortune and business in the hands of his younger brother, Robert Johnston. The once-thriving firm closed a year after John’s death and Robert gradually lost the family millions as well as his palatial home along the Hudson River in Riverdale. He spent his final years in poverty, living as a recluse in a barn on his former estate. Robert was found there in 1904, sick with pneumonia and insane, and died in the hospital at Ward’s Island. He was interred alongside his brothers in the family crypt.

An aerial view of part of Old Calvary Cemetery in 2015. The Johnston Mausoleum is in the foreground (James Sengul)

A number of notable individuals are also buried at both Old Calvary and New Calvary, including Olympic gold medalist Martin Sheridan, considered the greatest all-around athlete of his time; Annie Moore, the first immigrant processed through Ellis Island; Joseph Petrosino, a trailblazing NYPD detective who was a pioneer in the fight against organized crime; and four-time New York governor Al Smith, the first Roman Catholic to run for United States president (in 1928). Moreover, Calvary is legendary as the fictional burial site of Vito Corleone in The Godfather. One determined urban explorer has identified the exact spot in the cemetery where the burial scene was filmed for the 1972 Mafia classic: Old Calvary, Section 1W, Range 18, Plot P, Grave #17.

Location of Calvary Cemetery in Queens (NYCityMap)

View more photos of Calvary Cemetery

Sources: Calvary Cemetery; Beers 1873 Atlas of Long Island, Pl 52; The Cemeteries of New York (Judson 1881), 3; History of Queens County, New York (Munsell 1882), 379; King’s Handbook of New York City (1893), 522; The Leonard Manual of the Cemeteries of New York and Vicinity (1901), 16-19; “The Catholic Cemeteries of New York,” Historical Records and Studies 1 (1899), 375-377; Silent Cities: The Evolution of the American Cemetery (Jackson & Vergara 1989), 34-35; Encyclopedia of New York City (Jackson 1991), 176; 300 Years of Long Island City (Seyfied 1984), 179-180, 183; “You Can Come and Go. They’re Staying Awhile,” New York Times Nov 30, 2008; “A Protestant Burial Ground Maintained by Catholics,” New York Times Apr 12, 1950, 29; AIA Guide to New York City (White et al 2010), 765; “Most Remarkable Mortuary Chapel in America,” Popular Mechanics Sep 1909, 292-293; “Burial of Charles Johnston,” New York Tribune May 4, 1880, 8; “An Old Merchant Dead,” New York Times May 17, 1887; “Poor, but has a $200,000 Tomb,” The Sun May 10, 1903, 3; “Once Rich, Now in Morgue,” New York Times May 4, 1904; Calvary Cemetery, Queens New York Est 1848 (aerial video); NYCityMap