Tag Archives: Manhattan

Anshe Chesed Cemeteries

A ca.1979 photo of Anshe Chesed’s Norfolk Street Synagogue; built in 1849, it is the oldest surviving synagogue in NYC (MCNY)

Anshe Chesed (People of Kindness) was New York City’s third Jewish congregation, formed in 1828 by a group of German, Dutch, and Polish Jews that seceded from B’nai Jeshurun. First meeting in rented quarters on the Lower East Side, in 1849 they built a synagogue on Norfolk Street and by the 1850s were the largest Jewish congregation in the United States. The ability to meet burial needs was crucial for fledgling synagogues to retain their members and attract new congregants; accordingly, Anshe Chesed made acquisition of burial grounds for its congregation a priority. In 1830 they acquired a lot on Sixth Avenue, just north of 45th Street, for their first graveyard; in 1846 they purchased land for a second graveyard on the south side of 89th Street, near present-day Madison Avenue. 

Anshe Chesed’s 45th Street Cemetery, denoted as “Jews’s Burial Ground” on this 1859 map

In the 1850s, both of Anshe Chesed’s Manhattan cemeteries closed to new interments and the congregation acquired new burial grounds at Union Field Cemetery in Queens. By this time their Manhattan graveyards were in poor condition. In 1853, a committee of the congregation’s trustees found four coffins partially uncovered at the 45th Street Cemetery and the fence surrounding the graveyard “in a very bad state.” In 1856, the trustees again alluded to “the poor state of our burial places in [45th] and 89th Street” when suggesting that “removing the corpses from those places to our new cemetery would be a good deed as the would not be disturbed there.” They let the matter drop after making inquiries to rabbinical advisors in London, who instructed them that “removal of the dead from the burial place was prohibited” by Jewish law.

An 1871 map shows the lots (delineated in red) Anshe Chesed acquired in 1849 for its second burial ground on 89th Street

In 1874, Anshe Chesed merged with another group, Adas Jeshurun, to form congregation Beth-El. Following the consolidation, Beth-El trustees decided to finally give up the old Anshe Chesed graveyards on 45th and 89th Streets. Beth-El notified relatives in March of 1875 “that the proper permit from the Health Department had been obtained, and that unless they removed their dead in due time, the Trustees would see to such removal.” Representatives of several families who had relatives interred in the grounds received a temporary injunction to stop the removals, but the courts eventually decided in favor of the trustees.

Remains from the 45th Street cemetery were removed to Union Field Cemetery in May 1875, as reported by The Jewish Messenger: 

The work of the exhumation has been conducted with some decorum. Excepting the few graves that, from their location, were recognized by relatives, there was nothing to distinguish the remains that were dug out—the tombstones having been thrown down and piled up against the wall of the adjoining houses—and the bystanders were shocked to see skulls and scattered bones, the sole remains of people who had once lived and moved on earth.

In March 1880, Beth-El proceeded with removing graves still present at the 89th Street cemetery. The New York Herald described the work of exhuming “the Hebrew dead” from the burial ground: 

The plot is only 104 by 100 feet, being a portion of the original cemetery, and is almost hidden from view by squalid shanties and squatters’ huts. Within this narrow limit, however, it is estimated that upward of two hundred interments were made; but, owing for the lapse of time (for after 1852 there were no burials) it is not probable that the names of more than one-half of the dead can be ascertained. The graves not marked with tomb stones have been carefully numbered, and where it is impossible to ascertain the names these numbers will mark the remains in their new resting places in Union Fields. 

Today, Anshe Chesed’s heritage continues at two Manhattan congregations: Emanu-El, which absorbed  Beth-El in 1928, and Ansche Chesed, formed in 1876 by a group that broke off when the original Anshe Chesed became Beth-El in 1874. Anshe Chesed’s 1849 Norfolk Street Synagogue, now the Angel Orensanz Center, is the oldest surviving synagogue in New York City.  Americas Tower is now at the site of Anshe Chesed’s 45th Street cemetery; Saint David’s School and other residential and commercial buildings occupy the site of the congregation’s 89th Street graveyard.

2018 aerial photos showing the Anshe Chesed cemetery sites today (NYCThen&Now)

Sources: Perris’ 1859 Maps of the City of New York,Vol 6, Pl 97;  Map of that part of the Harlem Commons east of the 5th Ave. & Central Park : copied from the original map made by Joseph F. Bridges, City Surveyor, January 1826… (Holmes 1871); New York County Conveyances, Vol 266, p471-472, Vol 475 p630-632, “United States, New York Land Records, 1630-1975,” FamilySearch; Bodies in Transit Register IX:1874-1880, Municipal Archives, City of New York; “Removal of Jewish Cemeteries,” New York Times, March 22, 1875; “Removing the Dead,” The Jewish Messenger, Mar 26, 1875; “A Congregational Controversy,” New York Times, Mar 29, 1875; “The Health Report,” New York Times, Apr 14, 1875; “The Right to a Grave,” New York Tribune, Apr 17, 1875; “Our Gossip,” The Jewish Messenger, May 28, 1875; “Reinterring Jewish Dead,” New York Times, Feb 28, 1880; “Exhuming Hebrew Dead,” New York Herald, Mar 11, 1880; “Temple Beth-El,” The Jewish Messenger, Mar 12, 1880; Rise of the Jewish Community of New York (Grinstein 1945), Appendix 8; Anshe Slonim Synagogue (originally Anshe Chesed Synagogue) Designation Report (Landmarks Preservation Commission 1987); The American Synagogue: A Historical Dictionary and Sourcebook (Olitzky & Raphael 1996); Dust to Dust: A History of Jewish Death and Burial in New York (Amanik 2019); Prepare for Death and Follow Me:”An Archaeological Survey of the Historic Period Cemeteries of New York City (Meade 2020)

Shaar Hashomayim Cemetery, 89th Street

Removal notice for Shaar Hashomayim’s 89th Street cemetery that appeared in the New York Herald in 1875

In 1849, Congregation Shaar Hashomayim of Manhattan purchased land on 89th Street to serve as a burial place to supplement its earlier graveyard in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The five lots acquired for $900 in 1849 were situated on the north side of 89th Street, near present-day Madison Avenue. By 1875, when the congregation decided to transfer the remains to new plots in Cypress Hills Cemetery, approximately 100 bodies were interred in Shaar Hashomayim’s 89th Street cemetery.

Though not identified as a cemetery, this 1871 map shows the five lots (delineated in red) Shaar Hashomayim acquired in 1849 for use as a burial ground

Shaar Hashomayim was one of several Jewish congregations that exhumed remains from their old burial grounds in the late 1800s, an act that was denounced by the Jewish public and press. The editors of The Jewish Messenger took Shaar Hashomayim to task when the congregation began removing their 89th Street cemetery, asserting that “there is absolutely no reason for this desecration. The old cemetery could, with very little expense, have been put in such a condition as to continue an object of grateful reverence. Had the members of Shaar Hashomayim retained any of the old Jewish feeling, they would have hesitated before disturbing the remains of their parents and other relatives.” The editorial goes on to claim that the only motive for emptying the cemeteries was to sell the land at a profit, and pleads with congregations not “to follow their example of contempt for the departed.” Today, an apartment building stands at the site of Shaar Hashomayim’s 89th Street cemetery.

A 2018 aerial view shows the site of the former Shaar Hashomayim Cemetery on 89th St (NYCThen&Now)

Sources:  Map of that part of the Harlem Commons east of the 5th Ave. & Central Park : copied from the original map made by Joseph F. Bridges, City Surveyor, January 1826… (Holmes 1871); New York County Conveyances, Vol 525, p214-216, “United States, New York Land Records, 1630-1975,” FamilySearch; “Shaar Hashomayim,” New York Herald, Nov 21, 1875; “Special Notices—Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, New York Herald, Nov 22, 1875; “Disturbing the Dead,” The Jewish Messenger, Nov 26, 1875; Dust to Dust: A History of Jewish Death and Burial in New York (Amanik 2019)

Watt-Pinkney Family Burial Ground

An 1849 map shows Archibald Watt’s Harlem estate

On a June day in 1910, an undertaker and his assistants labored in the drizzling rain to remove coffins from the Watt-Pinkney estate that covered an entire city block between 139th street and 140th streets and 6th and 7th avenues (today’s Lenox Avenue and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard) in Harlem. Complete with magnificent trees, flower and vegetable gardens, two barns, and a row of chicken houses, this single-block enclave was a vestige of a vast farm purchased by Archibald Watt in 1826.

Born in Scotland, Archibald Watt came to New York in 1820 and made his fortune as a merchant and land speculator. In 1827, he married Mrs. Mary Pinkney, a widow whose deceased husband came from a wealthy Maryland family. Archibald became stepfather to Mary’s two daughters—17-year-old Mary Goodwin Pinkney and two-year-old Antoinette Pinkney. Archibald and Mary would go on to have two additional children, Thomas and Grace Watt.

Watt-Pinkney mansion at 139th Street near 7th Ave, ca. 1910 (MCNY)

Archibald’s stepdaughter Mary G. Pinkney became his confidant and business secretary and was deeply involved in his real estate deals. When he was hard-pressed for ready cash during a financial downturn in 1843, it was Miss Pinkney who came to his rescue with a $40,000 inheritance left to her by her father. In return, Archibald willed her his Harlem estate “in consideration of love and affection.” Until her death at age 98, Mary Pinkney made her primary residence at the old family manor house near the corner of 139th Street and 7th Avenue and took great pride in the grounds. Dubbed “the wealthiest spinster in the world” when she died in 1908, her real estate holdings in upper Manhattan were worth an estimated $50 million.

The 14-month old daughter of Thomas Watt, Mary Pinkney Watt’s 1858 burial record notes her place of interment as “Vault in her grandfather Archibald Watt’s garden”

Mary Pinkney’s will included a clause directing that “the mortal remains of the members of my family that lie buried in the private burial grounds situate in the plot between 139th street and 140th streets and between Sixth and Seventh avenues shall be removed to the plot now owned by me at Woodlawn Cemetery.” Six of Mary Pinkney’s family members were laid to rest on the estate—her half-sister Grace Watt, who died at age seven in 1839; her sister Antoinette Pinkney, died 1841, aged 16; her 14-month-old niece Mary Pinkney Watt, who died in 1858; her stepfather Archibald Watt, died 1867, age 77; her half-brother Thomas Watt, died 1876 at age 48; and her 94-year-old mother, Mary Goodwin Pinkney Watt, the final interment, in 1883.

In each case, the coffins were enclosed in brick masonry and sealed at the top but left without a tombstone or any other exterior markings. Although the location of the burial vaults is described as “under the grape arbor” on the property, precisely where this was within the block is not known today. When the vaults were opened in 1910, the coffins were found to be in excellent condition, with the nameplates still readable. They were removed and put in zinc boxes for reburial at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. The Watt-Pinkney manor house and grounds were sold in 1925;  the house was subsequently demolished and the land redeveloped.

View of Watt-Pinkney farm, ca. 1900. The mansion can be seen in the background (MCNY)
This 1909 map shows the Watt-Pinkney mansion on north side of 139th street near 7th Ave and the grounds and outbuildings that occupied the remainder of the block.
A 2018 aerial view of the former Watt-Pinkney block in Harlem, where the family burial ground was located (NYCThen&Now)
The Watt-Pinkney plot at Woodlawn Cemetery, Sept 2021 (Mary French)

Sources: Sidney’s Map of Twelve Miles around New-York, 1849; Sanborn’s 1909 Insurance Maps of the City of New York,  Vol 11, Pl 33; New York, U.S., Episcopal Diocese of New York Church Records, 1767-1970 (Ancestry.com); “Died,” Evening Post, Jul 23, 1839; “Died,” Log Cabin, Nov 13, 1841; “Died,” New York Daily Tribune,  Jun 1, 1858; “Died,” New York Herald, Mar 2, 1867; “Died,” New York Herald, Nov 12, 1876; “Died,” New York Herald, Mar 26, 1883; “Estate of Millions, Miss Pinkney’s Care,” New York Times, May 4 1902; “Obituary—Miss Mary G. Pinkney,” New York Tribune, Dec 9, 1908; “Miss Pinkney Buried,” The Sun, Dec 11, 1908; “$50,000,000 Pinkney Estate Goes to a Man and Two Women,” Evening World, Dec 15, 1908; “Pinkney Estate Cut in Four,” The Sun, Dec 16, 1908; “City Overspreads Old Watt Cemetery,” New York Times, Jun 17, 1910; “Historic Estate in Auction Market,” New York Times, May 7 1911; “Harlem to Lose Ancient Landmark,” New York Times, Nov 29 1925; Biographical Register of Saint Andrew’s Society of the State of New York, Vol 2 (Macbean 1925)

St. Michael’s Churchyard and Cemetery, Bloomingdale

A view of St. Michael’s churchyard at 99th St and Amsterdam Ave,  ca. 1880

Much of the area of Manhattan known today as the Upper West Side was once a country village called Bloomingdale (an Anglicization of the Dutch name Bloomendal, meaning “vale of flowers”). In the 18th and early 19th centuries, wealthy residents of downtown Manhattan built summer houses in Bloomingdale to escape the city and its outbreaks of diseases such as cholera, smallpox, and yellow fever. The village was reached from lower Manhattan by the Bloomingdale Road, which opened in 1703 and followed an old Indian trail from what is now 23rd Street to 114th Street. In 1806, several parishioners of Trinity Church in downtown Manhattan founded St. Michael’s Church to serve the summer residents of Bloomingdale. This congregation built their church, a small wood-frame building, on a hill east of Bloomingdale Road, at what is now Amsterdam Avenue and 99th Street. At its consecration in 1807, it was the only Episcopal Church between lower Manhattan and Yonkers. When this first church building burned down in 1853 it was swiftly replaced with a new sanctuary, consecrated in 1854.

On the south side of St. Michael’s Church, between the building and 99th Street, was the churchyard where parishioners were buried. The first recorded burial in St. Michael’s churchyard was in 1809, when Joseph Armstrong, the two-year-old son of the church sexton, was laid to rest here. In the following years, about 500 burials were made in the churchyard where many members of the church’s more prominent families—such as the DePeysters, Weymans, Wagstaffs, Hazards, and Windusts—had family vaults. Bloomingdale farmers, shopkeepers, and other local households that were members of St. Michael’s congregation also were buried in the churchyard. The last known interment was Abraham Valentine Williams, the 25-year-old son of Dr. A.V. Williams, a former warden of the church, in 1873.

This detail from an 1851 map of upper Manhattan shows St. Michael’s first building and churchyard at 99th Street and 10th (Amsterdam) Avenue and the parish cemetery at 103rd Street

From its founding, St. Michael’s was committed to social service, establishing numerous ministries for the poor and disenfranchised. Although burial in their churchyard was reserved for members of their congregation proper, they provided a burial place for the poorer members of their community at a small cemetery a short distance north of the church. In 1828, the church vestry appropriated for this purpose a little over an acre of ground at Clendining Lane, a site between present-day 103rd  and 104th Streets and Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues. Known as “St. Michael’s upper ground,” there were 185 interments in this cemetery until its closure in 1854.

In the early 1850s, Rev. Thomas McClure Peters, rector of St. Michael’s, recognized the need for more burial space for the church and for the many charitable institutions with which it was connected. In 1852, he found appropriate land for a cemetery in Queens, where sections were set aside for St. Michael’s parishioners and burial of the poor. Over time, St. Michael’s Cemetery broadened its scope to provide burial space for other churches and institutions and individuals and families of all faiths. It is still owned and operated by St. Michael’s Church today.

An 1879 map shows St. Michael’s second church building and what remained of the churchyard after 10th (Amsterdam) Ave had been cut through the property. The disused cemetery at 103rd Street is shown as vacant land.

As St. Michael’s developed its new cemetery in Queens, urbanization was making its mark in Bloomingdale and would eventually lead to the obliteration of the parish’s Manhattan burial grounds. Opening of streets through the area in the 1870s carved away at both sites, which are described in an 1879 New York Times article. The churchyard, depicted as “cool and breezy” and “well shaded by great trees,” was by that time only half its original size, “the remainder having been taken from it by the opening of Tenth [Amsterdam] Avenue.” “Though many of its headstones bear the marks of extreme age, and are in some cases crumbled and moss-grown,” the article continues in its description of the churchyard, “they all stand upright, and no intruders are allowed to deface them or trample over the well-kept mounds of the graves.” The Times piece also portrays St. Michael’s parish burial ground at 103rd Street as a pleasant site, “well shaded with trees and still containing a few old gravestones,” though diminished when a portion was taken when 104th Street was opened. 

Photo of construction of the present St. Michael’s Church in 1890-91 depicts obliteration of the churchyard when the new building was erected over the burial ground. The old church can be seen behind the new building.

In 1890, St. Michael’s removed the remaining graves from their 103rd Street burial ground to their cemetery in Queens and the site was redeveloped (New York City Housing Authority’s Frederick Douglass Houses complex covers the site today). By this time the congregation had outgrown their 1854 church building and decided to build a new church on the existing property, including the churchyard area. Some of the old graves and vaults were opened at that time by their owners and the remains removed to St. Michael’s  Cemetery in Queens or elsewhere. However, most of the remains were left in place and lie today beneath the chancel and the southern half of the nave of the present St. Michael’s Church, completed in 1891.

2018 aerial view, arrows indicate approximate locations of the St. Michael’s churchyard and cemetery sites today (NYC Then&Now)

Sources: Map of New-York North of 50th St (Dripps 1851); Bromley’s Atlas of the Entire City of New York, Pl 25-26; Annals of St. Michael’s: Being the History of St. Michael’s Protestant Episcopal Church, New York for One Hundred Years 1807-1907 (Peters 1907); Bodies in Transit Register X:1881-1894, Municipal Archives, City of New York; “Some Old Grave-yards,” New York Times, May 18, 1879, “Old St. Michael’s to be Rebuilt,” New York Herald,” Nov 10, 1889; “For a Handsome New Church,” New York Times, Sep 30, 1890; “Unearthed by Boys at Play,” The Sun, Apr 3, 1892; “Tombs Under the City,” New York Times, Aug 2, 1896; “St. Michael’s Church: Two Centuries and Onward,” St. Michael’s Church, May 2012; St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Parish House and Rectory  Designation Report (Landmarks Preservation Commission 2016); Prepare for Death and Follow Me:”An Archaeological Survey of the Historic Period Cemeteries of New York City(Meade 2020)

Bethel Baptist Church Cemetery

A city notice of the proposed removal of Bethel Baptist Church Cemetery in 1842

Citizens of New York City readied to protect their dead in 1842 when the Hudson Insurance Company threatened to remove a cemetery near the corner of Chrystie and Delancey streets in the Lower East Side and convert the property into house lots. Thousands signed a petition that was forwarded to the state legislature, asking for a prohibition of the digging up of the dead. A large group of women watched the cemetery day and night—one lady, armed with a pistol, guarded the grave of her husband and children. And when the company’s agent arrived at the burial ground with workmen carrying shovels and spades, “it was the Ladies,” the New York Herald reports, “who over-powered and over-awed this wonderful agent with his men of war, and made them quit the battlefield.”

Detail from an 1832 map showing Bethel Baptist Church at the northeast corner of Delancey and Chrystie streets. The cemetery (not depicted), adjoined the church along Chrystie St.

The scene of this excitement was the burial ground belonging to Bethel Baptist Church. The second oldest Baptist congregation in the city, Bethel Baptist organized in the year 1770 and had its first house of worship on Rose Street in downtown Manhattan. By the early 1800s the congregation had grown to more than 400 members and in 1819 their pastor, Rev. Johnson Chase, purchased eight lots of ground at the corner of Chrystie and Delancey streets for a new church, parsonage, and burying ground. They erected a 65×85-foot brick church on the lots along Delancey Street and used the four lots adjoining the building for the graveyard.

A circular prepared in 1844 by friends and relatives of those interred in the cemetery provides a description of the site: “The said four lots, constituting the Bethel Baptist Burying Ground, contain a square of one hundred feet of ground, fronting on Christie st. In this ground, the remains of about 5,000 human beings are supposed to have been interred since said purchase. On an average the coffins are understood and believed to be at least five deep. The lowest tier of coffins are about fourteen feet below the surface. The surface of the grave yard is now five or six feet above what it originally was, having been filled up with coffins, graves, etc.”

A notice of a meeting of friends and relatives who opposed the cemetery removal

Beset by difficulties (including claims that church trustees used the cemetery as a money-making enterprise, selling the same plots over and over), Bethel Baptist disbanded in 1840 and sold their property. Thwarted in their attempts to remove the burial ground, Hudson Insurance Company suspended their plans for the site. The abandoned cemetery became an enclosure for hogs that tore up the ground and uprooted headstones. The city took over the property in 1856 and built a public school at the site. In the 1930s, the school was demolished and the site became part of Sara Delano Roosevelt Park.

An 1893 map shows the public school that was built on the Bethel Baptist Church Cemetery site in the 1850s

Although remains from the burial ground may have been removed before the site was redeveloped for a public school and later a public park, it seems likely the cemetery was simply built over since evidence of burials has been discovered over the years. In 1891, workmen excavating beneath the basement of the public school unearthed a large quantity of human remains under the northwest corner of the building—including 25 skulls and “a miscellaneous assortment of bones of arms, legs, and thighs.”

In 1964, decades after the site had been incorporated into the park, construction workers digging for foundation piles for a new senior recreation center were astounded when bones of what appeared to be at least 200 individuals were uncovered. Several engraved silver coffin plates were also found. The plates bore the names of Elizabeth Morrell and Emma Buchler, who died in 1821, and Martha Darby, who died in 1823. The foundation walls of the former school were visible in the excavation where the skeletons were found and had apparently been sunk down through burial vaults in the old cemetery. Following the 1964 discovery, the senior center was built and still stands at the site today. The disposition of human remains encountered during construction at the site is unknown.

Map of part of Sara Delano Roosevelt Park showing the Golden Age Center for senior citizens; arrow indicates approximate location of the Bethel Baptist Church Cemetery (NYCityMap)

Sources: City of New-York (Burr 1832); Robinson’s 1893 Atlas of the City of New York 4:13; A History of the Churches of All Denominations in the City of New York from the First Settlement to the Year 1846 (Greenleaf 1846); “Board of Aldermen,” New York Daily Express, Nov 30, 1841, “Corporation Notice,” Evening Post, Feb 9, 1842, “Protect Your Dead,” New York Tribune, Feb 23, 1842; “Protect the Dead,” New York Tribune, Feb 26, 1842; “Bethel Baptist Burying Ground,” New York Tribune, Mar 22, 1842; “Disturbing the Dead,” New York Herald, Mar 31, 1842; “Legislature of New York,” Spectator, Apr 2, 1842; “Digging Up the Dead,” New York Herald, Apr 13, 1842; “Removal of the Dead,” New York Herald, Apr 4, 1844; [Letter to Editor], New York Herald, Apr 5, 1844; “Protect the Dead in Their Graves,” New York Express, May 27, 1844; “Little Better Than Footballs,” New York Herald, Jul 19, 1891; “Bones Under a Schoolhouse,” New York Times, Jul 19, 1891; “Lower East Side Diggers Find Graves on a Construction Site,” New York Times, Dec 18, 1964