Tag Archives: Midtown

Public Burial Ground, East 50th Street

An 1836 map showing the public burial ground at 50th St and Fourth Ave

When New York City authorities decided to close the public burial ground at Washington Square in 1825, they selected a property “situate between the Third and Fourth Avenues, and between the 48th & 50th Streets” as the location for the new potter’s field. The site was considered well-suited for a public burial ground, since it was outside the populated city but only about a mile-and-a-half from both the state prison on the Hudson River and the almshouse at Bellevue. The grounds had recently been improved by the Commissioners of the Almshouse (who may have already been using it as burial ground), were enclosed by a “strong stone wall,” and required “no preparation for its immediate occupancy than that of a small tenement as a residence for the Keeper.” The site was quickly put into operation—the following year, 1,659 of the 4,973 people who died in the city were interred in the new potter’s field.

Located between today’s 50th and 48th streets and extending from Park to Lexington avenues, the remains of more than 60,000 people were laid to rest in the potter’s field over the next two decades, including approximately 600 cholera victims interred there during an outbreak in the summer of 1832. By the 1840s, the city was regularly receiving complaints about conditions at the 50th Street potter’s field. The New York Mirror called the site “disgraceful to the city of New-York—revolting to every proper feeling of the human heart, and unworthy of a Christian country.” In an 1845 report to the Board of Aldermen, the City Health Inspector described the situation at the site, where “bodies have not been regularly or decently interred in graves, but great pits have been dug in which a large number of bodies have been deposited; and when filled, have been covered over slightly with earth, allowing the most offensive and pernicious exhalations to fill the atmosphere, to such an extent as to endanger the health of the whole neighborhood.” Though a site on Randall’s Island was selected for a new potter’s field in 1843, many of the city’s indigent and unknown continued to be buried at the 50th Street site until the late 1840s.

Excerpt from a New York Times report on the extension of 49th street through the cemetery in 1853

During the 1850s, the defunct public burial ground at 50th Street was continually disturbed by the city’s northward expansion. A section of the grounds at Fourth Avenue (today’s Park Avenue) and 48th Street transferred to a private owner, necessitating the removal of some 2,000 bodies to another part of the field. Property owners in the vicinity petitioned the city to convert the site into a public park, as it had done with the previous public burial ground at Washington Square, but the request was refused by the city council, who voted to open 49th Street through the site. The city cut the street through in 1853, leaving “the bones of its unfortunate citizens” scattered about, according to the Evening Post.

A view of the “desecrated” burial ground in April 1857, from Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper

Thousands of bodies were again disinterred and moved to another area of the grounds in 1857, when Fourth Avenue and 50th Street were graded along the site’s western and northern boundaries. This work left the old potter’s field in shambles—the Herald described stacks of coffins lining the sidewalks and a rough fence erected on the southwest corner of Fourth Avenue and 50th Street to “prevent the pile of coffins tumbling from their somewhat higher position to the level of the newly made sidewalk.”  Exposed coffins were visible in the soil banks along the graded streets, “with the hairless skulls of the poor pauper occupants staring the passerby full in the face.”

Another sketch from Leslie’s Illustrated, depicting conditions at the site in April 1857

In April 1857, the City Health Inspector recommended removal of remains from the 50th Street Potter’s Field, noting that the “general appearance of the ground was disgusting,” with hundreds of human bones exposed and “many people gathered there on Sundays and amused themselves by poking out the skulls and bones.” In 1858-59, the remains were disinterred and transferred to the potter’s field then in operation on Ward’s Island. The 50th Street potter’s field is notable as the last potter’s field  established on Manhattan Island; much of the site is occupied today by the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, built in 1929-31.

The Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and other buildings are shown on the site of the former burial ground in this 1955 map
A 2016 aerial view; red lines indicate approximate boundaries of the 50th Street public burial ground site

Sources: Colton’s 1836 Map Of The City and County Of New-York; Bromley’s 1955 Manhattan Land Book of the City of New York, Pl 78; Minutes of the Common Council of the City of New York, 1784-1831 (City of New York 1917), 14:306-308; “Proceedings of the Common Council,” New York Spectator, Mar 6, 1827; [City Inspector’s Report of Deaths], New York Evening Post Jul 17, 1832; “Board of Health,” New York Spectator, Jul 26, 1832; “Potter’s Field,” New York Mirror May 30 1840; Documents of the Board of Aldermen of the City of New York Vol 11, 1845, 681-682; “Burials in Cities,” New York Daily Tribune May 30, 1848; “Twelfth Ward Street Opening,” New York Herald, Mar 26, 1850; “Old Potter’s Field,” New York Evening Post, May 30, 1853; “The Old Potter’s Field,” New York Times, May 31, 1853; “The Old Potter’s Field,” New York Herald, Mar 15, 1857; “Public Health—Potter’s Field Again,” New York Daily Tribune, Apr 7, 1857; “Exhumation of Bodies at the Potter’s Field,” New York Evening Post, Jun 8, 1858; “Potter’s Field,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, Jun 19, 1858; “The News,” New York Herald, Jun 7, 1859

Advertisements

Public Burial Ground, Bryant Park

An 1828 map showing the public cemetery site

On March 31, 1823, New York City’s Common Council passed the first of a series of laws banning interments in lower Manhattan, an action that was part of a movement in American cities that sought to promote public health by prohibiting burial of the dead in dense population centers. Though the ban was supported by those who regarded the numerous churchyards scattered throughout lower Manhattan as foul-smelling, unattractive eyesores that spread diseases, it was opposed by congregations and by families who had invested in purchasing lots and vaults in their churchyards. The opposition, who viewed the ban as an attack on private property and the rights of churches, was so strong that the Common Council reconsidered the measure twice over the next two years, both times reaffirming its original prohibition. However, the controversy demonstrated that the city needed to offer an alternative to those that had been deprived of a burial place as a result of the new interment law.

The Evening Post reports the laying of the cornerstone of the wall that would enclose the new burial ground, Oct 1823

At the same March 1823 meeting where they passed the interment law, the Common Council appointed a special committee to select a “Suitable Site for a public Burial Place to be called the City Burying ground.” This committee soon presented reports on the development of the new city burial ground, which would accommodate the “different religious congregations of the City,” as well as individuals “who may choose to select particular Spots for their families;” ground in the cemetery would also be reserved for the interment needs of the city’s “numerous poor.” The site selected for the municipal burial ground was part of common lands belonging to the city, located a little over three miles from City Hall, about 10 acres bounded by Fifth and Sixth avenues and 40th and 42nd streets. The city spent approximately $10,000 preparing the new cemetery, building 10 public burial vaults in the grounds, planting rows of weeping willows and elms, and enclosing the site with a four-foot-high stone wall that was topped with a “strong mortised fence, five feet high, made of Locust posts and the best Georgia pine.”

An 1825 call for proposals to construct vaults in the new burial ground

Despite the city’s efforts to provide a handsome municipal burial ground that could be used by all its citizens, the project never attracted middle- or upper-class New Yorkers and there is no evidence that congregations or families ever acquired lots or vaults in the city cemetery. The project was abandoned by the late 1820s; although the land is said to have been used as a potter’s field, reports from the 1850s state that the ground had been found to be too wet to be used for burials and remained wasteland until 1837, when it was appropriated for reservoir purposes. The city subsequently constructed the Croton Distributing Reservoir on the eastern portion of the site, while the western side became a public park known as Reservoir Square. In 1884 Reservoir Square was renamed Bryant Park; in 1899 the city demolished the reservoir and replaced it with the New York Public Library.

The 1823 public cemetery site is now the location of Bryant Park and the New York Public Library (NYCityMap)

Sources: Goodrich’s 1828 Plan of the City of New York and of the Island; Minutes of the Common Council of the City of New York, 1784-1831 (City of New York 1917), 12:811-812; 13:116-118; 14:209-212; 15:245; The Iconography of Manhattan Island: 1498-1909 (Stokes 1915-1928), 3:715, 968, 975; The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History (Sloane 1991), 34-40; “Proceedings of the Common Council,” New York Spectator, Apr 4, 1823; “Proceedings of the Common Council,” New York Spectator, Jun 13, 1823; “New Burying Ground,” New York Evening Post, Oct 15, 1823; “New Burying Ground,” New York Spectator, Oct 15, 1823; “Corporation Proceedings,” New York Evening Post, Dec 22, 1824; “Proceedings of the Common Council,” New York Evening Post, Dec 27, 1824; “To Masons,” New York Evening Post, Jul 2, 1825; “The New York Crystal Palace,” New York Herald, Jun 3, 1856; “The Removal of the Crystal Palace,” New York Herald, Nov 29, 1856

Hopper Family Burial Ground

The Hopper Family Burial Ground in 1884 (Mott 1908)

In 1879, a New York Times reporter described a small burial ground that stood at the corner of 9th Avenue and 50th Street in Manhattan:

On the line of the New-York Elevated Railroad is a station commonly known as the “Grave-yard Station.”  It is at the junction of Ninth-avenue and Fiftieth-street, and receives its name from a little grave-yard, about 50 feet square, that occupies the south-west corner of the intersecting streets.  It is some six feet above the level of the street, and is not much noticed by those on the side-walk, who see nothing but the heavy stone wall surrounding it; but from the platform of the station its handful of gray, crumbling tombstones can be plainly seen, and its forlorn and neglected condition noted.  It is bounded on two sides by the streets, on a third by the high blank wall of a store, and on the fourth by a wooden tenement-house, from which a door opens upon it, and to which it makes a convenient front yard.  Near this door some of the mounds have been leveled, and a patch of ground a few feet square has been dug up and raked over, so as to form a bit of a garden.  Dirty children tumble and play over the other graves, and among the tottering stones, and above all, lines of newly-washed garments are blown about in the wind.  No tender recollections appear to cling to the spot, and its appearance is pathetic.  As the passenger on the railroad, while waiting for his train, attempts to decipher the almost obliterated inscriptions on the monuments beneath him, and questions the employees of the road, who prove to know as little as himself, he wonders that a place so neglected should be retained for its present uses instead of having been built upon long since, as has every other available plot of ground in the vicinity.  He notices that on all of the stones upon which the inscriptions are legible the name is “Hopper” . . .

This burial ground was originally part of the Hopper farm, a large estate that extended from 6th Avenue to the Hudson River between 49th and 54th Streets.   Mattias Hopper, the son of Dutch settlers who came to New Amsterdam in 1652, acquired the land in 1714 in the district that was then known as Bloomingdale.  Mattias’ son, John Hopper, took possession of the farm around 1750.  When John Hopper died in 1778, his will ordered that the farm be divided into six equal portions among his heirs, who entered into an agreement that the family graveyard would be reserved as a burial ground forever.  The graveyard continued to be used until 1840, and members of the Hopper, Varian, Cozine, and Horn families were buried there.

In 1846, portions of the graveyard were cut off when 50th Street and 9th Avenue were laid out to the north and east of it and the remains of several individuals were relocated to another part of the cemetery.  Buildings rose on the other sides of the property, and the old cemetery was forgotten and neglected. The Hopper farm was famous for a number of 19th century legal battles concerning rights to the estate, including litigation that followed the removal of the burial ground in 1885.  Ellsworth L. Striker, a Hopper family descendant who claimed possession of the property, removed the graves and subsequently built an apartment house on the site.  Striker’s rights to the property were disputed, but the state Supreme Court eventually decided in his favor. Sources disagree as to whether the remains from the Hopper burial ground were reinterred at Trinity Cemetery in upper Manhattan or at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.

Surveys of the Hopper Family Burial Ground from 1820 (left) and 1857 (right) (Tuttle 1851 & Perris 1857)
Present-day view of the Hopper Family Burial Ground site.
Present-day view of the Hopper Family Burial Ground site (NYCityMap)

Sources: “Some Old Grave-yards,” New York Times, May 18, 1879; “The Hopper Burial Place,” New York Herald-Tribune, April 28, 1885, p. 1; Mott, Hopper, Striker (The Historical Co. 1898); The New York of Yesterday: A Descriptive Narrative of Old Bloomingdale (Mott 1908) ; Blackman v. Striker (The New York Supplement Vol 21 1893, 563-565); 1820 Map of Land Belong to the Estate of John Hopper (Abstracts of Farm Titles…Tuttle 1881); Perris’ 1857 Atlases of New York City, Pl. 101; NYCityMap.