Tag Archives: public cemeteries

King’s County Cemetery

In 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

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 was 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 being 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 witness the 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)

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Canarsie Cemetery

An 1890 map showing the current Canarsie Cemetery, and the original town cemetery indicated as “GRAVE YARD” adjacent to the church on East 92nd St

In 1843 the Town of Flatlands, located in today’s southeastern Brooklyn, acquired an acre of land in the township’s village of Canarsie that served as the community’s cemetery during the 19th century. The burial ground—on land purchased from John Remsen for $75—was situated next to the Methodist Protestant Church of Canarsie on what is now East 92nd Street. At the time the town established the burial ground in 1843 the area was a farming and fishing community of about 700 people, but it grew rapidly in the late 19th century, and new suburban houses attracted a more diverse population. In 1888 the town purchased another tract of land, nearby the original burial ground, to be used as a new cemetery for the growing community. Some 6,500 people have been interred in Canarsie Cemetery, which has retained its local ambiance, serving the people of Canarsie as well as the wider community.

The Methodist Protestant Church of Canarsie—then named Grace Church—and a portion of original town cemetery in 1928, overgrown with dense vegetation (NYPL)

Both of the Canarsie cemeteries have been imperiled at various times since the City of New York inherited these municipal properties when the five boroughs merged in 1898. The original burial ground, which was rarely used after the new cemetery opened in the 1890s, was essentially abandoned and forgotten by the early 20th century. William A. Eardeley visited the graveyard in 1915 and recorded inscriptions from the 89 gravestones he found at the site. “This cemetery is not kept up at all,” Eardeley writes in his description of the cemetery. “Fence is almost all gone; about one-third of the stones are fallen down,” he continues. “The yard is full of ill-kept shrubbery. Grass is high. Tins and paper rubbish are all about the yard. People use it as a thoroughfare and children play about the yard.” In 1932 skeletons and coffins in the neglected cemetery were destroyed when a sewer was run through the site in anticipation of the opening of East 91st Street. Soon after, East 91st Street was graded right through the graveyard, cutting the original property into two parts. In 1977, the city sold the segment of the property that was west of 91st Street to a developer and residential buildings now stand on that part of the site. The half-acre that remains on the eastern side of 91st Street has been preserved and is owned by the city’s Department of Citywide Administrative Services. Many remains were moved to the new cemetery over the years, but approximately 80 burials may still be interred at the original cemetery site. No headstones are visible today in this vestige of the old town burial ground.

A chain-link fence surrounds the remnant of the original town cemetery, located on the east side of 91st St, adjacent to what is now the Church at the Rock (Google)
A view of Canarsie Cemetery, May 2016 (Mary French)

For many years, things were equally uncertain for the town’s successor cemetery. When ownership of the 12-acre Canarsie Cemetery, bounded by Remsen Avenue, Avenue K, Church Lane, and East 86th Street, was first transferred to the city, its operation was handed over to a board of trustees designated by the mayor. However, by 1924 there was only one trustee, George A. Schriefer, managing the cemetery—all the others had passed away and requests to appoint new trustees had repeatedly been ignored by the mayor’s office. The cemetery was unable to sell plots for three years because legally they could be conveyed only by direction of a majority of the board of trustees. The Brooklyn Standard Union reported that while Mr. Schriefer “does not desire to appear to be in any way disgruntled, he states that he is rather disturbed by the existing situation. However, he has retained the job from a sense of public duty and of loyalty to the community of which has been a resident for over forty years.”

Canarsie Cemetery was subsequently managed by a series of public agencies, including the Brooklyn borough president’s office and the city’s Department of General Services. By the 1970s, the city was determined to sell the cemetery to a private operator with the stipulation that it “continue as a burial ground for people of all races, faiths, and ethnic origins.” It took over 30 years for the city to find a buyer for the cemetery, which cost the city of $350,000 a year to maintain, and during which time there were long periods when no grave sites were sold because of its uncertain future. Finally, in 2010 Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn acquired Canarsie Cemetery for $50,000, with another $1 million dedicated to a trust fund to maintain the graves once the cemetery fills and can no longer generate money.

When it was sold in 2010, there was space for 6,000 more graves in Canarsie Cemetery, which, except for a few small family mausoleums, is modest, like the residential neighborhood that surrounds it. Entire families have bought plots here for future generations who will share the space with the community’s early Dutch and German settlers, the Italian and Jewish immigrants who came in the 1920s, and, more recently, those from Caribbean nations who have been attracted to the neighborhood. For over 100 years, the cemetery has been the end point of the annual Canarsie Memorial Day parade, where contingents of the Knights of Columbus, American Legion, and Boy Scouts march in full regalia for ceremonies in front of a plot where more than a dozen Civil War veterans are buried. The cemetery continues as a symbol of community pride and cultural heritage for the people of Canarsie, an ever-present reminder of what they were, who they are, and where they are going.

The family plot of William Warner, who was awarded the title “Father of Canarsie” at a community celebration of his 75th birthday in 1910 (Mary French)
A 2016 aerial view of Canarsie Cemetery and the remnant of the original town cemetery (arrow) (nyc.gov)

View more photos of Canarsie Cemetery

Sources: Robinson’s 1890 Atlas of Kings County, Pl 30; Cemeteries in Kings and Queens Counties, Vol 2 (Eardeley 1916), 3-14; “W. Warner, 85 Dies, Father of Canarsie, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec 28, 1920; “Finds Human Skull,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 2 1932; Documentation of Block 8218, Lot 26, Brooklyn, NY (Geismar 1987); “Correcting A Grace Church Misconception,” Canarsie Courier, July 1, 2010; “Craig Discovers that City Owns Canarsie Cemetery,”Brooklyn Standard Union, Sept 2, 1924; “Fight Canarsie Cemetery Vandals,”Brooklyn World-Telegram, Jan 8, 1965; “City to Undertake Sale Of Canarsie Cemetery, New York Times, Dec 13, 1975; “For Sale in Canarsie: A Beloved Century-Old Cemetery,” New York Times, Dec 2, 1988; “On Going Private: Mayor Wants to Sell Canarsie Cemetery, New York Times, Mar 8, 1995; “For Sale by Owner: 13 Acres. All 6,500 Tenants to Remain, New York Times, May 20, 2009; “A Place of Final Rest in Canarsie Is Changing Hands, New York Times, Aug 4, 2010; Encyclopedia of New York City, 2nd ed. (Jackson et al 2010), 178, 417; Canarsie Cemetery

Bensonia Cemetery

A view of Bensonia Cemetery in 1898 (NYPL)
A view of Bensonia Cemetery in 1898 (NYPL)

An 1870 newspaper article describes Memorial Day observances held in Bensonia Cemetery:

Yesterday morning the members of Post Oliver A. Tilden, No. 96 of Morrisania, assembled at 6 o’clock, and marched to Bensonia Cemetery. Following the procession, with a wagon filled with flowers was the colored body servant of Capt. Tilden, who was during all the campaigns of the war in the field. The Post was under the command of Wesley Farrington. On their arrival at the cemetery, the men, numbering about fifty, formed a hollow square about the grave of Capt. Tilden with a solitary woman mourner in the inclosure. Commander Farrington then made a short address to his comrades and those gathered there, when he deposited on the monument a handsome wreath of white flowers. Chaplain Geo. G. Chase then made a short, appropriate prayer, after which he and the rest of the members of the Post each laid their floral gift on the grave. They then proceeded to New-York to take part in the parade and floral decorations at Cypress Hill Cemetery.  (New-York Tribune, May 31, 1870)

Bensonia Cemetery was established in 1853 as a community burial ground for the Town of Morrisania, which was then a part of Westchester County. In 1874 Morrisania was annexed by New York City and today comprises a portion of the South Bronx. Bensonia Cemetery was located along St. Ann’s Avenue, extending from Rae Street to Carr Street. Developed by James L. Parshall, one of the original settlers of Morrisania, the cemetery was a picturesque spot, densely shaded by elms, poplars, and evergreens.

Oliver Tilden, who was born and raised in Morrisania and enlisted in the Union Army at the outbreak of the Civil War, was buried at Bensonia after he was killed in combat near Chantilly, Virginia, in September 1862.  Tilden was the first soldier from this neighborhood to give his life for the Union during the Civil War.  His remains were transferred to Woodlawn Cemetery in 1878.

It is unknown how many other individuals were interred at Bensonia before it was closed to burials in 1868.   About a third of the cemetery was taken in 1870 when St. Ann’s Avenue extended through the site and a large number of disinterments were made at that time. More burials were disturbed in 1893, when German Place was laid out along the west side of the graveyard. By the turn of the century, only about two acres remained of the original Bensonia Cemetery, and the abandoned property, with just a few gravestones still standing, had become a dumping ground for neighborhood refuse. In 1908 Bensonia was taken by the city for public use and the graves were transferred to Woodlawn Cemetery. Public School 38 (now called the South Bronx Educational Complex) was built on the site in 1921.

Bensonia Cemetery in 1867.
Bensonia Cemetery in 1867 (Beers 1867)
Bensonia Cemetery in 1898.
Bensonia Cemetery in 1885 (Robinson 1885)
A present-day view of the Bensonia Cemetery site.
Present-day view of the former Bensonia Cemetery site (NYCityMap)

Sources: “Decoration Day,” New-York Tribune, May 31, 1870, p. 1; “Suited for a Park Park Site: Bensonia Cemetery Now a Dirty Waste,” New-York Tribune, April 8, 1900, p. A4; “Do You Remember,” by Bill Twomey, Bronx Times, Nov. 25, 2009; Captain Oliver Triangle, NYC Parks & Recreation ; Annual Financial and Statistical Report of the Board of Education of the City of New York 1922 p. 147; Beer’s 1867 Plans of Westchester, West Farms, Morrisania, Westchester Co. and Part of New York County; Robinson’s 1885 Atlas of the City of New York Pl 34; NYCityMap

Strattonport Village Cemetery

From about 1851 to 1861, a village cemetery occupied the vicinity of present-day 125th Street and 15th Avenue, in College Point, Queens.  The site served as a community burial ground for residents of Strattonport, an area that was laid out into lots by land speculators in 1851 and was incorporated into the town of College Point in 1867.  John Flammer, one of the businessmen who developed Strattonport village in 1851, apparently provided the property that was used for the cemetery.  A map of the village from ca. 1860 (below) identifies four lots as “Cemetery given by Flammer.” These lots are shown on the south side of the Road to Whitestone (today’s 15th Ave), west of Amelia Street (125th St), extending to Wall Street (124th St).

In 1856, a local newspaper published the following notice regarding the cemetery:

Notice is hereby given to the inhabitants of Strattonport and all other persons, who have buried their dead on my lots at Strattonport, situated on the east side of Amelia Street, and known on the map of Strattonport as Lots numbered 677, 682, 683, and 684, to remove the same to some other place of burial by or before the 20th day of November next.  JOHN REED.  Dated, Sept 10, 1856. (Flushing Journal, Nov. 29, 1856)

Strattonport village map, ca. 1860, showing the “Cemetery given by Flammer” and the four lots identified by John Reed as a cemetery in his 1856 notice (Poppenhusen Institute Archives)

Reed’s notice states that the burials were located on lots on the east side of Amelia Street, whereas the village map from ca. 1860 shows the “Cemetery given by Flammer” on the west side of Amelia Street.  It is not known whether the map is incorrect, if the wrong lots are listed in the notice, or if the cemetery extended to both sides of the street. In any case, burials were certainly present on John Reed’s property and continued to be made even after his 1856 request for removal of the bodies.  In 1860, he gave another notice to the community:

Notice has been given by Mr. Reed to those who have friends interred in the Strattonport burying ground to have them removed by Feb. 1st as all bodies not removed by that time by friends, will be interred elsewhere. (Flushing Journal, Dec. 29, 1860)

Shortly after this last notice, family members removed the remains of 20 individuals from the burial ground to Flushing Cemetery, in nearby Flushing, Queens.  Flushing Cemetery recorded details about these individual removals and their records provide the only known information about individuals originally buried at the Strattonport cemetery.  According to their records, dates of death for the named individuals removed from the Strattonport cemetery ranged from 1853 to 1859, and surnames included Baker, Bien, Boyle, Derbing, Everhart, Gruner, Holdorff, Leopold, Loerbecker, Miller, Myers, Plitt, Schneider, and Simon.

On March 10, 1861, John Reed had workers remove from his property the remaining 68 bodies that had gone unclaimed.  These were reinterred in two plots that he had purchased at Flushing Cemetery to serve as a common grave.  No one installed a gravestone at the reburial site when the remains were reinterred, and the gravesite remained unmarked until the Poppenhusen Institute in College Point placed a monument at the site in April 2007.

Since the early 20th century, homes have occupied both of the areas (the lots owned by John Reed and the area described as the “Cemetery given by Flammer”) near 15th Ave and 125th St in College Point that were identified as the location of the Strattonport Village Cemetery in the 1800s.

View of plots 20 & 21, Section J, at Flushing Cemetery – the reburial site of remains removed from Strattonport Village Cemetery in 1861 (Mary French)
The marker installed at the Strattonport Village Cemetery reburial site by the Poppenhusen Institute in 2007 (Mary French)

Sources:  Strattonport Cemetery document file, Poppenhusen Institute Archives; Map of the Village of Flammersburg, including the land called Strattonport between College Point and Flushing, Long Island (original on file at Topographical Bureau, Borough of Queens).

The New Burial Place Without the Gate of the City

Miller Plan of New York, 1695, showing the New Burial Place
Miller Plan of New York, 1695, showing the New Burial Place (Stokes 1915)

In 1656, officials of New Amsterdam considered the necessity to establish a new cemetery to replace The Old Graveyard that was located on the west side of Broadway around present-day Morris Street.  Exactly when the new graveyard was created is uncertain, but the 1686 Charter of the City of New York identified “the new burial place without the gate of the city” among a list of public accommodations belonging to the municipality.

This burial ground is shown on the 1695 Miller Plan of New York (above), situated on the west side of Broadway just beyond the city gates that were located on Wall Street.  In 1703 the city conveyed this parcel of land to Trinity Church, which had, in 1696, purchased land adjacent to the burial ground to establish their church.  The city transferred the graveyard to Trinity on the condition that it be used as the “publick Church yard and burial place of this Citty for Ever.” It is contained in what is today the northern portion of Trinity churchyard, between Wall Street and Pine Street.  When there was a proposal to extend Albany Street through the northern portion of Trinity churchyard in 1847, a report opposing the extension described the burial ground.

It is nearly a century older than the other sections of the yard. It was originally a valley, about thirty feet lower at its extreme depth than the present surface, and has undergone successive fillings, as the density of interments rendered it necessary, to raise the land until it reached the present surface, so that the earth now, to a depth of several feet below the original and thence to the present time of interment, is in truth filled with human remains . . . The bodies buried there were those of many thousand persons of several generations, and of all ages, sects and conditions, including a large number of the officers and soldiers of the Revolutionary War, who died whilst in British captivity; and almost every old family that is or ever was in this city, has friends, relatives or connections lying there.

Diagram of the New Burial Place at the time it was transferred to Trinity Cemetery (Hoffman 1862)
The northern section of present-day Trinity Churchyard contains the New Burial Place.
The northern section of present-day Trinity Churchyard contains the New Burial Place (NYCityMap)
The gravestone of five-year-old Richard Churcher, who died in 1681, is likely a remnant of the old burial ground. (Mary French)

Sources: The Iconography of Manhattan Island 1498-1909 (Stokes 1915) 1:Pl23); Records of New Amsterdam from 1653 to 1674 (City of New York 1897) 2:24-25; Charter of the City of New York, 1686, reprinted in The Memorial History of the City of New-York (Wilson 1892), 437-446; Ecclesiastical Records, State of New York 2:1134, 1180Minutes of the Common Council of the City of New York, 1675-1776 (City of New York 1905) 2:221Treatise Upon The Estate and Rights of the Corporation of the City of New York (Hoffman 1862) 2:176-177, Diag. 2; NYCityMap.

The Old Graveyard of New Amsterdam

The Old Graveyard shown on the Castello Plan of New Amsterdam in 1660
The Old Graveyard shown on the Castello Plan of New Amsterdam in 1660 (Stokes 1915)

The earliest known cemetery of colonial Manhattan was located on the west side of Broadway, around present-day Morris Street.  It is unclear when it was first established as a burial ground, but by 1656 it apparently had been in use for many years as it was referred to in Dutch records at that time as “The Old Graveyard, which is wholly in ruins.”  The Castello Plan of New Amsterdam in 1660 (above) shows the cemetery’s location along the west side of the main highway that later became known as Broadway.  The dilapidated condition of the Old Graveyard was cause for concern again in 1665, when city officials described it as “open and unfenced, so that hogs root in the same.”  In 1676, the city ordered that the cemetery be broken into lots and sold at auction.

What happened to the burials in the Old Graveyard after it was disposed of by the city is unknown.  It is possible that the graves were moved to the new burial place that had been established further north along Broadway at what is now the northern end of Trinity churchyard.  A more likely scenario (and one that is seen repeatedly for the city’s later public cemeteries) is that the graves were left in place and the area filled in before the land was reused.  Evidence of the Old Graveyard was discovered in the mid-1800s when workmen uncovered human remains while excavating cellars in the area.  Today, the high-rise office buildings that cover the site have obliterated all signs of this early colonial graveyard.

The Old Graveyard (here called “The Old Churchyard”) shown in relation to present-day Morris street on Stokes’ Map of Dutch Grants (Stokes 1916)
Approximate location of The Old Graveyard site in present day lower Manhattan.
Approximate location of former site of The Old Graveyard in present-day lower Manhattan (NYCityMap)

Sources: Records of New Amsterdam from 1653 to 1674 (City of New York 1897) 2:24-25, 5:253Minutes of the Common Council of the city of New York, 1675-1776 (City of New York 1905) 1:47Manual for Corporation of the City of New York for 1856 (Valentine 1856) 444-447; The Iconography of Manhattan Island, 1498-1909 (Stokes 1915-1916)1:Pl.10A2:221-222, Pl. 87; NYCityMap.