In October 1838, the Bishop of New York sent Rev. Michael Curran to Jamaica, Queens, to establish a parish for the town’s growing Irish Catholic population. Many of the area’s large farms employed Irish laborers, and construction of the Long Island Railroad along Jamaica Avenue in the 1830s brought an increasing number of Irish workers to Jamaica. Property was secured on the west side of Washington Street (now 160th Street), near South Street, and here a small frame church was erected and dedicated to Monica, the mother of St. Augustine. This humble little structure, 80 feet long by 25 feet wide, accommodated the 200 Catholics who came from miles around to hear Mass each Sunday. Vacant land adjoining the church was employed as a parish burial ground.
St. Monica’s parish grew rapidly and before long their tiny wooden church was no longer adequate. In 1856 the congregation moved to a new brick building at 94-20 160th Street, a short distance north of their original church and adjoining cemetery. The old church building was used for a time as a meeting hall and eventually sold and demolished. St. Monica’s parish continued at their new location until 1973 when the church closed and the City of New York took over the building and surrounding blocks as part of the York College Urban Renewal Project. Since 2009 the former church has housed the York College Child and Family Center.
St. Monica’s Cemetery is intact today at the southwest corner of 160th Street and Liberty Avenue, in the middle of the York College Campus. About one acre in size, it is maintained by Catholic Cemeteries Diocese of Brooklyn.Some 3,000 local Catholics have been laid to rest here, and tombstones now standing date from about 1840 to the early 2000s. Names on the tombstones reflect the changing demographics of the area—earlier burials are largely Irish, while more recent markers represent Italian families who settled in the area in the 20th century.
St. Monica’s Cemetery is noteworthy in local history as the spot where “the most beloved dog in Jamaica” took up residence. In 1923, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle described the unnamed stray who was known to the neighborhood for years:
And now upon a grave, apparently neglected, with a small, obliterated wooden cross, he makes his bed. We observed him the other afternoon lying atop the little grave as though mourning someone he had known when a tiny pup or someone dear to his ancestors. A pathetic picture he makes, indeed. Neighbors say the nameless dog howls bitterly late at night and sometimes during the day, and that efforts to keep him off the burial ground have been vain . . . Out of sheer pity the kindly folks on the block have declined to interfere with the strange dog’s actions. They sympathize with him by bringing him food, and even shut their ears to his nightly howls. And already the kiddies on the block have saved their pennies so that someday when the faithful and homeless dog passes away he will be given a resting place.
Sources: Jamaica (Walling 1859); Sanborn’s 1897 Insurance Maps of Jamaica, Queens Co., Pl 10; The Leonard Manual of the Cemeteries of New York and Vicinity (1901); Fairchild Cemetery Manual (1910); The Catholic Church in the United States of America(Catholic Editing Co. 1914); “Andrew McCormick’s Funeral,” Brooklyn Times Union, Aug 26, 1887; “St. Monica’s Church Celebrates Half Century’s History,” Brooklyn Times Union, Oct 13, 1906; “St. Monica’s, Jamaica,” The Tablet, Jun 18, 1910; “Cemetery His Estate, Lonely Grave Top His Choice of Boudoir,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Apr 9, 1923; York College Child Care Center – St. Monica’s Church
In 1947, Evergreens Cemetery sold a 20-acre notch of the northern part of their grounds to Knollwood Park Cemetery corporation, which opened the first new Jewish cemetery in New York City since 1915. Whereas their earlier counterparts sold much of their land to Jewish burial societies and other communal organizations, Knollwood Park publicized their modern cemetery as “New York City’s only Jewish burial estate dedicated exclusively to private family plots.”Their early advertisements emphasize that they sold “no land to societies, lodges, and organizations”—thus avoiding the over-crowding of graves and monuments seen in many communal plots, as well as the neglect common in older Jewish cemeteries as many plot-owning organizations went defunct in the 20th century.
Situated along the Brooklyn-Queens border, Knollwood Park Cemetery now has over 17,000 interments and is the last Jewish cemetery developed in the city’s five boroughs. Most of the cemetery is divided into plots with a family stone marking the plot and flat markers for individuals. In 2008, Knollwood Park was acquired by Mount Carmel Cemetery, the large Jewish cemetery located in nearby Glendale, Queens, and today is operated as a division of Mount Carmel.
Sources:“Knollwood Park Cemetery” [Advertisement], New York Post, Mar 15, 1950; “To Jewish Families” [Advertisement], New York Daily News, May 3, 1950; “News for Jewish Families” [Advertisement], New York Post, Jun 12, 1956; Green Oasis in Brooklyn: The Evergreens Cemetery 1849-2008 (Rousmanier 2008); “Knollwood Park Cemetery Burial Data Now Online,” Museum of Family History, Apr 27, 2010; OpenStreetMap
Long before the name “Riker” was synonymous with the violence and despair of one of America’s most notorious penitentiaries, it was a mark of pedigree that brought to mind one of New York’s most prominent families. The story of this Dutch American dynasty begins with Abraham Rycken van Lent, who arrived in New Amsterdam in 1638 and in 1654 received a land grant near the shore of Bowery Bay in northwestern Queens. In 1664 he was granted the neighboring island on which the Rikers Island jail complex now stands. Abraham Rycken’s descendants occupied their mainland estate and offshore island for the next 200 years, most of them eventually adopting the anglicized surname Riker. An 1877 article in the Newtown Register proclaimed the Rikers “one of the most versatile, patriotic, and learned families” the area had produced, a prolific and distinguished folk that included a host of soldiers, lawyers, merchants, and physicians.
Adjoining Abraham Rycken’s homestead (which now lies under LaGuardia Airport) was that of Harck Siboutsen, who around 1650 settled the land immediately west of Rycken’s property. Rycken’s son Ryck-Abramsen—who used the surname Lent rather than Riker—married Siboutsen’s daughter Catrina. Their son Abraham Lent (1674-1746) inherited the Siboutsen homestead and ca.1729 erected a house there (likely incorporating an earlier structure) that still stands at 78-03 19th Road in East Elmhurst. Behind this house is Riker Cemetery, first recorded in Abraham Lent’s 1742 will. In that will he directed that his farm be sold to the highest bidder among his children, with the provision “except for the Burying place, which is to remain entire as it now lies for the use of the relations and friends, with free egress to the same.”
In 1919 the Queens Topographical Bureau surveyed the 88×78-foot Riker Cemetery, locating 132 gravestones. A number of these were rough-hewn fieldstones and tablets with no markings or inscribed only with initials (a brownstone marked “A.L.” might be that of Abraham Lent). The earliest identifiable graves were those of Johannis Riker (1721-1744) and Abraham Riker (1655-1746), the eighth son of Abraham Rycken and inheritor of the Riker homestead and Rikers Island.
The most illustrious occupant of Riker Cemetery is Dr. John Berrien Riker, a patriot of the American Revolution. Born on the Riker homestead in 1738, he was educated at Princeton University and subsequently practiced medicine in New Jersey. Historians credit Riker with saving the life of future U.S. President James Monroe during the Battle of Trenton on December 26, 1776, when he clamped a severed artery in a near-fatal gunshot wound to Monroe’s shoulder. After Trenton Riker remained with Washington’s army and was commissioned as a surgeon of the 4th Battalion of New Jersey troops in February of 1777. When peace was established in 1783, Riker returned to his native home in Queens where he died in 1794 at age 57.
Also here is the grave of Dr. William James MacNeven (1763-1841), a celebrated Irish physician, scientist, and member of the United Irishmen who was exiled from Ireland after the failed rebellion of 1798. Connected to the family by his 1810 marriage to Jane Margaret Riker, MacNeven’s burial site in Riker Cemetery has long been a place of pilgrimage for local Hibernian societies. MacNeven is likewise memorialized in a 35-foot-tall cenotaph in St. Paul’s Churchyard in Manhattan.
Riker family members continued to be buried in their ancestral burial ground at Bowery Bay into the 1930s and various occupants of the nearby Abraham Lent house looked after the cemetery throughout the years. For most of the 19th century the house was occupied by members of the Rapelye family, who were affiliated with the Rikers through intermarriage and are said to have guarded the cemetery with “jealous care.” In 1941 a branch of the Riker family re-acquired the property and installed an elderly Swiss caretaker, Rudolph Durheim, to look after the house and burial ground. Durheim was interred in the cemetery upon his death in 1944.
Since the 1970s the Abraham Lent home has been owned and occupied by Michael Smith and his wife Marion Duckworth Smith, who restored the home and preserved the Riker Cemetery. When Michael Smith died in 2010, he was interred in Riker Cemetery alongside several of Mrs. Smith’s family members. Today the house is the oldest building in New York City still used as a private residence; the adjacent burial ground is protected by a high brick wall with a wrought-iron gate emblazoned, “RIKER.”
Sources: Sidney’sMap of Twelve Miles around New-York, 1849; The Annals of Newtown (Riker 1852); Long Island Historic Homes, Ancient and Modern (Whittemore 1901); Description of Private and Family Cemeteries in the Borough of Queens (Powell & Meigs 1932); 300 Years of Long Island City (Seyfried 1984); The Rikers: Their Island, Homes, Cemetery and Early Genealogy (Nutt 2004); “Walks through Old Cemeteries—The Riker Family,” Newtown Register, Aug 23, 1877; “Residences Which Are Historical,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Oct 22, 1899; “Alonzo D. Riker,” Brooklyn Times Union, Aug 23, 1910; “Shrine of Irish Patriot Found at Old Riker Grave Yard on Bowery Bay Shore,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Sep 19, 1920; “J.J. Riker Rites Tomorrow,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Aug 5, 1932; “High Walls Protect Old Riker Cemetery,” Long Island Daily Press, Dec 16, 1935; “Pioneers and Irish Patriots Share Resting Place in Old Riker Cemetery,” Long Island Star Journal, Jun 18, 1940; “Died,”Greenleafs New York Journal, Sept 10, 1794; Revolutionary War Pension Applications—John Berrien Riker (Ancestry.com); “Doctor Riker’s Decision,” Hektoen International, Summer 2016; “Re-naming Rikers,” Pacific Standard, Jun 14, 2017
Sometime after English colonists established the village of Newtown in 1652 at what is now Queens Boulevard and Broadway in Elmhurst, Queens, an acre of land about a half-mile east of the settled village was set aside as the community burial ground. Newtown Cemetery stood on a hill near the Horse Brook meadows, situated at today’s southeast corner of 56th Avenue and 92nd Street. Here generations of early and well-known Newtown families were laid to rest, including members of the Moore, Fish, Field, Waldron, Sackett, Coe, and Titus families.
The early history of Newtown Cemetery is obscure, but it likely came into use shortly after the settlement was founded. When a committee from Newtown’s Board of Health examined the burial ground in 1888 they found 105 inscribed tombstones ranging from 1730 to 1864, but more graves were marked with uninscribed fieldstones, a common practice of the early colonial period. The oldest identified burial in the cemetery was that of Content Titus (d.1730), who settled in Newtown in 1672 and was an elder of Newtown’s Presbyterian church. Among the other pioneers interred in Newtown Cemetery were direct ancestors of New York governor and U.S. senator Hamilton Fish (1808-1893).
A reporter for the Brooklyn Times Union visiting the cemetery in February 1889 found one of the graves of more recent interment, that of Civil War veteran George Ballback (d.1875). According to the reporter, Ballback was over seven feet in height and, as “the tallest soldier in the Army of the Potomac,” was recognized by General Grant for this distinction. A plain headstone, erected by the local Grand Army Post, marked Ballback’s grave, which was decorated with a small American flag and a pot of flowers left there from the previous Memorial Day.
During the 19th century, most of Newtown’s families acquired plots in new cemeteries that opened in the area and deserted the old community burial ground, which town officials continued to use as a place to bury the poor and unknown until 1891 when they purchased a plot in Mount Olivet Cemetery for this purpose. With the 1898 consolidation of the towns of Queens County into Greater New York, the disused and neglected Newtown Cemetery became city property. “Nothing has been done since Father Knickerbocker became its owner,” the Times Union reported after revisiting the cemetery in November 1900, and as the site continued in a state of abandonment and encroaching development threatened to disturb graves there, several families and entities took charge of disinterring some burials and moving them to other cemeteries. Among these were the remains and headstones of Content Titus and four other leaders of colonial Newtown’s Presbyterian church; in 1901 the Presbyterian Church of Elmhurst transferred them to their cemetery on Queens Boulevard.
In 1915, local civic groups asked city officials to convert the old Newtown Cemetery into a public park to meet the needs of Elmhurst’s community, which had no place in the neighborhood where childrencould play. Although the Parks department took possession of the property in 1917, the site was not converted for another decade. In 1927-1928, all the old headstones in the cemetery were laid flat and covered with soil, the ground leveled, and playground apparatus installed. A major reconstruction in 1935 created Newtown Playground essentially as it exists today, disturbing some burials in the process. Renovations to the playground in 1997 and 2019 included careful plantings and contemplative landscaping meant to honor and protect the remains of those still buried beneath the park.
Sources:Riker’s 1852 Map of Newtown; “The Old Town Cemetery,” Newtown Register, Jun 21, 1888; “Newtown,” Brooklyn Times Union, Aug 17, 1888; “With the Dead,” Brooklyn Times Union,Sep 14, 1888; “A Visit to Newtown’s Oldest Cemetery,” Brooklyn Times Union, Feb 15, 1889; “An Ancient Burial Ground,”Brooklyn Citizen, Aug 27, 1891; “Over a Century Buried,”Newtown Register, Nov 14, 1901; “In Potter’s Field,”Newtown Register, March 11 1915; “Hamilton Fish in Elmhurst,”Newtown Register, Apr 1, 1915; “Dig Up Bones of Early Settlers In Old Cemetery,” Daily Star, July 22 1915; “Court Street Cemetery,”Newtown Register, Aug 26 1915; “Tells Women About Parks,” Daily Star, Sept 17, 1915; Description of Private and Family Cemeteries in the Borough of Queens (Powell & Meigs 1932), 8-11; Archaeological Documentary Study, Reconstruction of Newtown Playground(Pickman 1995); Elmhurst: From Town Seat to Mega-Suburb (Seyfried 1995); George Ballback, “United States Records of Headstones of Deceased Union Veterans, 1879-1903” (FamilySearch); Newtown Playground; NYC Then&Now
Mount Olivet Cemetery is one of over a dozen cemeteries developed along the Brooklyn-Queens border after the New York legislature passed the Rural Cemetery Act in 1847, spurring creation of new large-scale cemeteries throughout the state. In 1850 a group of Episcopalian businessmen from Brooklyn and Manhattan incorporated Mount Olivet and acquired a tract of farmland near the village of Maspeth in the historical Newtown township, Queens. The founding trustees originally intended to allow only Episcopalian funeral services within the cemetery but lifted this restriction by the time the cemetery opened to the public in 1851, making Mount Olivet entirely non-sectarian. In November 1851, Mount Olivet’s trustees ran an ad in the New York Times announcing that the cemetery was ready for interments, enticing buyers with the following description:
It combines all the attractions appropriate to a place set apart for the unmolested repose of the dead and its corporate privileges exclude the possibility of any disturbance in the future. The soil is dry; the surface elegantly diversified with wood and water, lawn and thick; and from some of its eminences, most magnificent views of the Cities of New York, Brooklyn and Williamsburg may be obtained. The rules and regulations adopted by the Trustees are identical to those of Greenwood Cemetery and the prices of lots have been fixed at very moderate rates and less than half those charged at Greenwood.
Mount Olivet’s 71 acres extend from the main entrance on Grand Avenue in Maspeth to the rear entrance on Eliot Avenue, which separates it from Lutheran/All Faiths Cemetery to the south. Its open policies and affordable lots attracted many religious, fraternal, and benevolent associations, and groups such as the American Legion, the Masonic Merchants Lodge No. 709 F.&A.M., the Sociedad Espanola de Beneficencia, and the German Evangelical Home for the Aged acquired plots, as did churches and religious societies of many denominations. The cemetery’s undulating terrain features picturesque buildings, beautiful plantings, and a patchwork of multicultural graves and historical monuments. It is the final resting place of approximately 100,000 people, including colonial settlers, Civil War veterans, African American trailblazers, Russian nobility, fallen comrades of America’s labor and civil rights movements, notorious gangsters, and one of the country’s first self-made female millionaires.
Many families with long ties to historical Newtown acquired plots in Mount Olivet Cemetery after it opened, choosing the modern cemetery over the farmstead burial grounds or churchyard plots used by previous generations. One of these families was the Halletts, who have a large plot along the central road at Mount Olivet. The Hallett clan, led by patriarch William Hallett, emigrated from England and settled in the Astoria area of Newtown in 1652, remaining prominent in local political, business, and social life into the 20th century. In 1905 bodies and tombstones dating back to the 17th century were moved from the old Hallett burial ground at Astoria Boulevard and Main Avenue to Mount Olivet. One of the monuments in the Hallett plot at Mount Olivet carries a bronze plaque denoting the family’s colonial history.
In 1885, Civil War veterans living in and around Newtown organized a Grand Army of the Republic Post, naming it Robert J. Marks Post No. 560 in honor of a local soldier who died of wounds received in battle in 1864. One of the post’s first orders of business was purchasing a fraternal burial plot in the northeastern section of Mount Olivet on which they erected, in 1889, a 12-foot-tall granite monument depicting a Union soldier at parade rest and wearing his overcoat. Among the veterans interred in the Civil War soldiers’ plot is Jeromus Rapelye (1834-1913), known to his Grand Army friends as “Fair Oaks” for injuries he sustained at that Virginia battle site in 1862. Rapelye was a founding member of Robert J. Marks Post, noted for marching at the head of the group during their annual Memorial Day exercises and for personally visiting every soldier’s grave in Newtown to decorate it with flowers.
The Japanese Mutual Aid Society, founded in 1907 by Dr. Toyohiko Takami, purchased a plot of land at Mount Olivet Cemetery in 1912 for Japanese immigrants who died in New York without family here to arrange for their burial. Located at the south end of Mount Olivet, this plot is the city’s oldest Japanese burial ground and burials are still occasionally made there. Continuing the legacy of Dr. Takami, the Japanese American Association of New York holds an annual Bosankai, or grave attendance ceremony, at Mount Olivet to honor the ancestors and early Japanese New Yorkers interred there. Each Memorial Day a group attends the ceremony, conducted by Buddhist priests and Christian ministers. After completing the service at Mount Olivet, the group proceeds to Cypress Hills Cemetery where they repeat the ceremony at the Japanese American section there.
The distinctive three-barred cross of Eastern Orthodoxy surmounts many monuments at Mount Olivet Cemetery, marking the graves of immigrants and descendants from former Soviet countries, the Middle East, and the Balkans. New York’s growing Eastern Orthodox community began acquiring extensive grounds at Mount Olivet in the early 1900s, and the Russian Orthodox Church erected a small chapel in the southeast corner of the cemetery. Due to its affiliation with the Eastern Orthodox community, Mount Olivet is the burial place of a number of members of aristocratic families who immigrated to New York when the Russian Empire was overthrown. One of these exiled aristocrats at Mount Olivet is perfumer Prince Georges Vasili Matchabelli, descendant of the royal house of Georgia in the Transcaucasia, interred here in 1935 following a three-hour funeral service at Manhattan’s Russian Orthodox Church of Christ. Just steps from Matchabelli’s grave at Mount Olivet is the burial spot of Polish-born cosmetics tycoon Helena Rubinstein (1872-1965). Famous for rising from Krakow’s Jewish ghetto to become one of the world’s richest businesswomen, Rubinstein rests beside her second husband, Prince Artchil Gourielli-Tchkonia of Georgia.
Three political activists killed in separate altercations with police during labor and and civil rights protests in 1930 are interred at Mount Olivet Cemetery. In January of that year, 400 members of the Communist Party of the United States accompanied the body of Steve Katovis, a Greek vegetable-market clerk shot down in a clash between police and striking market workers in the Bronx, to Mount Olivet for interment. On July 1, 1930, Alfred Luro (a “Negro Communist,” according to news reports) was laid to rest at the cemetery when he died following a scuffle with police during a political protest in Harlem; Mexican organizer Gonzalo Gonzales, killed at a memorial rally for Luro, joined his deceased comrades at Mount Olivet. A monument marking the grave of Katovis and Gonzales is carved with symbols of the International Labor Defense, the legal arm of the Communist Party in the United States. At the bottom of the marker are the words “Martyrs in Labor’s Cause.”
Perhaps the most infamous figure buried at Mount Olivet, Prohibition-era Irish gangster Jack “Legs” Diamond was interred in a hastily-dug grave in a remote corner of the cemetery after church authorities refused his widow’s request to have him buried in consecrated ground at a Catholic cemetery. Nicknamed “the clay pigeon of the underworld” for surviving numerous attempts on his life, Diamond’s luck ran out when he was shot to death in an Albany rooming house in December 1931. His widow Alice was murdered in her Brooklyn apartment two years later. Diamond’s burial spot eludes modern curiosity seekers—he and Alice are buried in unmarked graves at Mount Olivet, and their location is not disclosed to the public.
Sources: Dripps’ 1852 Map of Kings and Part of Queens Counties, Long Island N.Y.; Mount Olivet Cemetery; Mount Olivet Cemetery (1851); “Mount Olivet Cemetery,” New York Times, Nov 12, 1851; The Cemeteries of New York (Judson 1881); “Founding Family’s Monument Updated,” Queens Chronicle, Aug 25, 2011; “Died for the Union,” Brooklyn Citizen, Nov 11, 1889; “Jeromus Rapelye,” Newtown Register, Aug 14, 1913; “Sgt. John L. Davis’ Funeral Impressive,” Amsterdam News, Apr 7, 1926; “‘Gabriel’ Dies,” Amsterdam News, Jan 15, 1949 p5; James R. Lockley, New York Age, Nov 30 1957; “Macbeth the Great, Calypso Singer Dies,” Amsterdam News, Feb 2, 1957; “Bessie A. Buchanan, Ex-State Aide, Dies,” New York Times, Sep 11, 1980; “A Place for All Eternity In Their Adopted Land,” New York Times, September 1, 1997; Japanese American Association of New York; “Russians Open Chapel Closed in 1923 Strife,” New York Tribune May 10, 1937; “Prominent Russians Mourn Matchabelli,” New York Times, Apr 4, 1935; “Helena Rubinstein Dies Here at 94,” New York Times, Apr 2, 1965; “Red Rally Orderly Under Police Guard,” New York Times, Jan 29, 1930; “3 Police Handle Parade of 3,000 Reds at Funeral,” New York Herald Tribune, Jul 2, 1930; “Honor Fallen Red,” Amsterdam News, Jul 9, 1930; Steve Katovis—Steve the Red (Vogias 2016); “Niece, 13, Leads Last Rites for ‘Legs’ Diamond,” New York Herald Tribune, Dec 23, 1931; “Play Pals, Big Shots Shun Diamond Grave,” Daily News, Dec 23, 1931; Resting Places:The Burial Sites of More than 14,000 Famous Persons, 3rd ed. (Wilson 2016); OpenStreetMap