In the years 1811-1812, there was a German physician known as the “Rain-Water Doctor” who practiced in the village of Brooklyn before moving on to Providence, Rhode Island. He was quite famous, and during his time in Brooklyn thousands of people from Manhattan and Long Island came to seek his remedies. The medicines he prescribed were mostly herbs and other natural substances, including rainwater, which he encouraged all of his patients to drink. Among the many who came to Brooklyn to consult the Rain-Water Doctor was Apollos Nicholls of Smithtown, Long Island, who died soon after placing himself under the doctor’s care. The circumstances of Nicholls’ case deeply affected the physician, who erected over his deceased patient’s grave a handsome marble tombstone with the following, unusually long, inscription:
In the mournful instances of human frailty, concording to demonstrate the destiny; also, as a baneful occurrence of both, and of an unshaken resolution and usual disappointment, here lies the no more animated and wasting remains of APOLOS NICOLL, born in Smithtown Ap. 11, 1776 : 14th of the same month 1811, departed and delivered up to the elementary menstrum of dissolution, nought, Resurrection, and Ascension; Conspicuous example of an unavoidable fate, who after his having been tired of experiencing eight months of various diseases, in expection to find alleviation to his painful existence, started in quest of relief, and firm in his resolution notwithstanding an inconsiderable distance contended three weeks in battling against the progressive obstacles of his perilous situation, opposing his design, to reach a dwelling which his delusive confidence had flattered himself to find alleviance, the end of his distress and complicated misery, but unfortunately found the one of his days accelerated by his bold attempt, and both his stranguary dropsical state and the strenuous motion of the last vehicle which conveyed him to the one by whom he eagerly expected to be alleviated and receive his existence prolongation : but vain hope! soon aborted! subject likewise to asthmatical affection by a sudden violent paroxism, effect of the combusted system stimulating the accumulated mass out of its recess, and which completed by obstructing the airy passage speedily produced suffocation, and that fatally; this incident terminated the earthly career, in putting a period to the suffering venturing afflicated; sorrowful consequence which inseparably has condemned the one he so considerately instrusted with his corporeal repair, to become of his disaster passive spectator, instead of a desirous benefactor : predetermined in the witness, which intitially and peremptorily was to sustain the view of such sinister catastrophe the inexorable po..t..ces manifested to only have afforded to their destined victim enough of vital faculty, for reaching the spot whereupon the minutes residue of the last hour was to be exhausted, and for implacably having after the fatal final thread cut off; To memorize such a dismal event, the concern it has caused to the unaccustomed beholder, may this cold stone relating the particular be of consolatory nature, for the surviving consort and relatives of the deceased, and help them to be in their privation resigned to the unalterable Supreme Will, and with fortitutde submit to the execution of its irrevocable decree.
Apollos Nicholls’ grave was in the old public burial ground of Brooklyn, where his tombstone was still standing in 1839 when the above inscription was copied and published by the Long Island Star. This public burial ground, or potter’s field, was located on the northwest corner of Livingston Street and Boerum Place in what is now downtown Brooklyn. When exactly this cemetery was established is not known; it was likely used from the early 1800s until about 1827 when the City of Brooklyn created a new public burial ground at Wallabout Bay.
The public burial ground at Livingston Street and Boerum Place was a place of interment for the poor, the unknown, and, like Apollos Nicholl, those who died while away from home. Sailors and marines from the Brooklyn Navy Yard were buried here before a naval cemetery was established adjacent to the Yard in the early 1830s. In an 1852 letter to the Daily Eagle, a Brooklynite recalled seeing military burials at the cemetery on Livingston Street and Boerum Place during his schoolboy days. “During the war of 1812,” he writes, “when a large body of Militia was collected in and about Brooklyn, taken from the comforts and endearments of home and suddenly subjected to all the hardships of the camp, sickness prevailed among them, and many died and were here buried. I have often followed the funerals of the soldiers to this burial place.”
The public burial ground was located next to Du Flon’s Military Garden, a pleasure ground that was situated at the junction of Fulton and Joralemon streets from 1810 to 1861. Punch Du Flon describes the Military Garden, and the cemetery that abutted it, in an 1891 letter published in the Daily Eagle. “My father, as you know, was the proprietor of the Military Garden, and it was really the only place of amusement in town in those days. . .We had concerts there and a little theater. At that time there was a burying ground at the corner of Boerum Place and Livingston Street, and that little cemetery bordered my father’s property. It didn’t bother us at all to have a cemetery so close at hand, but there was on one side of the fence a good deal that was grim and on the other a good deal that was merry.”
What happened to Brooklyn’s old public burial ground is unclear. Evidently, the City of Brooklyn sold the property in the 1850s, but no record has been found indicating that authorities arranged for the removal of remains from the site before it was redeveloped. When workmen excavated the property in 1857, they found human remains and portions of coffins and headstones. These were reportedly carried off with rubbish from the site. Another relic from the cemetery was found in 1861 when workmen redeveloping the Military Garden property found a gravestone with the name “Peter Taylor.” By the late 1860s, a county courthouse stood on the former Military Garden and the public burial ground was covered by stables and a gymnasium. Today office buildings are at the site of Brooklyn’s early-19th-century public burial ground, where a monument with the Rain-Water Doctor’s 400-word epitaph to a lost patient once stood.
Sources: Map of the City of Brooklyn (Colton 1849); Plan of New York City, from the Battery to Spuyten Duyvil Creek, Sheet 1 (Dripps 1867); A History of the City of Brooklyn including the Old Town and Village of Brooklyn, the Town of Bushwick, and the Village and City of Williamsburgh, Vol 1 (Stiles 1867) & Vol 2 (Stiles 1869); “Report of the Overseers of the Poor in the Town of Brooklyn,” Long Island Star, Mar 29, 1820; “Report of the Overseers of the Poor in the Town of Brooklyn,” Long Island Star, Mar 28, 1821; “Common Council,” Long Island Star, May 16, 1839; “Rain-Water Doctor,” Long Island Star, Jun 6, 1839; “For the Brooklyn Daily Eagle” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jan 10, 1852; “Old Potter’s Field,” New-York Daily Tribune, Mar 26, 1857; “Rattle His Bones. . .” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Mar 25, 1857; “While Excavating. . .” Brooklyn Evening Star, Mar 25, 1857; “A Mortuary Relic,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec 7, 1861; “The Dead. . . Brooklyn Graves that Have Been Opened” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Oct 2, 1875; [Letter to the Editor], Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 15, 1881; “Shattered Napoleon’s Head,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Feb 1, 1891