In the years after the Revolutionary War, Brooklynites living along Wallabout Bay off the East River were greeted almost daily by a macabre sight.
Human bones and skulls, bleached by the sun, would be unearthed by tides, washing ashore.
These were the remains of men who died aboard the prison ships—16 rotted, disease-ridden vessels docked near Wallabout Bay, where British soldiers held thousands of captive patriots in horrific conditions.
More than 11,500 prisoners perished on these ships, their bodies thrown overboard or hastily buried in waterside graves.
“For many years after the end of the war, the sandy beaches of Wallabout Bay remained littered with the bones of men who died in the prison ships—one resident of the area described skulls lying about as thick as pumpkins in an autumn cornfield. . . . ” wrote Edwin G. Burrows in his 2008 book Forgotten Patriots.
In 1808, residents collected the bones and built a small crypt for them on Front Street and Hudson and Hudson Avenue, in today’s Vinegar Hill.
As decades passed, city leaders called for a more heroic monument to the men known as the prison ship martyrs.
The Prison Ship Martyrs Monument in Fort Greene Park was dedicated in 1908. Twenty-two boxes containing a fraction of the remains of the martyrs are still inside a vault there today.
[A prison ship anchored in the bay; Wallabout Bay, site of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, in 1851, 70 or so years after the ships occupied the bay]