When skulls and bones washed ashore in Brooklyn

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]

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

9 Responses to “When skulls and bones washed ashore in Brooklyn”

  1. T.J. Connick Says:

    Ephemeral New York regularly attains a high standard, and the fine rendition of the prison ships episode seems a suitable occasion for congratulations.

    The effect of your narration and accompanying images is wonderful. In a few strokes that seem always to strike the mark, you compose a story that suits any audience. Some come new to a subject and find a neat little gem: no false notes, no jargon, the signposts in place, all pointing in the right direction. Others come knowing a subject well and find a deft summary of uncanny brevity and cogency.

    Perhaps your finished work is a consequence of great labor; perhaps it comes to you simply and naturally; perhaps it is some combination of the two. The results are splendid. Don’t change a thing.

  2. wildnewyork Says:

    Thank you TJ. Nice to hear from you again; your comments are always helpful and illuminating as well!

  3. Goggla Says:

    Ugh, I can only imagine what it was like on those ships…or witnessing what you’ve described above. Thanks for sharing.

  4. wildnewyork Says:

    Yeah, there are many books that delve into just how horrendous the conditions on those ships were, with men crammed together, little food, open buckets for toilets, etc. Terrible.

  5. The Roving Runner Rides a Bike - NYTimes.com Says:

    […] crypt that houses the remains of 11,500 Americans who died of disease and starvation aboard British prison ships during the Revolutionary War. According to a 2011 article in The New York Times by Elizabeth […]

  6. A Bank Street building once held prisoners of war | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] POWs captured during the Revolutionary War, when thousands of men were jailed and starved on the infamous prison ships docked in Brooklyn’s Wallabout […]

  7. commandhistorian Says:

    I found a list of the prisoners held in these ships apparently published in the Brooklyn Eagle in the early 1900s. There were about a dozen plus Spanish surnames among them and some were officers and noncoms because they had the customary title of “Don” . I knew Spain had fought against the British in the Revolutionary War in what are now the Gulf States and in the Mississippi River Valley but the Spanish were victorious there so why were these men in the British prison ships in Brooklyn? Perhaps from the Spanish Siege of Gibraltar which ended in a win for the British?

  8. The Colonial history of Brooklyn – The Realm Of Olde Brooklyn Says:

    […] When skulls and bones washed ashore in Brooklyn […]

  9. Special offer for Ephemeral NY readers for a talk on architects McKim, Mead and White | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] the original Penn Station (below), the marble arch of Washington Square, and Brooklyn’s Prison Ship Martyrs Monument. The buildings of their later years are all around us. But what about how they got their […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: