Archive for the ‘Cemeteries’ Category

Where the hangman lived on Washington Square

September 30, 2019

You wouldn’t know it today, as you walk through the marble arch or past the central fountain. But an estimated 20,000 bodies are buried beneath Washington Square Park.

Paupers, unknowns, prisoners, yellow fever victims—between 1819 and 1821 or 1823 (sources vary), they ended up here, when Washington Square served as the growing city’s potter’s field.

The square, bucolic and out of the way, was an ideal spot for a burial ground. (Above, in the 1880s)

It would be another decade or so before the north side would become “The Row,” a place of fashionable brownstones for the rich. (Below, in 1936)

And though houses were starting to sprout up in what was then the suburb of Greenwich, this was not yet a dense residential neighborhood.

Still, when the potter’s field opened, the gravedigger, Daniel Megie, had to find somewhere to live close to work.

In 1819, this “keeper of the potter’s field,” who also served as the hangman for Newgate Prison at the end of Christopher Street, paid $500 for a corner plot of land on today’s Washington Square South and Thompson Street.

Here, he built a two-story wooden frame shack, “where he could keep his tools and sleep,” according to a 1913 New York Times article.

“For three years he dwelt there, smoothing the resting places in the Field of Sleep,” wrote Anna Alice Chapin in her 1920 book, Greenwich Village.

As the prison hangman, Megie was tasked with executing prisoners in Washington Square—as legend has it from the infamous “hangman’s elm” on the northwest side of the square.

Megie departed his wood house in the early 1820s, when Washington Square ceased to be a potter’s field and the last public hanging took place.

What happened to him is lost to history.

But his home survived almost for a century, serving as a tavern, general store/soda fountain, and then as a Bohemian hangout Bruno’s Garret and then a coffeehouse/spaghetti dinner restaurant operated by Grace Godwin.

Today, the site of the wood frame house built by Washington Square’s hangman and gravedigger is part of NYU.

[Top image: Jessie Tarbox Beals, 1920; second image: NYPL, 1880s; third image: Berenice Abbott, 1936, MCNY: 89.2.1.126; fourth image: New-York Historical Society, 1914; fifth image: NYPL 1925; sixth image: NYPL 1927]

The last daughter to live in a 14th Street mansion

July 29, 2019

There’s a modest white fountain topped with an angel (bottom image) on Second Avenue near 10th Street, where two sides of the iron fence surrounding St. Mark’s Church come together.

Below the angel is a faint, undated inscription: “To the Memory of Elizabeth Spingler Van Beuren.”

Who was Elizabeth? She was born in 1831 in New York and died in 1908.

Never married, she was one of the last descendents of the wealthy Spingler-Van Beuren clan, who maintained a fabled farm-like homestead at 21-28 West 14th Street west of Fifth Avenue.

Her family’s story echoes the story of Manhattan.

An island dotted with farms and estates in the late 18th century became a metropolis by the early 20th century.

This sleek, modern city had no room for the “curious relic” that was Elizabeth’s lifelong home—on a large plot of land shaded by gardens and poplar trees, where a cow grazed and chickens wiled away the days.

Elizabeth’s great-grandfather, Henry Spingler (above), was the one who launched the family farm.

A successful shopkeeper, Spingler bought 22 acres of farmland in 1788 centered around today’s 14th Street and Fifth and Sixth Avenues, according to a 1902 New York Times article.

At end of the 18th century, this really was farmland. The city street grid had yet to be created. Union Square, at the “union” of Broadway and the Bowery, wouldn’t officially be established until 1839.

Henry lived in what’s described by a newspaper article as a “quaintly built Dutch structure” until his death in 1811. (The top image and drawing above show what that Dutch farmhouse supposedly looked like.)

In 1830, a granddaughter of Henry’s who married into the prominent Van Beuren family constructed a handsome double-size brownstone mansion on a large piece of family farmland on West 14th Street. (Above image, about 1910.)

The granddaughter was Elizabeth’s mother. Elizabeth and her siblings grew up in the mansion when 14th Street was the center of a fashionable, refined neighborhood.

Not much is known about how Elizabeth spent her days. Like other elite young women in the mid-1800s, she probably had tutors or attended a day school. Her family worshipped at St. Mark’s Church; the Spinglers had a burial vault there.

During the Civil War, she may have also helped raise money for hospital care for wounded soldiers or served in another volunteer capacity, as many socially prominent women of all ages did.

By the end of the war, 14th Street changed. The street became a commercial strip and Union Square itself a theater district. Rich New Yorkers escaped the crowds and noise by moving uptown to posh Madison Square and beyond.

The elite departed—but the Van Beurens remained. Elizabeth’s sister, Emily Van Beuren Reynolds, lived in another brownstone mansion across the garden from hers at 29 West 14th Street.

Together the mansions were known as the Van Beuren Homestead, which stretched to 15th Street, where a stable was maintained.

As the Gilded Age accelerated and 14th Street was colonized by the new department stores like Macy’s (becoming part of the Ladies Mile Shopping District), the Van Beuren Homestead took on almost a mythic quality.

“After 14th Street had grown up about the old home and its gardens, when Macy’s red star was in its ascendency at Sixth Avenue and 14th Street, there were always groups of people standing staring at [the] farm, with a cow and a vegetable garden, flower beds and hens, in the midst of the blooming city,” recalled one man in a 1922 New York Herald article.

“In the heart of New York’s retail shopping district, the old Van Beuren mansion has presented the spectacle of a huge family mansion standing alone in its own grounds, with large gardens, stables, chicken coops, dove cotes, arbors, and grass plots,” the New York Sun wrote in 1902.

“There was nothing modern about the place. It had all the marks of a true homestead inhabited by an old and long-wealthy family who could afford to throw away the enormous profit they could make by turning this valuable land over to business purposes….Artists, poets, and lovers of the picturesque have long feared the destruction of this quaint structure.”

When Elizabeth Van Beuren’s demise was announced in newspapers in 1908, the days were numbered for 21 West 14th Street.

Her sister’s death also put another nail in the coffin for the Homestead. which spent its final years unoccupied.

In 1927, the two mansions met the wrecking ball. (Above, in 1925)

Today, 21 and 28 West 14th Street is occupied by a one-story retail building. What would Elizabeth and the rest of her family, interred in their vault at St. Mark’s, think of the building that replaced their homestead?

[Top image: Fifth Avenue Old and New; second image: Geni.com; third image: 1913 painting by Charles Mielatz; fourth image: MCNY, 1906, X2010.11.5832; fifth image: New-York Historical Society; sixth image: New-York Historical Society; seventh image: New York Sun; eighth image: MCNY, 1925, X2010.11.58021925; ninth image: ENY]

The tragic story behind Harlem’s St. Clair Place

June 3, 2019

St. Clair Place is one of Upper Manhattan’s forgotten little roads; it cuts through a few low-rise blocks between the Henry Hudson Parkway and West 125th Street.

The street isn’t very pretty. But it’s a lovely name, and you might imagine that it belonged to a former church or old hotel in this once-bucolic stretch of the city once known as Manhattanville.

But the street name probably comes from something distressing: the death of a beloved young boy.

St. Clair (also spelled St. Claire) Pollack was a 5-year-old who lived in the late 1700s with his family on a large estate called Strawberry Hill.

On July 15, 1797, the child fell to his death from the bluffs onto the shore of the Hudson River. (The riverside as it looked in 1814, at left)

St. Clair’s family, prominent merchants in the area, buried this “amiable child,” as it said on his tombstone, on their estate.

The family didn’t stay long. In 1800, they sold the estate to a neighbor, Cornelia Verplanck. St. Clair’s father (or uncle, it’s not clear) requested in writing that his son’s grave not be disturbed.

“There is [a] small enclosure near your boundary fence within which lies the remains of a favorite child, covered by a marble monument,” he wrote, according to a 1917 New York Sun article.

“You will confer a peculiar and interesting favor upon me by allowing me to convey this enclosure to you, so that you will consider it a part of your estate, keeping it, however, always enclosed and sacred. There is a white marble funeral urn prepared to place on the monument which will not lessen its beauty.”

Verplanck did honor Pollack’s request, and so did later owners of the property. Eventually the land became part of Riverside Park.

Here, in a grassy stretch of park north and west of 122nd Street, the tomb of St. Clair Pollack—now the Amiable Child Memorial, under the care of NYC Parks—remains as his family wished two centuries ago.

The grave sits behind an enclosure. (At right, in 1897; left, in 1920). A newer funeral urn and tombstone replaced older ones that suffered under the elements.

“Man that is born of woman is of few days and full of trouble. He cometh like a flower and is cut down he fleeth also as a shadow and continueth not,” reads the stone.

In the late 19th century, with the construction of Grant’s Tomb nearby, there seemed to be great interest in finding out who St. Clair was. An account from the New York Times in 1900 presents a different family background.

The street was officially renamed St. Clair Place in 1920.

[Second photo: NYC Parks; fourth photo: NYH-S; fifth photo: MCNY x2010.11.3159; sixth image: New York Times 1900]

Peter Stuyvesant’s last descendant died in 1953

July 16, 2018

Streets, schools, apartment complexes, statues—you can’t escape the Stuyvesant name in New York City.

These and other memorials pay homage to Peter Stuyvesant (at right), the director-general of New Amsterdam from 1647 to 1664, as well as other Stuyvesants who made a mark in the city over three centuries.

But there’s one Stuyvesant family member who made headlines for a different achievement: He was the last one, the final direct descendant of peg-legged Peter, dying at age 83 in 1953.

His name was Augustus Van Horne Stuyvesant Jr. Born in 1870 in his family’s mansion on Fifth Avenue and 20th Street, he grew up in an “imposing” house on East 57th Street off Fifth Avenue.

Wealthy and a resident of Manhattan’s most exclusive neighborhood at the time, Augustus lived the same life as the children from other old-money families did in the Gilded Age.

“Educated privately by tutors at home, Mr. Stuyvesant never went to school or college,” stated a New York Times article announcing his death. “In his youth, he and his two sisters led the normal social life of their class, spending summers at Newport, Southampton, or Tuxedo.”

Not only did Augustus not go to school, he never pursued a profession. And neither he nor his sisters married. As adults, the three of them lived together in their East 57th Street mansion.

The three siblings weren’t housemates for long. In 1924, the oldest, Catherine, died; youngest sister Anne’s death followed a decade later.

Augustus spent the next two decades in seclusion. He and Anne had sold the 57th Street mansion in the 1920s and purchased a spectacular French chateau (above) on Fifth Avenue and 79th Street.

The reclusive bachelor’s “only recreation seems to have been an hour’s stroll each day through the streets near his home,” wrote the Times. “He had no family or social life.”

His one regular haunt, however, was St. Mark’s Church at Tenth Street and Second Avenue, where eight generations of Stuyvesants had been buried in a family crypt.

“Once or twice monthly, also, a uniformed chauffeur would drive the tall, white-haired, black-clothed gentleman in an old Rolls Royce to visit the Stuyvesant tomb beneath St.-Mark’s-in-the-Bouwerie,” stated the Times.

“Frequently, in the last ten years, the [St. Mark’s Church] staff would see the quiet, elderly man in black wandering the churchyard, reading the inscriptions on the tombs or sitting in the Stuyvesant family pew in the silent church.”

After Augustus died—he was overcome by heat on an August day while on a stroll—he joined those 80 or so relatives in the family vault.

At his funeral at St. Mark’s Church three days after his death were some cousins, his lawyer, and his “ruddy-faced” butler, who “dressed in black, sat alone, weeping into his handkerchief” along with six elderly house servants, according to a second Times article.

Augustus was the last Stuyvesant to go into the crypt, which runs under the east wall of the church, after which it was sealed forever.

[Top image: Peter Stuyvesant in 1660; second image: Peter Stuyvesant Vault at St. Mark’s Church, wikipedia; third image: New York Times 1953; fourth image: Peter Stuyvesant statue at Stuyvesant Square, Alamy; fifth image: St. Mark’s Churchyard, 1979, MCNY X2010.11.4182; six image: New York Time 1953]

A child’s casket emerges in a Hudson Street park

October 30, 2017

The dead who dwell in New York’s burial grounds have a strange way of making themselves known.

One example of this happened in 1939. Workmen renovating James J. Walker Park (second to last photo) on Hudson and Clarkson Streets in the West Village came upon an underground vault—and found a child-size cast iron casket inside.

The casket was “made to look like a shrouded Egyptian mummy,” states the Trinity Church website.

The New York World-Telegram reported on the discovery, noting, ‘The girl’s cast iron casket…had a glass window in the top. Her white silk dress still looked fresh and dainty.'” The paper noted that she was “a pretty yellow haired child.”

What was a casket doing there—and who was the girl inside it?

Until the city seized this green space to make into a park, the land was Old St. John’s Burying Ground (above and at right), run by Trinity Church for the worshipers at nearby St. John’s Chapel, since demolished, according to the New York Cemetery Project.

“It’s estimated that 10,000 people were buried in St. John’s Burying Ground in the years before 1860, when burials stopped—and very few bodies were removed and re-interred during park construction,” states Trinity’s website.

The unusual casket itself revealed the girl’s identity.

“The silver coffin plate gave the child’s basic information: Mary Elizabeth Tisdall, 6 years and 8 months old, died April 14, 1850,” according to Trinity Church.

Church archives discovered that Mary’s cause of death was listed as “brain congestion—probably encephalemia,” and she lived at “219 East Ninth Street in Manhattan, just off of Astor Place.”

Mary’s parents had married at St. John’s. Her father (above) was a British-born coal merchant who became a Mason and wrote poetry; he died in 1878.

Her brother, Fitz Gerald Tisdall, had a long career as a professor of Greek at City College.

Yet no record exists of who Mary was—if she liked school, rolled a hoop in Washington Square Park like other children, visited Barnum’s Museum, or had a favorite type of candy.

All we know about her is that she was one of untold numbers of children who didn’t make it to adulthood in New York at the time, when little was known about sanitation and hygiene and no medicine existed to fight deadly diseases.

Her casket didn’t go back underground, of course. “She rests in peace in the catacombs under Trinity Church,” according to the church website.

The only marked grave in the entire park is an 1834 sarcophagus dedicated to three young firemen who perished in a blaze on Pearl Street.

[Top photo: NYPL; second photo: MCNY; fourth photo: NYC Parks Department; Fifth Photo: Wikipedia]

A secret alley behind a street in Hell’s Kitchen

September 25, 2017

Is there anything quite as enchanting as coming across a quiet hidden courtyard in the middle of a dense Manhattan neighborhood?

It’s especially magical when the courtyard is just a quick walk from the hustle and bustle of Times Square. That was my reaction when I took a walk through tiny Clinton Court in Hell’s Kitchen.

This secret space is about halfway down the busy tenement block between 9th and 10th Avenues. It’s accessible through a long slender walkway behind a heavy iron door, which you can find to the right of the residence at 422 West 46th Street.

The door is locked, of course. But it’s worth the trip if you can catch a glimpse of the courtyard from the street through the door.

And if you can convince a resident to let you in and see Clinton Court up close, you’ll want to grab your camera.

Clinton Court is an oasis of tall trees and lush gardens. The courtyard is steps from the back entrances for 420 and 422 West 46th Street (with their ivy-covered walls).

And right in the center is an entirely separate carriage house, with a facade right out of New Orleans or Paris, or a fairy tale.

The carriage house has an unclear history. It was probably built in 1871 by the builder who put up the tenement at number 422.

This was approximately 20 years after 420 West 46th Street went up in the 1850s—before Hell’s Kitchen filled up and became a poor Irish neighborhood of factories, warehouses, and small businesses in the decades after the Civil War. (And long before the neighborhood got its colorful nickname.)

The carriage house “had horse stalls on the ground floor, but occupancy of the upper floors at this time is unclear—in the 1880’s a milkman, Jacob Michels, occupied the entire structure,” wrote Christopher Gray in a 1992 New York Times piece.

Yet some sources have it that the carriage house dates back to the 1820s and was owned by George Clinton, governor of New York at the turn of the 19th century and a descendant of DeWitt Clinton, who has a park named after him in the neighborhood.

With Halloween coming up, it might be worth mentioning that a couple of sources claims the place is haunted either by Governor Clinton himself, one of his kids, or by an executed British Revolutionary War sailor named Old Moor, as the site of Clinton Court occupies an former potter’s field cemetery.

The carriage house’s history becomes clearer in the 20th century. “In 1919, Raffaello and Frank Menconi, prominent architectural sculptors, purchased both 420 and 422 and merged the lots,” wrote Gray.

The Menconis are the designers behind the flagpole bases outside the New York Public Library, among other city sculpture icons.

“They added a one-story studio with a skylight on the rear lot of 420 and occupied the entire rear building for their business.”

[ALL PHOTOS © EPHEMERAL NEW YORK]

In 1958, the tenements at 420 and 422 West 46th Street, the carriage house, and the studio became one single apartment complex entity, says Gray—serene seclusion steeped in New York history and mere steps from Midtown.

Saluting the last veteran of the War of 1812

May 25, 2017

Hiram Cronk lived a humble life.

Born in 1800 in upstate New York, he became a shoemaker, married in 1825, had seven kids, and spent his life living on a farm in Oneida County, near Syracuse.

But when he died at the age of 105 in 1905, he was treated like a hero. New York City hosted a state funeral in his honor, joined by politicians and military units and watched by thousands of city residents who thronged the streets in appreciation.

Like a dignitary, his body lay in state in City Hall before Cronk was buried in Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn.

So what did Cronk do to land all of this honor and attention? He survived.

Cronk was the last known veteran who fought in the War of 1812. He enlisted at the age of 14 with his father and brothers and served as a private at a naval station in Sackets Harbor off Lake Ontario, according to the New-York Tribune.

His military career wasn’t necessarily distinguished. But Cronk was heralded as a symbol.

In the Gilded Age city, people were still dealing with the aftershocks of the Civil War as well as rapid progress and waves of European immigration. As a result, nostalgia for older wars like the War of 1812 took hold.

“Cronk and other survivors and artifacts of the War of 1812 and the Revolutionary War became objects of great national fascination and enshrinement,” states the National Park Service. “Cronk’s mere existence created for many a tangible connection to simpler times and great patriotism.”

Cronk himself didn’t seem to have any connection to New York City. But the city has its War of 1812 remnants, some of which still exist today (even though New York was never attacked).

[Video: Library of Congress; third image: Brooklyn Eagle via Tapeshare.com]

A lovely day to relax in Green-Wood Cemetery

May 15, 2017

It might sound a little macabre to our modern sensibilities.

But in a city with almost no public parks until the late 19th century, what better place was there to take in the fresh air and views of New York Harbor and enjoy the natural landscape than a burial ground?

Which is why half a million Brooklynites and tourists a year flocked to Green-Wood Cemetery, founded in 1838.

Green-Wood was one of the new “rural” cemeteries that allowed people to stroll the grounds, ride 17 miles of carriage drives, and picnic inside a necropolis of 150,000 souls by 1870, according to Lights and Shadows of New York Life.

“[T]he sunlight falls brightly, the birds sing their sweetest over the new-made graves, the wind sighs its dirge through the tall trees, and the ‘sad sea waves’ blend with it all in their solemn undertone from afar,” wrote author James D. McCabe, in wonderfully flowery Victorian-era prose.

Green-Wood “has come to be, next to the Central Park and Prospect Parks, one of the favorite resorts of the people of New York and Brooklyn.”

[Top photo: Green-Wood Cemetery; bottom photo: NYPL]

Tiny Jewish cemeteries hidden in busy Manhattan

April 10, 2017

They’ve been there for centuries, just steps away from traffic lights and the rush of crowds: three small burial grounds tucked behind iron fences and shaded by untended trees.

They’re not in the best shape. Some of the headstones are broken or knocked askew, as this photo of a cemetery on 21st Street and Sixth Avenue shows. The Hebrew lettering on the stones has been worn down by the elements. Graffiti marks a brick wall.

But the story behind how these cemeteries came to be starts with the story of the first Jews to live in New York City.

That means going back to the 17th century. In 1654, a ship carrying 23 men, women, and children docked in Lower Manhattan. They were refugees fleeing Brazil, which the Portuguese had just recaptured from the Dutch.

This little group of Spanish and Portuguese Jews felt that New Amsterdam might be a more welcoming place.

Eh, not exactly. Peter Stuyvesant tried hard to throw them out. The refugees wrote letters to Holland to solicit support so they could stay.

A year later, the Dutch West India Company gave them the go-ahead to remain as long as they “do not become a burden.”

Free to build new lives here, the group quickly founded the continent’s first synagogue, Congregation Shearith Israel. And though the synagogue had no permanent space until 1730, space for the deceased was established in 1656.

That original burial ground has disappeared. But what’s considered the first Jewish cemetery in the city still remains in Chatham Square (above), in a pocket facing St. James Place behind several tenements (below right, in a 1900 photo).

This cemetery opened in 1683. It once contained 256 graves, including those of Jewish Revolutionary War veterans. The above sketch of what Chatham Square looked like marks the “Jews Burying Ground” at the top right.

Speaking of the Revolution, the cemetery made an important appearance. In 1776, Major General Charles Lee wrote to George Washington:

“The East River, I am persuaded, may be secured in such a manner that [British] ships will scarcely venture into it…A battery for this purpose is planned at the foot of the Jews’ burying ground.”

An expansion of the Bowery cut the burial ground down in size to closer to 50. Some of the lead epitaph plates are missing because during the Revolutionary War, British soldiers melted them down to make bullets.

In 1805, a second cemetery opened on the outskirts of the city, at Sixth Avenue and what was then Milligan Place (below). The expansion of the city grid chopped its size as well to a tiny triangle.

“Initially, this graveyard was the burial site for victims of communicable diseases like yellow fever and malaria, for recently immigrated Jews who did not have strong ties to Shearith Israel, and for those who died at their own hand through suicide,” states the Shearith Israel website.

After the city banned burials below Canal Street in 1823, the Sixth Avenue cemetery became the main Jewish burial ground — until a third cemetery opened in what was then the bucolic country fields of Chelsea and is now a big-box shopping mecca (below).

“The lot for the Third Cemetery was purchased in 1829 for the then-princely sum of $2,750,” wrote Tablet magazine. “The cemetery operated until 1851, after which a law was enacted forbidding burial anywhere south of Manhattan’s 86th Street.”

Shearith Israel operates out of a majestic synagogue building on Central Park West with some spectacular history of its own; the wood floorboards under its reader’s desk are the same floorboards from the first permanent synagogue built in 1730 on Mill (now South William) Street.

The congregation maintains these three burial grounds, and near Memorial Day, members hold a ceremony at the Chatham Square cemetery, honoring the Jewish Revolutionary War veterans interred there.

Each cemetery has a story to tell about Jewish life in the city and the development of New York as a whole. Look for these ghostly reminders of Gotham’s first residents next time you’re nearby.

Manhattan is a necropolis of other little-known burial grounds, especially in the East Village.

[Fourth photo: NYPL; Sixth photo: MCNY: 93.91.359; Tenth photo: NYPL]

13 stories of Art Nouveau beauty in Manhattan

March 13, 2017

The magnificent boulevards of Prague and Vienna are resplendent with Art Nouveau building facades, lobbies, and public transit entrances.

But the sinuous lines and naturalistic curves characteristic of this artistic style never caught on in turn-of-the-century New York, where architects seemed to prefer the stately Beaux Arts or more romantic Gothic Revival fashion.

It’s this rarity of Art Nouveau in Gotham that makes the 13-story edifice at 20 Vesey Street so spectacular.

Completed in 1907, this is the former headquarters for the New York Evening Post—the precursor to today’s New York Post, founded in 1801 by Alexander Hamilton.

The building is across the street from the graveyard behind St. Paul’s Chapel off Broadway, a wonderful place to look up and linger.

Architect Robert D. Kohn designed the limestone structure with three rows of wavy windows and crowned it with a copper roof.

At the 10th floor, Kohn added a playful touch for a media company: four figures meant to represent the “Four Periods of Publicity“: the spoken word, the written word, the printed word, and the newspaper.

Note the “EP” insignia decorating the iron railings that link the four figures.

The Evening Post moved out in 1930, and today 20 Vesey is known as the Garrison Building, which houses a fairly typical mix of businesses behind its European-like facade.

Art Nouveau–inspired buildings are scattered in different pockets of New York, such as this former department store on Fifth Avenue and 34th Street.

Plans for an Art Nouveau hotel around the corner on Church Street drawn up in 1908 by Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi, unfortunately, never panned out.

[Third photo, 1910, MCNY x2010.7.1.887]