Six feet under: New York's 'forgotten' history





Here lies the forgotten history of New York. And here. And over there. All across the city's five boroughs, old cemeteries are tucked away, some visible but ignored by passers-by, some in the shadow of latter-day high-rises, some so remote as to be overlooked entirely.

Several, like Sylvan Grove Cemetery in a distant corner of Staten Island, have fallen into disrepair from decades of neglect and vandals who spray-paint their own premature epitaphs on 200-year-old tombstones.

Prospect Cemetery in the Jamaica section of Queens may be the city's oldest, and although city-owned and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, also is the most decrepit. Even in winter, a tangle of weeds, vines, broken tree limbs and grass as tall as a man chokes the 1,8ha lot where as many as 4 000 people were buried between 1660 and the early 20th century.

Discarded tires, a huge rusty boiler and other trash are strewn amid cracked, tilting tombstones that include 53 Revolutionary War veterans, 43 from the Civil War, three from the Spanish-American War, a slave and the state's first attorney general.

Some burial sites are at risk even when landmarked, says Stanley Cogan (80) a retired school principal who is Queens' official historian.

"Nobody cares except the neighbourhood groups that got them landmarked," and volunteer efforts are "catch-as-catch-can," Cogan said. "The only thing that doesn't grow in those cemeteries is the number of bodies."

Prospect, however, is in early stages of restoration, with $560 000 in government grants and other funding to renovate its 1850s chapel and the burial ground.

"We want to make it a community asset," said Karen Ansis, treasurer of the nonprofit New York Landmarks Conservancy, a project partner along with the Prospect Cemetery Association, the city's Parks Department and a local development group. "These old cemeteries no longer have a live constituency. You need live people to keep them maintained."

The Prospect Cemetery is part of a long list of New York City cemeteries that contain historic gravesites.

The finding of a colonial-era slave cemetery during excavations in 1991 for a federal office building dramatically underscored the fact that New York is a metropolis atop a necropolis. The African Burial Ground was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1993.

The New York Marble Cemetery on Manhattan's Lower East Side has no headstones. Instead, names of families with underground vaults -- a 19th century "health precaution" -- are carved into marble tablets on a stone wall. Among the occupants are a 19th century mayor, Aaron Clark, publisher Uriah Scribner and Benjamin Wright, the Erie Canal's chief engineer.

The New York City Marble Cemetery, a separate graveyard a few blocks away, has a strong political theme, with two other 19th century mayors, Stephen Allen (later governor of New York) and Isaac Varian, and briefly, in 1831, the deceased President James Monroe before he was returned to his native Virginia.

Lower Manhattan also has three cemeteries founded by 17th-century Jewish immigrants from Brazil. The oldest, dating from 1683, abuts the former site of a Civil War-era tavern called the Grapevine, whose popularity with journalists, Union officers and Confederate spies supposedly led to the phrase, "heard it through
the grapevine", said Kevin Walsh, a magazine editor who runs the website Forgotten-NY.com.

Walsh said the city's oldest known grave marker is that of Richard Churcher, 1676-1681, in Manhattan's Trinity Churchyard. But as the first Dutch settlers had arrived 50 years earlier, it's likely that some older graves lay undiscovered.

Few except cemetery trivia fans know Grant's Tomb, where President Ulysses S Grant and wife Julia repose, shares its hilltop in Upper Manhattan with a third grave, exactly 100 years older. "In Memory of an Amiable Child," reads the fenced-in granite marker for St Claire Pollock, aged five when he fell off the cliff there in 1797.

Manhattan's only other single-occupancy gravesite is that of William Jenkins Worth, a general in the war with Mexico, interred under his monument at Broadway and Fifth Avenue.

While big cemeteries like Brooklyn's Green-Wood and Woodlawn in the Bronx are famous for their famous, surprises may rise from the ground anywhere. In a corner of Staten Island's Asbury Methodist Cemetery rests Ichabod B Crane, namesake of the character spooked by the Headless Horseman in Washington Irving's 1819 classic, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

The real Ichabod Crane was a War of 1812 artillery officer who, according to Richard Hrazanek, a self-described cemetery hobbyist, was introduced to Irving and later was "much chagrined" when the author borrowed his name for the scaredy-cat schoolmaster.

Crane died in 1857, and his worn, graffiti-smeared stone was replaced a few years ago with a granite obelisk bearing crossed cannons and flanked by American flags.

Ten cemeteries were acquired by the city and placed under Parks Department jurisdiction in 2003-2004. That includes the Bronx's West Farms, which contains 40 soldiers from the war of 1812 through to World War I, and the Ferris family plot where sea captain William Ferris supposedly was interred in a barrel of rum.

"We were proud to take on these historic but mostly forgotten and abandoned small cemeteries," said Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe. "We've done comprehensive initial spruce-ups ... but there remains a lot of work to be done to secure, maintain and if possible, restore these sites."

At Sylvan Grove, small orange flags on damaged graves attest to recent activity, and a broken tombstone rests, partially reassembled like a jigsaw puzzle, on a flat wooden board.

Prospect Cemetery's restoration was led by Cate Ludlam, of Oyster Bay, New York, whose ancestors are buried there. In 2004 she rediscovered the lost grave of Elias Baylis, who survived a British jail in 1776, "only to die," his epitaph says, "in the arms of his daughter while crossing the Brooklyn ferry".

Too bad that poet Walt Whitman, who 80 years later wrote Crossing Brooklyn Ferry and would serve as a Civil War hospital nurse, was not there to save him.



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