Our City Burial Plots
( Originally Published 1893 )
OUR CITY BURIAL-PLOTS-ILLUSTRIOUS DUST AND ASHES-A WOMAN'S FIFTY YEARS OF WAITING-THREE HEBREW CEMETERIES-THE BURKING EPISODE-SLAVES OF THE OLDEN TIME
" FELIX," said my grandmother, with an altogether unaccustomed solemnity, which was emphasized by the silence of her knitting-needles, " do you believe that the angels are in any way like the cherubim carved on the tombstones in old Trinity Church-yard, all head and wings, and nothing else? I hope not," continued the dear old lady, presently, " for it would be awful to live with such creatures for even a thou-sand years. Well, well, it doesn't signify. I suppose we could get used to that, too. But, Felix, just imagine your poor old grandmother parading a street in the New Jerusalem in such . company. I really think I'd have to ask him to go back and fasten on his body. I'm afraid that I should, even if I had to offend him."
Quaint, and in some respects horribly suggestive, as are the winged heads that adorn many of the burial-stones in the church-yard of old Trinity and St. Paul's, I do not believe that any one would want them changed. They belong to an era in which the imagination and art were alike crude, but an era of sterling virtues. There was no poetry in the psalms in metre that were sung in the congregations, but the poetry of an honest and patriotic life irradiated church and home. It is a long and beautiful record that is unfolded in what was once the new burying-ground of New Amsterdam, far away from the little dorp, or village, that clustered around Old Slip, Coenties Slip, the great dock, and the fort, but is now known as Trinity Church-yard.
Its earliest tomb-stone embalmed the memory of a young Holland maiden who was buried here, in sight of the broad river, and with fields and woods on all sides, in 1639-more than half a century before the first Trinity Church was erected. Its latest graves hold the ashes of men who fought for the union of the States five and twenty years ago. I have always honored the parish of old Trinity for preserving intact these down-town resting-places of the dead. They are not merely pleasant breathing-spots amid the din of' business warfare, but they are unresting preachers of shadow and reality. Millions of dollars have been offered for the land ; projects have been mooted to drive thoroughfares through the plots which our Saxon ancestors delighted to call God's acre ; but the vestry of Trinity parish have stood guard sturdily over the dust committed to their care, and waved off the desecrating touch of speculation. So may it always be.
There are few cities richer in graves than our own. Within the boundaries of New York rest the ashes of a long line of distinguished men. In the vaults of old Trinity and ,St. Paul's, in the Marble Cemetery, in Trinity Cemetery, in the old church-yards beyond Central Park and above Harlem River, sleep the ancestors of the city's representative families-men eminent in professional and business life-a line too long to enumerate. A volume could be written (and one was planned years ago) in giving the brief but honor-able record of their lives. But there are a large number of graves fitted to become shrines of patriotism, and I fear sometimes that we do not realize all that this means, or we would do them still more honor. The man who stood next to Washington in making the union of these States possible sleeps at one end of the Island of Manhattan, and at the other rests on his laurels the soldier whose skill and patriotism kept the Union indissoluble. Alexander Hamilton's grave is in Trinity Church-yard ; General Grant's tomb is at Riverside Park ; and between, under the walls of an old church which he founded, moulders the dust of brave, hot-headed Petrus Stuyvesant, last and most gallant of the old Dutch Governors of. the colony. The city which can boast such dust in its soil has a right to plume itself on its past.
Illustrious men lie buried in every corner of the church-yard of old Trinity. Francis Lewis, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a typical New York merchant, is interred there; and his son, Gen. Morgan Lewis, a soldier of 1812, sleeps at his side. Albert Gallatin, the distinguished Secretary of the Treasury ; Col. Marinus Willett, of Revolutionary memory; William Bradford, colonial printer and editor Robert Fulton, who launched the first steamboat on the Hudson ; Captain Lawrence, who lost the Chesapeake, but sent his last battle-cry, " Don't give up the ship!" ringing down the centuries; Bishop Hobart, grand pioneer of the cross ; Gen. Phil Kearney, the Murat of the latest struggle for liberty-these are but a few of the mighty men who rest in peace under the shadow of Trinity's spire. And the women? Ah, who shall fitly hymn their praise and tell the story of the mingled sweetness and strength of the lives they quietly lived and that yet " smell sweet and blossom in the dust," and of the other lives that they nurtured up into honor and renown, content to shine by their - reflected light ? Of all the inscriptions on stone in the old burial-ground at the head of Wall Street, the most touching to me is that which measures the span of life of Captain Lawrence's widow. It is pathetic in its perfect simplicity, recording only the name and the date of birth and burial. The young wife was but twenty-five years of age when her husband climbed up into immortal glory from the bloody deck of the Chesapeake, and she lived for more than half a century in her widowhood. Fifty-two years afterwards, in the autumn of 1865, she entered into rest, but not until she had witnessed a conflict that shook the land well-nigh to its destruction, and had seen the sword finally sheathed and the ploughshare again at work.
Other heroes lie buried elsewhere on our city's soil -General Montgomery under the chancel of St. Paul's Church, and Admiral Farragut at Woodlawn Cemetery. Gouverneur Morris, diplomatist, statesman, and friend of Washington, sleeps in his family vault beyond Harlem River, under the shadow of St. Ann's Church, and for years the body of President Monroe rested in the Marble Cemetery on Second Street, until, in 1859, Virginia asked for the guardianship of his ashes, and New York courteously yielded it. There is one other grave that should not be forgotten. A plain white slab, which stands in the church-yard of St. Patrick's Cathedral, bears this inscription "A la memoire de Pierre Landais, ancien Contre-Amiral au service des Etats-Unis, Qui Disparut Juin, 1818, age 87 ans." There is a whole romance, and a bitter one, in this brief record. A lieutenant in the French Navy, Landais entered the service of the United States, distinguished himself, and was given command of a frig-ate. In the battle between the Serapis and the Bon Homme Richard, poor Landais, who executed his manoeuvres by his text-books, won the name of coward, and Paul Jones, in his disregard of all rules, became a hero. Cited before the Naval Committee of Congress, none of whom understood French or navigation, Lan-dais was heard and then discharged from the service in disgrace. Again and again he sought another hearing, but in vain, and for forty years he walked the streets in proud and solitary poverty, donning his old Continental uniform on great occasions, and at last, forgotten and unnoticed, as his epitaph says, he " disappeared" from life.
Although Trinity Cemetery is comparatively modern, it is the burial-place of many old citizens of New York who were eminent in their various walks of life, and of many of our older families. Among the notable graves which dot that beautiful sleeping-ground of the dead are those of Gen. John A. Dix, a hero of the wars of 1812 and 1861 ; Bishop Wainwright, William B. Astor, Samuel B. Ruggles, Don Alonzo Cushman, John H. Contoit, Baker, the artist ; Alexander B. Mc-Donald, Peter and Henry Erben, organ-builders of ancient renown, and the Rev. Drs. Higbee and Ogilby. The list of old families embraces the names of Aymar, Ward, Storm, Cisco, Palmer, Lewis, Mount, Dash, Voorhis, Guion, Freeman, Dresser, Cotheal, Innes, Egleston, Gilbert, and Hoffman. It should not be forgotten, also, that in the shadow of the spire of old St. Paul's lie buried the Sieur de Rochefontaine, one of Count Rochambeau's officers ; George Frederick Cooke, the actor, whose monument was erected by the elder Kean ; and two distinguished sons of Ireland-Thomas Addis Emmet and Dr. Macneven.
In noticing the burial-plots in this city that have been obliterated within my memory-and I can recall more than a score between the rifled vaults of the old Dutch Church on Nassau Street and Harlem River-it seems to me that none pay more regard to the dust of the dead than do the Jews. There is no synagogue to overshadow the old cemetery on New Bowery, yet the dead who were inearthed there nearly two centuries ago remain undisturbed, and on the old tombstones the graven hands out-stretched in benediction still remain distinct to the passer-by, to mark the resting-place of one belonging to the house and lineage of Aaron. Another of these burial-places is on Eleventh Street, near Sixth Avenue, so hidden by a high brick wall that one can easily pass it by without notice. It is part of a large cemetery that in the early years of the present century stretched along the upper bank of Minetta Brook, and was the property of the congregation Shearith Israel, to whom also the burial-plot on the New Bowery belongs.
During the yellow-fever visitations graves multiplied here, and when it became necessary to lay out Eleventh Street a new plot was purchased on West Twenty-first Street, near Sixth Avenue, and all the bodies were removed from the lower to the upper cemetery, except the few that still slumber in the little summer-garden by the way-side. Long since the upper cemetery, which is still pre-served intact, and is now hidden by a high brick wall on Twenty-first Street, became " old," though there are people yet living who remember it as part of a pleasant vista of field and wood, and not far from a little brook that babbled its way down to the Hudson at Twenty-sixth Street.
An old New Yorker and valued correspondent, Mr. George A. Halsey, in a letter refers to the burking excitement which prevailed in this city in 1829-3o, occasioned by 'alleged mysterious disappearances of many persons during that period, and intensified by the horror of the Burke kidnappings, which had just electrified Edinburgh and the United Kingdom. In former years there had been a terrible. riot, arising from a rumor that the doctors, not content with exhuming bodies from the potter's field and the negroes' burial-ground, then considered lawful prey, had been rifling graves in city cemeteries. But in this case the work of the grave was anticipated. Mr. Halsey says :
"I recollect one of the stories then prevalent, and universally believed, that missing children had been found in the haunts of the burkers in our city fastened in a sitting position in a chair with their feet immersed in warm water, an important artery cut, and slowly bleeding to death. All that winter the community was in a state bordering on panic in the evening la-dies and children never left their homes alone unless accompanied by one or more able-bodied male attendants, though but going a block or less away to church or to a neighbor's, and their protectors were always provided with stout bludgeons or other means of de-fence. I recollect going out in the evening during that exciting period with my father occasionally to church on the next corner, and his carrying a stout club of hickory cord-wood at such times, taken from the convenient pile in our cellar (there was no coal used in those days), and when the congregation filed out into the street at the conclusion of the services I observed others of the male attendants similarly equipped. I recollect that the colored population were even more excited, none of them then being so bold as to leave home after dusk. The other day I asked a venerable old Ethiopian, whom I have known from boyhood, when his aunt was a domestic in my parents' house in Liberty Street, whether he recollected the 'burking' affair; he answered, almost to the verge, apparently, of trembling, that he did fully re-member, and that the reminiscence was painful."
"This reminds me that our old colored people, those who first beheld the light of day in the closing years of the last century, have nearly all gone to their final resting-place; I know of but one or two of them left. A few weeks ago an old 'uncle' of that race, well up in the nineties, respected by all who knew him, and a resident of the city from his birth, died in Cedar Street, around the corner from my office, and an old ' aunty,' who had lived here from birth, died only last week near by in Nassau Street, equally respected and but a year or two younger. I observe also now and then in this vicinity one venerable `aunty ' tottering along through her old haunts, who has nearly approached the century of her existence. I receive visits quarter-yearly or oftener from an aged `uncle' who resides in our suburbs, and was a slave of my great-grandfather and afterwards of my grandfather. He was manumitted under the State law in 1827, and is now in his ninety-ninth year; sight, memory, and hearing seemingly unimpaired, he has a walk and general vigor equal to most men of sixty! I know of none of our race now living who have attained so great an age by a decade of years, and think their longevity must be the greater of the two."
The question of longevity is a difficult one to settle in the absence of reliable data as to the colored race, but I am inclined to think that the average is in favor of the white people. It is not many days since a hale old gentleman of ninety-four, representative of one of our oldest Knickerbocker families, came from his home, four miles beyond the Post-office, to have a talk with Felix Oldboy, and I am in search of another nonagenarian on the west side who has been reported to me as having a much livelier interest in the proper training of his whiskers and his general appearance than in any antiquities, local or otherwise. I have known many of the old slaves in my boyhood, but do not know of any burial of blacks in our cemeteries, or of any negro graves in our city limits. In many parts of New jersey, and out on Long Island, there are old " slave " burying-grounds-for the most part pictures of desolation and neglect-but the old negro burying-grounds set apart by the city seem to have been largely succeeded by the potter's field. In a crowded, growing city the living push aside the dead, sometimes almost rudely, and therefore I am always glad to see a city graveyard and to acknowledge its humanizing effect.
I have been led into this chapter on our city's dead because only yesterday I heard a dispute between officials and members of an old city church in reference to a proposition to build houses upon the burial-plot at the side of the edifice. The plot is a small one, covering only three or four building-lots, but it is all fur-rowed with graves and gray with granite headstones, and the inscriptions on the stones tell the history of the first half-century of a pioneer church. Some one asked me what I thought of the. proposition, and I said: " Restore God's-acre ; make it beautiful with green turf, fragrant shrubs, and sweet flowers ; invite the sunshine to touch its graves and the birds of the air to come and sing among its trees, and then let it preach its own sermon. No orator in the pulpit will be so eloquent as that little church-yard. It will tell to all who pass by that the sleepers fought a good fight and died in the faith."
A little uncle of mine, who was only five years of age when God called him; sleeps somewhere in the church-yard of old Trinity. The first-born of the flock, his little feet crossed over Jordan all alone, and went pattering up the hills on the other side and into the Promised Land, while his father and mother tarried behind in tears in the wilderness. So often I think of him as I pass by, and wonder what he looked like on earth, and how he will look by-and-by. Perhaps I am the only one now, in all the world of life, who remembers. In the same way, to all of us, the rows of graves, hemmed in by busy haunts of life, are so many silent but effective preachers.