Category Archives: Gravesend Cemetery

Forty Years Landmarked!

Gravesend.Cemetery.lantern.slide.1896.watermarked

This 1896 lantern slide might be the oldest known image of the Gravesend Cemetery. The view is looking northeast toward the Samuel Hubbard House (hidden behind the trees) at 2338 Gravesend (now McDonald) Avenue. {Collection of Joseph Ditta}

Today marks the fortieth anniversary of the designation of the Gravesend and Van Sicklen Family Cemeteries as official New York City landmarks! Click here to read the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s designation report from March 23, 1976.

The Gravesend Cemetery, established as early as 1650, is the oldest surviving burial ground in New York City. It remained in sporadic use as late as 1968. The adjacent Van Sicklen Family Cemetery received its first burial in 1842, and its last in 1992. My current guesstimate counts 84 interments in the Van Sicklen Cemetery, and somewhere in the ballpark of 1,300 in the Gravesend Cemetery proper. Only about 600 graves are marked.

I am actively collecting information about the people buried in the two cemeteries, and am happy to share what I can if I’ve found something on your particular ancestor. And if you have documentation on any person buried here, please send it my way, along with any stories you might have heard or read about the graveyards, EXCEPT for those impossible-to-quash rumors of tunnels connecting it to various places in Gravesend. Unless, of course, you’ve got proof. And no, sorry, but your grandmother insisting there’s a tunnel does not count as proof. If you’ve got video of her emerging from a hole in the ground, then we’ll talk!


Copyright © 2016 by Joseph Ditta (webmaster@gravesendgazette.com)

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Hidden in Plain Sight

Gravestones tell us a lot about the people whose graves they mark: their birth, death, age, marital status (“cherished wife”), whether or not they had children (“beloved father”), etc. They give clues, too, to the deceased’s financial status: is the marker big and impressive, and sited for maximum effect? Or is it a humble stone, tucked away in a corner, perhaps homemade? One thing most gravestones keep silent about is the skin color of the body buried below. Unless that information is chiseled for us to read (sometimes it is, but rarely) we have no way to know by which race that person identified.

Jackson_Viola_2014_10_19 - Copy

Your webmaster at the grave of Viola Jackson (c. 1892-1914), Gravesend Cemetery, October 19, 2014.

One of the loveliest stones in the Gravesend Cemetery tells its poignant tale obliquely. The tall white marker near the southwestern corner of the fence (where Village Road South and Van Sicklen Street meet) displays two female figures, one tall, one small, embracing above these lines:

SIMPLY TO THE CROSS I CLING / VIOLA JACKSON / BELOVED DAUGHTER / OF / SUSAN JACKSON / DIED SEP. 19, 1914 / AGED 22 Y’RS.

A perceptive visitor once remarked that Viola’s stone and those clustered near it are separate visually from the rest of the cemetery. He wondered if she and her neighbors were black. Racial segregation touched every aspect of American life and even left a mark on early graveyards, where sections out of sight — and out of mind — were reserved for “colored” burials. Gravesend also followed this unspoken code, and we learn from the details of her tragic death that Viola Jackson (c. 1892-1914) was indeed African-American. As the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported on Sunday, September 13, 1914,

Viola Jackson, 22 years old, a colored domestic employed by a family at 169 Bay Twenty-eighth street, Bensonhurst, was burned in a peculiar manner last night [Saturday, September 12, 1914]. She went to the cellar to bring up a watermelon. She carried a candle. On her way upstairs she slipped and dropped the melon. She tumbled over it and the candle set fire to her dress.

The Eagle’s account reflects the widespread view of African-American activities a century ago: what else could she have been doing but “fetching” that most stereotypically black of fruits? In the New York Herald’s version (Tuesday, September 22, 1914), Viola dropped the match she used to light a stove. However it happened, as the Brooklyn Daily Standard Union added (Sunday, September 13, 1914), “When tenants of the house reached her she was aflame from head to feet.” Rushed to Coney Island Hospital for treatment, she sadly clung to life another week.

169_Bay_28th_Street_Google_2014_Aug

The site of Viola Jackson’s tragic accident, 169 Bay 28th Street (the white half of the double-house), as it looked in August 2014. Courtesy of Google Street View.


Copyright © 2016 by Joseph Ditta (webmaster@gravesendgazette.com)

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Save Lady Moody’s House!

Copyright © 2015 by Joseph Ditta (joseph.ditta@gmail.com)

On October 8, 2015, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) will hold a public hearing to determine if the house at 27 Gravesend Neck Road — known as Lady Moody’s House — meets the criteria for landmark status. Despite what many locals believe, the house is not an official landmark. That means it is not protected by law, and could, conceivably, be torn down by some uncaring developer. (If you’d like to be its guardian, the house is currently for sale!) However, the house has been on the LPC’s radar since 1966, when it was “calendared.” That provides a modicum of protection in that any application for demolition should send up a red flag, spurring the LPC to action. But they’ve had half a century to decide. After the October hearing, a public meeting in early 2016 will determine the next step, which — fingers crossed — will hopefully lead to designation of this most iconic of Gravesend houses.

What follows is my open letter to Meenakshi Srinivasan, chair of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, urging her to act now. I beg you all to drop a line, however brief, to the LPC, by the October 1st deadline (whether or not you plan to attend the hearing), stating your support for the house. The more of us they hear from, the better. Take a look at the LPC’s informative fact sheet about the house (even I learned some things!), then write to backlog95@lpc.nyc.gov. I’d love to read your thoughts if you’d care to copy me (webmaster@gravesendgazette.com).

Oh, and don’t miss the gallery of wonderful images at the bottom of this post!


The Brooklyn Daily Eagle featured the Lady Moody House on the cover of its 1947 booklet of Gravesend history.

The Brooklyn Eagle featured the Lady Moody – Van Sicklen House on the cover of its 1947 booklet of Gravesend history.

August 29, 2015

Meenakshi Srinivasan, Chair

New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission

1 Centre Street, 9th Floor, North

New York, NY 10007

Dear Commissioner Srinivasan:

Ask anyone in Gravesend, Brooklyn where Lady Moody lived. Invariably they’ll point to the house at 27 Gravesend Neck Road, just next to Public School 95. How do they know she lived there? A teacher told them. Or their grandmother. And who was Lady Moody anyway? Oh, she helped George Washington escape the Redcoats through a tunnel running from her basement to the cemetery across the street. And during the Civil War she hid slaves in that tunnel on their way north to freedom.

None of this happened, of course: Deborah Moody died late in 1658, nearly seventy-five years before the birth of Washington, and over two centuries before the Civil War. The general public, knowing instinctively that Lady Moody bore some significance, but lacking specifics, attaches her — and the house at 27 Gravesend Neck Road — to the seminal events of American history.

The facts are these: Deborah Moody (ca. 1586-1658) was the wealthy, freethinking widow of a baronet. By 1639 she was in Puritan Massachusetts, where her Anabaptist leanings branded her “a dangerous woman.” To avoid censure she moved in 1643 to New Netherland, where she petitioned the tolerant Dutch to grant her and some followers a spot on western Long Island where they could worship as they pleased. They called their settlement Gravesend, the patent to which ensured they could enjoy “liberty of Conscience . . . without molestation or disturbance from any magistrate or . . . ecclesiastical minister that may pretend jurisdiction over them.”

Moody’s fellow patentee, the surveyor James Hubbard, designed the town’s central plan: a sixteen-acre square bounded by present-day Village Road North, Village Road East, Village Road South, and Van Sicklen Street, and cut into quadrants by the intersection of McDonald Avenue and Gravesend Neck Road. In each quadrant ten house lots bordered a common yard for holding livestock. Records show that in 1646 Lady Moody was assigned a double lot in the northwest quadrant, corresponding (in part) to the modern street address of 27 Gravesend Neck Road, Brooklyn (block 7123, lot 64).

Lady Moody must have built a house on her property between 1646 and 1658. Is the house standing there today the one she occupied? A structural evaluation conducted in 2005 by Robert Silman Associates, Consulting Engineers, suggests the present building incorporates three phases of construction: The part most visible — Phase 2 — is an eighteenth-century “random rubble [stone] building supporting hand-hewn wood floor beams and simple log beam roof trusses.” Phase 3 reflects the early twentieth-century changes made by then-owners William and Isabelle Platt, who excavated a full basement under the ground floor, added dormers to the roof, and stuccoed the exterior to conform with the prevailing Arts and Crafts aesthetic. But evidence of an earlier structure, one possibly dating from the seventeenth century, is visible in the basement, where there are four stone bearing walls, three of which support the current above-ground walls. The fourth lies buried beneath the main house and its rear extension. This “out-of-place” wall led Silman Associates to hypothesize that the Phase 2 house is a reconfiguration of an older building, a Phase 1 house that was enlarged in the 1700s.

This 1893 watercolor of an African-American laundress by Charles W. Bauhan --

This watercolor by Charles W. Bauhan  — “Wash-day. Gravesend L. I. Sep. 4 / [18]93.” — was painted looking east from a spot now in the schoolyard of P.S. 95. It captures the west gable end of the Lady Moody – Van Sicklen House rising above the fence. {Collection of Joseph Ditta}

Was this Phase 1 house Lady Moody’s? Or was it built by one of the later seventeenth-century owners of her land? We may never know. But its expanded  form — the rubble-stone Phase 2 house — is probably the work of the Van Sicklen family, who came into possession of the property in 1702. Most eighteenth-century houses in sandy, coastal Gravesend were of wood-frame construction. Stone houses tended to be built near ridges, where appropriate-sized boulders were plentiful. To build a stone house at a location where rubble was scarce required significant manual labor, and the Van Sicklens, who, like most Dutch farmers of the period owned slaves, likely employed those slaves to transport rock to the site.

The Van Sicklen family occupied the house for the rest of the eighteenth century and through most of the nineteenth. Eventually it descended to Cornelia Van Sicklen, whose husband, Thomas Hicks, acquired it in 1842. (His carved initials survive on a ceiling beam near the eastern ground-floor fireplace of the house.) Hicks died in 1884, and his wife followed in 1893. The house sat vacant for a time, and then served briefly as meeting place for the fledgling Gravesend Methodist Episcopal Church in 1899. In 1904 the Hicks estate sold the house to William and Isabelle Platt, whose renovations resulted in a romanticized Dutch farmhouse set in a lush garden, which Mrs. Platt profiled in the June 1909 issue of Country Life in America. The Platts were the first to call this the “Lady Moody Homestead,” a name it has kept for more than a century.

By 1910 the Platts put the house up for sale (William Platt was a real estate speculator who was then involved in developments on Staten Island), and so began the perennial cries from preservationists and press that the Lady Moody House be rescued by the City or a civic group, or moved to Prospect Park or even to the grounds of the 1939 World’s Fair. Its fate seemed secure after it became a V.F.W. post in 1945, but that was a short-lived incarnation. The house reverted to private status, and was bought in 1955 by Nunzio Maisano, who covered the front in imitation stone veneer. Ironically, this facing hides the real thing. (It wouldn’t be too difficult to restore the house to the attractive state in which the Platts left it; the original door, removed by Maisano, survives in care of Eric J. Ierardi, president of the Gravesend Historical Society.)

Nunzio Maisano’s descendants held the house for nearly fifty years before selling it. Now it is on the market again, and time is running out. (Couldn’t the City acquire the house as a gift to the neighboring school for use as a meeting place or exhibition space? Both the Historic Districts Council and the New York Landmarks Conservancy have expressed interest in the house. Why not tap them for assistance and grants?)

The Landmarks Preservation Commission calendared the property in 1966, but a hearing that year did not result in designation. Nor did subsequent hearings in 1970 or 2004, due to owner opposition. But the Commission has designated other sites when faced with similar resistance (e.g., the Hendrick I. Lott House at 1940 East 36th Street in Brooklyn), and in cases where the fabric of a structure has been significantly altered (e.g., the asphalt-shingled Sandy Ground cottages at 565 and 569 Bloomingdale Road on Staten Island). And the recent designation of the Stonewall Inn, birthplace of the modern LGBT movement at 51-53 Christopher Street in Manhattan, illustrates that the Commission is cognizant of the historical associations of a building, even when its architectural integrity has been compromised.

Despite the changes it has weathered, the Lady Moody – Van Sicklen House remains the sole surviving eighteenth-century stone farmhouse in Brooklyn. It is one of two extant Dutch-American houses within the boundaries of the original Gravesend town square, where as late as the 1920s there were seven. It sits directly opposite the landmarked Van Sicklen Family Cemetery, which holds the remains of many generations who occupied the house. At the very least, it stands on the property of the remarkable Lady Deborah Moody, the first European woman to found a community in North America, a settlement chartered on the principle of religious freedom some hundred and thirty years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. I trust you will seize this opportunity to recognize publicly, formally, and legally, the significance of this site tied inextricably to the themes of Brooklyn history, Women’s history, American slavery, and religious freedom. Without landmark protection the house is doomed.

Thank you for your valuable time.

Sincerely,

Joseph Ditta

Author, Then & Now: Gravesend, Brooklyn (Arcadia Publishing, 2009)


 Copyright © 2015 by Joseph Ditta (webmaster@gravesendgazette.com)

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Filed under buildings, Charles William Bauhan, churches, Gilbert Hicks, Gravesend artists, Gravesend Cemetery, Gravesend Neck Road, Hicks family, Lady Moody House, Maud Esther Dilliard, Slavery, streets, Van Sicklen family

A Melancholy Bicentennial

Barnardus Ryder stone (d. 1814), photograph by Ned Berke.

Barnardus Ryder stone (d. 1814), Gravesend Cemetery. (Photograph by Ned Berke, 2010. Used by permission.)

Near the center of Brooklyn’s Gravesend Cemetery stand two unexceptional sandstone markers from the early nineteenth century, separated only by the crumbled remains of a third stone between them. Like many stones in this fragile graveyard, they are cracked and flaking. Parts of their inscriptions are chipped and missing. The southern stone tilts back precariously. It reads:

[In]

Memory of

BARNARDUS RYDER

son of Jacobus & Johanna

Ry[de]r who departed this

[life] May 29, 1814

age[d] 2 years & 29 day[s.]

O sleep sweet babe and take thy r[est]

God call’d thee hence he thought it b[est]

The other says:

In

Memory of

JACOBUS B. RYDER

who departed this life

June 8th 1814

aged 44 years 3 months

and 23 days. 

This world is vain and full of pain

With grief and trouble sore

But those are blest who are at rest

With Christ for evermore.

Those of us who frequent cemeteries know that stones with a common surname, standing near each other, usually mark the graves of family members. If the stones bear close or identical dates of death, the implication is that contagion carried off multiple relatives, as it did for eons before the advent of standardized sanitation and medical care.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Saturday 25 August 1849, p. #, col. #.

Account of the Van Sicklen family tragedy, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Saturday, August 25, 1849, p. 3, col. 1. [Click image to enlarge.]

One might assume that because they died ten days apart, Barnardus and Jacobus (pronounced ya-CO-bus) Ryder succumbed to the same disease. The Gravesend Cemetery is peppered with other chronologically adjacent burials, like the five members of the Van Sicklen family who died of cholera between August 18 and 23, 1849 (see the article at left). Or Mathias Derby and his mother, Emelie, who died of scarlet fever two days apart in November 1895. And Richard Samuel Vanderbilt, who expired a week after catching a heavy cold at his son Richard’s funeral on January 30, 1919. Ida Voorhies, widow of Jacobus, died during her husband’s funeral on October 6, 1831, though whether from the “prevailing fever” that killed her husband, or from grief, is lost to time.

But assumptions often prove dangerously wrong. On Monday, May 30, 1814, the day after little Barnardus Ryder died, readers of the Commercial Advertiser, one of New York City’s leading newspapers, stumbled across this shocking report from the otherwise tranquil reaches of southern Kings County:

New York, Commercial Advertiser, Monday, May 30, 1814, p.2, col. 3.

New York, Commercial Advertiser, Monday, May 30, 1814, p.2, col. 3. [Note: “Saturday morning last” = May 28, 1814.]

Newspapers up and down the eastern seaboard, from New Hampshire to Maryland, and as far inland as Ohio, recounted the tale of Gravesend’s “horrid transaction.” The version printed on June 1 in the Long-Island Star, Brooklyn’s leading weekly, managed to spell “Ryder” correctly, and added the detail that Jacobus — “long esteemed as a worthy and pious man, and . . . apparently in his right mind on the evening previous to the melancholy and dreadful act” — confessed in the letter to his father that he “imagined he heard a voice commanding him to execute the deed.” He lingered, sadly, until June 8, and died at the age of 44 years, three months, and 23 days. (As well as misspelling “Rider,” the newspapers all misstate his age: Jacobus was not “about thirty-five,” but, rather, nearly four months past 44.) The Long-Island Star ran a brief death notice on June 15:

Long-Island Star, Wednesday, June 15, 1814, p. 3, col. 2.

Brooklyn, Long-Island Star, Wednesday, June 15, 1814, p. 3, col. 2. [Note: “Wednesday last” = June 8, 1814. The “28th ult.” = the 28th day of the previous month, i.e., May 28, 1814.]

His widow, Johanna, never remarried. She lived another 33 years, and died at age 65 on August 7, 1847. She is buried near Jacobus and Barnardus, and another infant son, William, who was born in 1804 and died in 1805, long before their family’s tragedy. The other children — Femmetie (1802-?), Johanna (1807-1894), and a second William (1809-?) — presumably all outlived their mother. They almost certainly did not hand down the terrible memories of 1814 to their descendants. May they rest in peace.

Jaocubs B. Ryder stone (d. 1814), photograph by Andrea Coyle.

Jacobus B. Ryder stone (d. 1814), Gravesend Cemetery. (Photograph by Andrea Coyle, 2010. Used by permission.)


Copyright © 2014 by Joseph Ditta (webmaster@gravesendgazette.com)

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Filed under Van Sicklen family, Gravesend Cemetery, Ryder family, Derby family, Vanderbilt family, Voorhies family

Thanksgiving, Gravesend style!

On its front page for Friday 30 November 1923, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle ran the following tale, which could only have happened in good old Gravesend, Brooklyn. Happy Thanksgiving!

TURKEY CHASE IN CEMETERY; BIRD GETS AWAY

Pipenbring Had Won It at Raffle and Wife Had Given One He Bought to Church.

A wild chase after a live turkey, and in a cemetery at that, was the strange pastime indulged in by several prominent members of the Gravesend Civic Association, headed by the president, Edward Pipenbring, in the wee sma’ hours of Thanksgiving morning. And the lively bird got away from his pursuers at that by flying over the cemetery fence.

Mrs. Pipenbring, the good wife of the president of the G.C.A., had just put the finishing touches to a fine $8 turkey intended for the family dinner on Thursday when her phone bell rang.

The cheery voice of Friend Husband announced with glee that he was the lucky winner of a real live turkey at the rooms of the G.C.A. He suggested to his wife that she take the large, juicy turkey that she had prepared for the oven around to a church euchre and offer it as a special prize.

Mrs. Pipenbring carried out her husband’s idea and lugged the turkey around to the hall, much to the delight of a lady who won ten games out of a possible ten.

Mr. Pipenbring grabbed the live “turk” by the legs and started a triumphal march homeward, trying to look like a lithograph of a Pilgrim Father. When they got to Village rd., where the old Gravesend Cemetery is located, a bad spot in the street caused “Ed” to stumble. The bird took a mean advantage, freed himself and scooted into the cemetery. Then the merry chase began, the like of which Gravesend has not seen in a few hundred years. In and out among the old gravestones dodged the turkey, with “Ed” calling to him.

“Safety first” seemed to be the bird’s motto, and finally he flew over the high picket fence and disappeared into the shadows. The hunters gave it up and went their ways.

Mr. Pipenbring was up bright and early and bought another bird for $7. With the $8 bird he gave away, the $7 one he ate and the $1.20 he paid at the raffle for the turkey that got away[,] his Thanksgiving dinner was a bit expensive. He is hoping some one may find his prize bird and return it in time for Sunday’s dinner.

In the early years of the 20th century, the Gravesend Cemetery was enclosed by a low picket fence (perfect for hopping by escaping turkeys), which is just visible in this 1905 view looking west towards Van Sicklen Street. The large house at center, one of several belonging to the Lake family, stood where Corso Court is today.


Copyright © 2012 by Joseph Ditta (webmaster@gravesendgazette.com)

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