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10 Reasons to Spend an Afternoon at New York’s Green-Wood Cemetery

By / September 24, 2018
   Courtesy of Green-Wood Cemetery
   Courtesy of Green-Wood Cemetery

When considering pleasant ways to spend an afternoon, a stroll through a cemetery wouldn’t necessarily be at the top of everyone’s list. But the 478 acres of rolling, landscaped topography that make up Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn might make you see things differently. This prominent burial ground is one of the first rural cemeteries — that is, one in a landscaped, park-like setting not attached to a church graveyard. It was founded in 1838 and eventually became the burial site of choice for wealthy New Yorkers of the 18th and 19th centuries. A New York Times article from 1866 declared, “It is the ambition of the New Yorker to live upon Fifth Avenue, to take his airings in the [Central] Park, and to sleep with his fathers in Green-Wood.”

By the 1860s Green-Wood’s stature and bucolic landscape attracted over 500,000 visitors a year, surpassed by only Niagara Falls as the nation’s greatest tourist attraction. Still, to this day, many of the cemetery’s visitors don’t know the secrets that lie just below the surface. Here are ten reasons to visit Green-Wood Cemetery, including stories of intrigue and disaster — and a few stubborn parrots.

The rolling topography is actually designed by glaciers

The enviable landscape of Green-Wood Cemetery could easily be mistaken English countryside, minus the sheep. This topography is, in fact, the result of the Laurentide ice sheet, a glacier that once covered a large portion of North America. As the glacier melted, it carved the terrain of the area, dumping rocks, sand, and gravel as it retreated, which resulted in the creation of Battle Hill. At 220 feet, it’s the highest natural spot in Brooklyn (and the reason for all those gorgeous New York Harbor views).

Aaron Brashear

It has Civil and Revolutionary War history

Several Civil War soldiers — both Union and Confederate — are buried on the cemetery grounds, so Green-Wood has landed itself on the Civil War Discovery Trail. You’ll see monuments to the fallen soldiers including the cast zinc Drummer Boy, the impressive columnar Civil War Soldiers’ Monument, and a Civil War Soldiers’ Lot. The grounds are also an important site in the Revolutionary War, with 1776’s Battle of Brooklyn (also called the Battle of Long Island), having taken place on Battle Hill. On the 144th anniversary of the clash, local history buff Charles M. Higgins sought to commemorate the battle’s importance as the first major battle after the Declaration of Independence and erected a bronze statue of Minerva in tribute. The goddess of wisdom and strategic warfare looks out into the New York Harbor, arm upraised, waving to her friend the Statue of Liberty who, of course, waves back.

It’s an architecture-lover and birdwatcher’s paradise.

The entrance of Green-Wood is a sight to behold with its looming arches in the Gothic Revival style. The arches were designed by Richard Upjohn, founder of the American Institute of Architects and known for the particular style (he also designed Trinity Church in downtown Manhattan). You’ll find panels outside depicting biblical scenes from the New Testament, and hidden ladders inside the arch. You’ll also find a surprising colony of blue-green monk parakeets nesting in its spires. According to local folklore, the parakeets, who are native to Argentina,  escaped when a crate broke at JFK airport in the 1960s. They found their way to the highest point in Brooklyn and have lived at the cemetery ever since. Green-Wood is also a registered member of the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary System — with several ponds attracting herons, egrets, geese, ducks, solitary sandpiper, and spotted sandpiper, the grounds are a haven for bird watchers, with organized birding walks happening often.

All-but-forgotten disasters live on

Both victims and survivors of one very famous disaster — the sinking of the Titanic — are buried in Green-Wood. But the cemetery also holds remnants of catastrophes that would otherwise be lost to the sands of time. On the corner of the grounds’ Battle Avenue, Bay View Avenue, and Bay Side Avenue, you’ll find an obelisk erected in honor of the Brooklyn Theater Fire of 1876. The monument marks the mass grave of 103 of the victims (out of 278) who could not be identified, had not been claimed, or whose families could not afford graves. 46 of the 1,021 victims of the 1904 General Slocum steamship fire of 1904 are also buried throughout Green-Wood. And then there’s the 38 that died in the Wall Street Bombing of 1920 (the mystery of who was behind it has never been solved); the 93 lost in the 1918 Malbone Street train crash of Flatbush; and a granite monument dedicated to the more recent 1960 Park Slope Plane Crash, where United Airlines and TWA planes collided mid-air. Some of the victims from the United flight are buried in the cemetery.

Art Presson

 

You could throw a heck of a party with its residents…

There are 560,000 permanent residents in Green-Wood, but some would probably make better dinner companions than others. You’ll find the graves of German immigrant and toymaker F. A. O. Schwarz; pioneering sportswriter Henry Chadwick, whose monument features a granite baseball, bronze catchers mitt, baseball glove, and crossed bats; and actor Frank Morgan from The Wizard of Oz. You can stroll by Horace Greeley, founder, and editor of the New York Tribune; Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph; and conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein. You can find stained glass artist Louis Comfort Tiffany, of Tiffany lamp fame (who did not consider his company’s most famous product to be works of art, just a repository for stained glass scraps). But there’s no refuting the artistic value of Basquiat, one of Green-Wood’s most famous residents, and the lasting musical value of the Steinway family, who are at rest in the cemetery’s largest mausoleum.

But you’d want to stay away from the more infamous ones<.h2>

In Green-Wood you’ll also find mob boss Albert Anastasia, founder of Murder Inc.—a contract killing organization—and eventual head of the Gambino crime family, who was gunned down by his own organization while in a barber’s chair quietly waiting for a trim. Dirty street fighter, political rabble-rouser and actual butcher William “Bill the Butcher” Poole lay to rest in an unmarked grave until 2003, when the film Gangs of New York brought his name back into the public discourse, which prompted Green-Wood to erect a headstone with his ostensible last words: “Good bye boys, I die a true American.” And you can also find the resting place of a less violent but no less cataclysmic criminal, William Magear “Boss” Tweed. The corrupt politician swindled New Yorkers out of $200 million (equivalently $3.5 billion today) has a grouping of headstones for his family, his the most prominent in the middle, surrounded by his descendants.

It took a dead person to attract life

Green-Wood is now known as a spot to find many famous residents, but it wasn’t always so popular. In the beginning, it had difficulty attracting both plot buyers and people to come to enjoy the grounds. Enter DeWitt Clinton: mayor, governor, senator, and presidential candidate. He was also famous for being an advocate of the Erie Canal (which connected the Great Lakes to the Hudson River, making NYC the world’s financial center). When he died, he was originally buried in Albany. Ten years later his remains were moved down to Green-Wood in a rescue attempt to attract lot-buyers and people in general. The plan worked: Sales soared and today there is a bronze monument of Clinton in the Bay Side Dell.

Trish Mayo

Edgar Allen Poe’s ghost should stay away

Though Edgar Allen Poe is not buried in Green-Wood, many who have slighted him are. One such person is Elizabeth F. Ellett, who as a young writer competed for Poe’s affections with Fanny Osgood (while he was married to Virginia, his first cousin). When Poe rebuffed Elizabeth’s advances, she exposed his affair with Osgood, and suggested that Poe was “intemperate and subject to acts of lunacy.” The rumor spread and was eventually reported in newspapers. Also in the cemetery is Rufus Wilmot Griswold, an anthologist who was Poe’s self-proclaimed “archenemy.” The two had a complex and combative relationship, and when Poe passed, Griswold published the following obituary: “Edgar Allan Poe is dead. He died in Baltimore the day before yesterday. This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it.”

Say hello to awesome women

Inspiring ladies are everywhere in Green-Wood. Look for Susan McKinney Steward, a women’s suffragette and the first African-American woman to gain a medical degree in New York State (and the third ever at that point). W.E.B. DuBois gave the eulogy at her funeral. You’ll also find Mable Douglass, founder of the New Jersey College for Women, who has a library named after her at Rutgers University. Swing by Alice and Phoebe Cary, who were also active in the women’s movement; Violet Oakley, the first woman artist to receive a public mural commission; and Laura Keene, the first powerful female theater manager in New York, who also happened to be acting on stage the evening Lincoln was assassinated. But that’s another story.

Undertaker’s Ledgers, and catacombs (oh my!)

Understandably, there are several areas in the cemetery to which only a few have access. One is the aforementioned ladders in the entrance arches. Another is the underground basement where the undertakers’ ledgers are kept. To gain access to these large and fascinating Victorian tomes, which reveal who was buried where, and why, how they died and more, you can volunteer with the cemetery’s historical society. Also rarely accessible are the catacombs: 30 vaults, lit by skylights, which are open to the public only on special occasions. This group mausoleum was originally built for patrons who wanted to be buried in the fashionable above-ground style but could not afford their own space. The practice also put to rest the fear of being buried alive, which peaked with the cholera epidemic of the time.

Want to explore more of NYC’s graveyards?
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