Category: Documents

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What counts as a primary source?

We had an instructive experience this past week in our efforts to finish gathering the biographical data we need for this project. So far, we’d been working from primary sources such as manuscript burial registers, typed index cards for every member of the congregation over a 200+ year time span; undated lists in manuscript; 18th-century city directories; transcribed archival documents, journals, letters, notes—including summaries of the same published by the American Jewish Historical Society; and the FamilySearch database, with which we were able to fill in dates and family relationships.

And then there was the innocuous-looking postcard, dated 1950, that lives in the archives of the Center for Jewish History (and lives everywhere digitally).  This short note called into question the accuracy of a large portion of our database. The supposed burial list for the 11th St. cemetery, which we were so excited to discover in those same archives a couple of weeks ago, now appears to pertain to the Chatham Sq. cemetery, which officially closed in 1823.  Although the document is undated, although all the burials occurred before 1823, when the 11th St. cemetery became the congregation’s only burial site, and although none of the names listed were in the burial register under 11th St., we assumed it related to this site. Why? because another source—what could reasonably be considered an authoritative primary source—indicated so.

An entry in Vol. 27 of the Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society (1920) first offered us a tantalizing clue that such a list existed. The following note summarized a document in the Jacques Judah Lyons collection, which is held by the American Jewish Historical Society: “Places of burial in 11th Street. and 21st Street described. Among those buried in 11th Street Cemetery appear: Haim Welcome (1806), Joseph D’Aguilar (1808), and Sarah Soesman (1814).” This description was soon found in a digitized format on the Center for Jewish History’s  website—part of the Jacques Judah Lyons collection.

In addition to brief summaries, this pamphlet contains full reprints and facsimiles of many items in the collection. But does that make it a primary source?

To verify the letter’s claim, I examined an official registry for the Chatham Sq. cemetery, dated 1895—long after the many disinterments there made space for the extension of the Bowery. Checking this against our list, and the index cards that noted places of burial, I was able to corroborate that, indeed, this list was not “our” list.

Yet, there are discrepancies that remain to be solved. A few of the burials noted at 11th St. in the incomplete burial ledger are also on this authoritative registry of Chatham Sq. burials. Which document should we trust—the note card, the 11th St. burial ledger, the Chatham Sq. registry, the undated list? Does the mystery itself reveal something?

These questions remain to be answered.

The moral of this story: the term “primary source” is relative. Also, primary sources can be factually incorrect.

Handwritten postcard, author unknown.
“In the folder in which is the plan of the 21st St. ground the photostated [sic] is also a pencilled list of burials in the Chatham Sq. ground. On the second part of that list, #2 is my mother. This is the grave of Sloe wife of Hayman Levy. The list is therefore compiled by one of the 17 children of Hayman & Sloe Levy. The last one on [?] list is Joshua Isaacs on 17 Feb 1810.” [signature illegible – possibly “D.de S. P.”( David de la Sola Pool)].  From the digital collections of the Center for Jewish History.

 

A Fortunate Discovery

While exploring the papers of Jacques Judah Lyons in the American Center for Jewish History‘s archives, I came across some original documents with hand-drawn gravesite maps and burial lists for the Chatham Square and 21st Street cemeteries, created after the exhumation of Chatham Square occupants for street construction and their reinterment at 21st St.

We had seen a printed facsimile of this 21st Street map and list. But the only original burial list we’d seen up until then was a very incomplete register documenting burials at all three sites, which is in the possession of Shearith Israel. Among the original documents in the archives was a list of 27 burials at 11th St., with some mention of grave locations. This could be especially helpful since the condition of the cemetery itself contains few clues as to locations. In addition, by comparing names we were able to confirm that 19 of the burial records in the card catalogue, which had not explicitly indicated a cemetery, did indeed refer to the 11th St. site.

If this list of 11th St. occupants is contemporaneous with the other lists, that would date it to about 1855, when the city seized a portion of the Chatham Square cemetery to extend the Bowery. However, because the burial dates fall between 1805 and 1818, and far more than 27 souls are buried at 11th St., it is highly probable that the list is much older.  By 1818, the cemetery would have been active for about 13 years, and would be active for another 10, until the congregation had to search for a third site further uptown. And from 1805 to 1823, the cemetery served as an “auxiliary” burial ground, until the city banned burials below Canal St. altogether.

Early 19th century manuscript list of 27 burials at the 11th St. cemetery
List of 27 burials at the 11th st. cemetery, from the papers of Jacques Judah Lyons. Collection of the American Jewish Historical Society.

This was by no means a formal registry. Perhaps it was created by a gravedigger, or by the sexton, simply for reference. We hope to discover who created it: a poignant, undated entry in the second column simply states “my mother.”

Secrets of the Card Catalogue at Shearith Israel

Friday morning Conn Mac Aogain, Davide Colasanto, and Lisa Hirschfield spent time in a basement room of Shearith Israel’s formidable synagogue on 70th Street and Central Park West. Our tasks were to verfiy the information we had from several secondary sources and to determine which volumes from the synagogue’s offsite archives should be retrieved for further investigation.

Conn was able to devote a significant part of the day to this work, and when he was finished he had a list of 95 members of the congregation who died between 1805 and 1830, the period the 11th Street cemetery was active. Once the volumes arrive, we will be able to dig deeper, as it were.

It was quite thrilling to have the burial register—dating back to the mid-18th century—in hand, to turn the pages, feel the paper, trace the lines of the script, and put our collective  (if amateur) paelography skills to work to decipher some of the entries. The card catalogues of birth, marriage, and death records seem to date from the 1950s, and the death records contained more information than we expected, including notes about locations of burials within the cemetery, and of members not buried locally.

Given the general prohibition against delayed burial in Judaism (as well as the lack of refrigeration at this time) it is no surprise that Jews who died away from home were laid to rest where they fell, metaphorically speaking. As the first Jewish congregation in North America, Shearith Israel naturally had close ties to the four other major communities active in the 18th century—in Charleston, Philadelphia, Newport RI, and Montreal—and some members of these communities are buried in Shearith Israel’s older cemeteries. Likewise, the death records of Shearith Israel members who died outside of New York indicate they were visiting some of these other Jewish communities; we can therefore assume they were buried by those congregations. Such community connections were as critical in death as in life. Mrs. Rachel Hays, who died in Boston on September 20, 1810, was laid to rest a long day’s travel away in Newport, Rhode Island, by Yeshuat Israel, Shearith Israel’s sister congregation.

 

Field Trip

Today our project team met onsite with Zach Edinger—the sexton of Shearith Israel—and one of his associates. He graciously answered questions about the historical information he had provided us (a large set of documents and reports) and gave us a tour of both the 11th St. and 21st St. cemeteries, relating stories about some of the more well-known occupants, offering additional background information, and updating us on both cemeteries’ restoration.  He has already made connections for us to a team of conservators who surveyed the 11th Street site last summer, and we will be contacting them shortly.

We also learned that many records and old documents are archived in Newark, NJ and that he will make these available to us for further research.

handwritten cemetery ledger, early 19th Century
Burial Record of Congregation Shearith Israel. Photo by Rachel Frankel.

At one time a database existed, which had also possibly served as the back-end of a simple online interactive map. Unfortunately, the website is no longer active and it seems that neither the creators nor the host backed up the information. Nevertheless, this points to the likely existence of more detailed records about cemetery occupants and memorials. It also serves as an important object lesson in backing up data!

Unless the original database records are found, our next step will be to reconstruct the database, beginning with a basic table of information we currently have in hand: names, some vital statistics, and some biographical information. We will also be looking for these individuals in the late 18th- and early 19th-century city directories and property maps held by the New York Historical Society, to determine any home and/or business addresses. Finally, we will connect, where possible, family and individual names with those in three published collections of primary source documents, to supplement the biographical data we have.