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.
During our site visit, team member Taylor Dietrich documented many of the grave markers. The inscriptions below are taken from a report provided to Shearith Israel by Jablonski Building Conservation, which performed a detailed assessment of the cemetery’s physical condition in the summer of 2015, and includes some information transcribed from the congregation’s burial register by Rachel Frankel.
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.
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.
Every cemetery tells a multitude of stories: stories of its occupants, stories about its community, and stories about its own origins. We knew that the cemetery we chose for Necropolis would determine what kind of story the project could tell. The “who, what, where, why, and when” that differentiate it from every other burial ground constitute its unique contribution to the ongoing story of New York City. With this in mind, after initial discussion of potential sites, we narrowed our choices down to a few of the oldest cemeteries in New York City. These included the three Manhattan burial grounds of Congregation Shearith Israel (“Remnant of Israel”)—the oldest of which was established in 1684—and Prospect Cemetery in Jamaica, Queens, a colonial-era burial ground established around 1668 in what was then rural unincorporated countryside on Long Island.
Last week team member Conn Mac Aogain made contact with folks at Prospect Cemetery Association, the Queens Historical Society, and Congregation Shearith Israel; visited the four locations; and took photos. In choosing between Prospect cemetery and those of Shearith Israel, we had to consider the nature, accessibility, and quantity data we thought we could find; the size and assets of the sites; their historical significance to New York, and ease of access to the grounds. Each of these sites could provide a robust foundation for Necropolis. However, the three small, connected, and well-documented cemeteries in lower Manhattan, with related archival materials located nearby, could provide a level of convenience that is no small matter to a team of busy of working students.
Although the process of finding a partner seemed to move slowly at first, the pace has sped up rapidly over the past few days. Earlier this week I spoke with the sexton of Shearith Israel, who is extremely interested in the project, and has provided us with a large trove of documents relating to the second (11th St.) cemetery, which dates from 1805. The small size and interesting history of this burial ground in relation to its sister sites and the growth of the city, as well as the congregation’s current restoration efforts, make Shearith Israel’s second cemetery very suitable for a one-semester project. We can make use of a number of excellent secondary sources about the congregation and the Jewish community of early New York—including a comprehensive history—as well as archival materials dating back to the 18th century that are held by the American Jewish Historical Society. With these resources, along with the physical space of the cemetery itself, we expect to weave together a rich, interactive experience of an urban historic burial ground: a story of social, cultural, political, material, and economic life—and death—in New York City.
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