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Mr. Death

Oct 28, 2011 10:03 AM | 0 comments

Now is the time when skeletons walk hand-in-hand with Super Marios and candy-hungry princesses trailed by zombie retinues are as regular a sight as dollar vans barreling down Flatbush. October is for lovers of the weird and morbid, and there is perhaps no better setting for our darker speculations than the bone tenanted grounds of a cemetery. In the course of doing research for a patron I came across the story of a lesser-known Brooklyn cemetery, the long-gone Union Cemetery in the Eastern District. It embodies a timely bit of ghoulish history which should serve our local masqueraders well as a backdrop for any number of scary stories they might wish to share with one another late at night over Snickers and Charleston Chews.

An 1855 map showing Union Cemetery.

In his book, Brooklyn's Eastern District, historian Eugene Armbruster quickly lays out the history of the cemetery: "During the cholera epidemic of 1832 a tract of ten acres was purchased of Mrs. Margaret Duryea by the Grand Street Methodist Church on Grand and Attorney Streets, New York City. The Grand Street Methodist Protestant Church of Williamsburgh became part owner of this cemetery which was opened for burial purposes in 1851. The grounds were bounded by Knickerbocker, Irving and Putnam Avenues and Palmetto Street. One part of the grounds was known as Snake Hollow. The New York congregation sold its share in the tract in 1875 to the Brooklyn Church. The latter sold the plot in 1897, the grounds having been filled. The remains of the bodies were taken out and removed to Cedar Grove Cemetery."

A quick search through the Eagle Online uncovers a slew of stories about the cemetery, most of which, like the one that appears with the above headline, have to do with the exhumation and removal of the dead. Needless to say, with the remains of roughly 30,000 people to identify, transfer, and rehouse in new rough pine and cedar boxes, the project was of a massive scale and drew a great deal of attention. Among the many onlookers that first day the transfer began was an elderly German woman who, with tears in her eyes, inquired of the manager when her husband's grave would be uncovered and whether they could assure her that his remains would all make it to the new plot to be reinterred without incident. The laborers charged with digging out the dead were all Italian and, as the Eagle reported, "worked like beavers" to move the cemetery in the allotted 60 day window. In the coffins they found a number of curiosities: dolls and dishes buried with children, pennies, costly "metallic cases," and in more than one instance, extra bodies.  

In addition to this remarkable story of the raising of the dead, Union Cemetery also often appeared in the pages of the Eagle as the scene of much grief and pain.

This headline comes from a brief story, published in the July 14, 1876 issue of the Eagle, describing the plight of a widow and her five children. Utterly bereft, the woman, Maria Ruhl, had taken her family to her husband's grave to die. A police officer, spotting the wailing children, brought them in to the station where a small sum of money was raised to help the family get back on its feet.  

A similar story, but with a far different ending, appeared just a year later in the Eagle. On September 25, 1877 it was reported that Sebastian Trinkhause, a 70 year old German, had been found hanging by a thick cord from the branch of a willow tree. His son ran a lager saloon at 431 Bushwick Avenue, and his wife, who had died several years earlier, was buried in Union Cemetery.


Also appearing in 1877 was the above headline, which ran at the top of a long list of missing Brooklynites. Among them was Martha Becker, who disappeared on September 3rd of the previous year. Just 21 years old, and listed in the paper as "insane," Ms. Becker had decided to take a walk to Union Cemetery and was never heard from again. Sounds a little bit like the Agatha Cunningham story Ivy wrote about the other day...

And from 1902, this snippet of the patrolman and his skull proves just how hard it was for the dead to stay buried and the cemetery to be, once and for all, gone.

A Belcher Hyde atlas from 1912, showing the plot of land where the cemetery had been.

Another Belcher Hyde atlas, this one from 1920, shows Woodbine Street now running through the old cemetery. That large orange polygon at the corner of Irving and Woodbine is Bushwick High School.

This photo, from 1912, shows the school under construction. Graduating its last class in 2006, Bushwick High School is now closed. Three small high schools currently occupy the building: Bushwick High School for Social Justice, Academy of Urban Planning, and the Academy for Environmental Leadership. Complementing our healthy clippings file on Bushwick High School, we also have a number of photographs of the school and its students, early yearbooks, and issues of the Bushwick Bulletin, the "Oldest High School Newspaper in Brooklyn."  

And in leafing through one of these old school papers, the one pictured above, in fact, I found a piece written by someone named Carmine Forestiere which, when looking back on the area's history, struck me as eerily consonant with the tales of Union Cemetery. The dead don't stay dead, or something like that.