Saturday, 28 March 2020

A Journal of the Plague Year; Trinity Church, 75 Broadway, New York City

To the New Yorker who takes patriotic pride in the place of his birth and to the American citizen who has made his home here, there is not a crumbling tombstone in the consecrated enclosure that does not bring up recollections to stir his heart to the core. There is a complete history of New York, from the day when it passed into the possession of those who spoke our language and professed our creed, written on these stones, and in the names graven on the slabs that cover the entrances to family vaults, there are links that connect with the time of Governor Petrus Stuyvesant and reach back almost to the day when Governor Minuit purchased from the red man the title to the territory of Manhattan Island.

 Walks in Our Churchyards – John Flavel Mines (1896)

We seem to be living in slow motion. It was a mere five weeks ago that I was in New York taking photos in Trinity churchyard, jostling with crowds of fellow tourists on Brooklyn Bridge, walking on Broadway and Wall Street, riding the subway, strolling in Central Park; all the while brushing past hundreds of people at a distance of much less than 2 metres.  I only half listened to the news about the slow inexorable spread of Covid-19 from Asia to its first tentative footfalls in Europe; I was more interested in Michael Bloomberg's attempts to buy the Democratic nomination for presidential candidate. 5 weeks later I’m not allowed to leave my house and New York, like London, is in lockdown with over 30,000 confirmed cases and an exponentially rising death toll. It seems like a hundred years ago, those 5 weeks between today and BC, before Coronavirus. It still doesn’t seem real; I feel like a somnambulist strolling around a vaguely menacing dream. The empty streets, the air of suppressed panic people have in the supermarket, the constant messages from H.M. Government to stay indoors... I haven’t witnessed any of the horror yet but I know it is out there. I can sense its lurking presence waiting to snatch away anyone unlucky enough to come too close. I spend a lot of time in cemeteries but not enough to feel blasé in the presence of death.     

Disappointingly much of Trinity churchyard was closed for renovation when I visited. About a third of the north churchyard and the whole of the smaller south churchyard were shut. The south churchyard is about half the size of the north churchyard which I thinks means that I saw about two thirds of two thirds of the total burial ground. I haven’t multiplied fractions since my schooldays (and I never really understood what I was doing even then) but this is a straightforward bit of arithmetic I think; 2/3 x 2/3 = 4/9 which would mean I saw less than half of the burial ground. The south churchyard, which I missed in its entirety, holds the famous graves. Currently the most popular is an elaborate white marble chest tomb surmounted by four urns and a pyramid which is the final resting place of Alexander Hamilton and his wife Elizabeth Schuyler. The founding fathers once flagging reputation has revived spectacularly in the last sixteen years, initially as a result of Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography, but principally because of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hugely successful Hip-hop musical. Once quietly ignored the grave is now a place of pilgrimage for fans of the Broadway show who leave roses, lilies, pebbles and coins on top of the tomb as marks of respect and remembrance. Also buried in the south churchyard is Robert Fulton, who invented a submarine at the behest of Napoleon, designed torpedoes for the Royal Navy and developed of the first commercially successful steamship, the North River Steamboat which made its maiden voyage between Manhattan and Albany in 1807. 

Governor Benjamin Fletcher granted permission in 1696 for the Church of England to buy land for the construction of a church in Lower Manhattan. The plot of land at the end of Wall Street was once a formal garden but was then being used as a burial ground, had an annual rent of 60 bushels of wheat. The recently widowed William of Orange granted Trinity Parish its charter in May the following year and in 1698 the first church was built facing the Hudson and with the assistance of Captain William Kidd who lent the block and tackle from his ship. Kidd was already in deep trouble; his reputation had plummeted following the killing of one of his crew, gunner William Moore, the previous October, when Kidd had brained him with an iron bucket for failing to follow orders to attack a Dutch ship. He had been declared a pirate earlier that year following his taking of the Quedagh Merchant off the coast of Cochin. He sailed to New York where Richard Coote, the 1st Earl of Bellomont, who was one of his backers as a privateer had taken over as Governor from Benjamin Fletcher. His attempts to ingratiate himself with the Governor and the church authorities did him no good; he was arrested and shipped back to England in chains where he was executed as a pirate at Wapping in 1701. 

The first Trinity Church was a modest structure with a gambrel roof and a small porch. It survived until its incineration in the great city fire of New York in 1776 (its chapel of ease just up the road, St Paul’s, survived the conflagration). Construction on a second church began in 1788. 200 feet tall and longer and wider than its predecessor, the second church lasted until 1839 when it was demolished after being weakened in severe snow storms the previous winter. The current gothic revival church was designed by Anglo-american architect Richard Upjohn and built between 1839 and 1845. For 24 years following its construction it was the tallest building in the United States; in 1869 the Catholics snatched the title by building St Michael’s in Chicago. Trinity is still the richest parish in the United States thanks to a land grant by Queen Anne in 1705 that increased the parish’s holdings to 215 acres. The parcel of land stretched along the Hudson from Fulton to Christopher Street and encompassed much of what is now Tribeca and the West Village. Land that wasn’t used for building new churches or burial grounds over the next two hundred years gradually became some of the world’s most expensive real estate; the current rector, the Rev. Dr. William Lupfer, says that the parish’s portfolio is currently valued at $6 billion. 

The oldest gravestone in the churchyard, that of 5 year old Richard Churcher who died in 1681, predates the first church by 17 years and is presumably a relic from the old burial ground. The headstone is, rather unusually, double sided with a crowded inscription on one side:
W. C.

and a crudely carved skull and crossbones and flying hourglass on the reverse.  Next to Richard’s headstone stands another to one Anne Churcher, possibly his sister, who died in 1691 at the age of “11 years & 3 quarters.”

Another unusual headstone also predates the building of the church is that of James Leeson who died in 1794. The Wkipedia entry for St John’s burying ground claims that Leeson was originally buried there but his headstone was later removed to Trinity Churchyard. I can’t find any other source to confirm this. His partial epitaph reads:

Here lies
deposited the Body of
James Leeson
who departed this Life
in the 28th of September 1794
Aged 38 Years...

The brown sandstone headstone features Masonic symbolism including a fiery urn with a soul heart, an hourglass and the traditional plumb, sector, square and compass. An arc of cryptic lettering at the top of the stone is written in pigpen cipher and when decrypted reads ‘Remember Death’. Apart from his celebrated tombstone and his inferred membership of the masons nothing is known of James Leeson.

Looking through the cast iron railings on Broadway is the headstone of Sydney Breese who died in 1767, an ex-officer in the British Army and later a merchant whose self penned eptitaph reads:


As in St Paul’s Chapel churchyard there are plenty of soul effigies on display in the many 18th century headstones. There are more memento mori in the form of winged skulls perhaps reflecting the churchyards greater age. Soul effigies seem to have gradually replaced the winged skull as the gravestone decoration of choice later in the century. 

In the northeast corner of the churchyard stands the Soldiers Monument or the Martys Memorial, a gothic revival memorial erected by the city in 1852. A plaque on the memorial explains that “At a meeting of Citizens held at the City Hall of the City of New York June 8, 1852: It was resolved That the Erection of a becoming Monument with appropriate inscriptions by Trinity Church to the Memory of those great and good Men who died whilst in Captivity in the old Sugar House and were interred in Trinity Church Yard in this City will be an act gratifying not only to the attendants of this Meeting but to Every American Citizen.” The martyrs were American prisoners of war captured by the British during the revolutionary war and held captive on prison ships and, allegedly, in the sugar warehouses of the city. Many died whilst being held in detention and were supposedly buried anonymously in the churchyard. Some dispute this; Charles Bushnell argued in 1863 that Trinity Church was loyally British during the war of independence and would not have allowed the burial of rebel prisoners on its precincts. No one disputes though that thousands of prisoners died after being kept in atrocious conditions, only where their corpses were disposed of.  

Wednesday, 4 March 2020

Here Lyes The Body; St Paul's Chapel of Trinity Church, 209 Broadway, New York City

An English gentleman, Mr. John Lambert, who visited New York in 1807, when the entire city lay below Canal Street, was severely critical in regard to the churchyards on Broadway. In his diary, after speaking of Trinity Church, and St. Paul's as "both handsome structures," he added: "The adjoining churchyards, which occupy a large space of ground, railed in from the street, and crowded with tomb-stones, are far from being agreeable spectacles in such a populous city.” The population of New York in that year, as he gives it, was 83,530, and in our more modern eyes would betoken rather an overgrown village than a metropolis.  In still another part of his journal, Mr Lambert returns again to the assault on the churchyards, and insists that they are "unsightly exhibitions." “One would think,” he says, "there was a scarcity of land in America to see such large pieces of ground in one of the finest streets of New York occupied by the dead. The continual sight of such a crowd of white and brown tombstones and monuments as is exhibited in the Broadway must tend very much to depress the spirits.”

Walks in Our Churchyards – John Flavel Mines (1903)

It looks out of place, a 250 year old English Georgian church and its neat little churchyard nestled beneath the soaring skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan, just across the road from the World Trade Centre.  It was built in 1766 as a chapel for ease for Trinity Church on Wall Street, on land donated by Queen Anne that stood on what were then the banks of the Hudson. Architect Thomas McBean based his design on St Martin-in-the Fields but the Manhattan mica-schist and brownstone quoins give the English architecture a distinctly new world flavour. Land reclamation has pushed the waterfront back half a mile since the chapel was built and it now stands smack in the middle of Lower Manhattan, almost equidistant between Brooklyn Bridge on the eastern shore and the North Cove yacht harbour on the western. It has led a charmed life, surviving the Great Fire of New York in 1776 (parishioners formed a bucket chain to bring water from the river up to the building) and the destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11. 

John Flavel Mines, born in Paris in 1835 was a preacher who entered the Union army as a chaplain to a Maine regiment in 1861 during the civil war of independence and was captured by the confederates when he stayed behind on the battlefield at Manassas to succour the wounded. He published a book of verse, ‘Heroes of the Last Lustre’, in 1858 and in later life became a newspaperman who wrote prose sketches under the name Felix Oldboy and a book ‘A Tour Around New York.’ He died in 1891 and was buried in Cypress Hill Cemetery in Brooklyn. Some previously published sketches about the churchyards of Lower Manhattan were published posthumously in 1893 as ‘Walks In Our Churchyards’. Mines’ writing is still lively and accessible; his graveyard book is short and still readable but not always accurate. Many of the graves he mentions in St Paul’s churchyard are still easily found; 

Near the west entrance is a stone to the memory of James Davis, "late Smith in the Royal Artillery, who died in December, 1769, aged 30 years”  and nearby it is a still older and less legible slab which commemorates John Jones and perpetuates this poetry that evidently came from his wife's hand:
O most cruel sudden Death
Thus did take her husband's breath,
But the Lord he thought it best

Headstones have perhaps been cleaned since Mines examined them in the 1880’s. It is now quite easy to read that John Jones (son of John Jones) died on December 15 1768 and was a child aged 4 years, 4 months and 2 days. The epitaph which Mines identified as being written by Jones wife actually reads:

O most cruel sudden Death
That did take his harmless breath
But the Lord hath thought it best

Most of the headstones from the mid eighteenth century are decorated with the distinctive stylised winged cherubs that are known as soul effigies. These distinctively American grave icons bear distinct affinities with similar stylised iconography in certain areas of England but the fashion for them continued for longer in the US and stonemasons developed them in distinctly American ways including those fleshy, heavy jowls, the web like wings and the flower motifs. Again as in England, the willow and urn was a common 19th century motif but the very typical example seen below is different to the treatment it would receive on English headstones.

Impressive obelisk and column memorials stand at the Broadway end of the churchyard, both commemorating Irish patriots, members of the United Irishmen, firm friends in life but who are both buried elsewhere. On the south side of the church is the obelisk of Thomas Addis Emmet, who was arrested and imprisoned by the English for plotting the failed Irish rebellion of 1798. After his release from prison in Scotland he fled to Brussels and later France before emigrating to the United States where he became a successful lawyer and eventually Attorney General of New York State. When he died in 1827 he was initially buried in St Mark's-in-the-Bowery Churchyard in the East Village.  In 1922, at the request of his grandson, he was exhumed and reinterred in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin. On the north side is the column memorial of Dr. William James MacNeven, the Father of American Chemistry, who came to the United States in 1805 after failing to convince Napoleon to send French troops to help liberate Ireland. As a Catholic he had not been able to study in Ireland and he received his higher education in Prague and his medical degree in Vienna. In New York he joined the faculty of the College of Physician and Surgeons initially as professor of midwifery before becoming professor of chemistry in 1810. He died in 1841 and was buried on the Riker Farm in the Astoria section of Queens, NY.

Notable burials in the churchyard include George Frederick Cooke the actor who was famous in London and New York. His most acclaimed role was Richard III and he was the great rival of Charles Kemble. He was a notorious sot and his excessive alcohol intake eventually began to erode his talent. Disgruntled with repeated savaging at the hands of the London press he took himself off to tour America in 1810. He never made it home, dying of cirrhosis in the Mechanic’s Hall in Manhattan in 1812. His monument in the churchyard was erected by Edmund Keen during his American tour in 1821.According to John Joseph Knight in the 1887 edition of the Dictionary of National Biography whilst arranging for Cooke to be reburied Keen “abstracted one of the toe bones, which he kept as a relic, compelling all visitors to worship it until Mrs. Kean, in disgust, threw it away.” An even odder story is that Cooke’ head was removed during an autopsy and his skull kept by Dr John Francis who later wrote the book ‘Old New York’. Francis claimed to have loaned the skull to be used as Yorick during a benefit performance of Hamlet. Stories say Cooke’s headless ghost still roams the churchyard on moonless nights.