In 1654, fleeing intense religious prosecution in their homelands, 23 Spanish and Portuguese Jews arrived in New Amsterdam. It must have seemed that they had gone from one intolerable situation to another. The colony's Director-General, Peter Stuyvesant, was openly anti-Semitic and the year the group arrived he wrote to the Dutch West India Company asking that "the deceitful race, — such hateful enemies and blasphemers of the name of Christ, — be not allowed to further infect and trouble this new colony." Stuyvesant was no doubt crestfallen when the Dutch West India Company allowed them to stay.
The 23 settlers would form the seed of Congregation Shearith Israel. In 1656 they requested permission to establish their own burying ground, rather than share New Amsterdam's common graveyard. The location of the "little hook of land" granted to the Jews outside of the high wooden wall is unknown today.
In 1683, land was purchased for a new cemetery at what is today named St. James Place. It is known as the First Cemetery of the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue, or the Chatham Square Cemetery.
By 1804 that cemetery, too, was filled. A plot of land on Greenwich Lane (later Greenwich Avenue) was purchased from John Agnew on May 1. More than a century later, The Sun recalled that the "large burying ground stretched along the upper bank of Minetta Brook." The cemetery, known as the Second Cemetery of Congregation Shearith Israel, opened in 1805, the first congregant interred being Wolfe Polack.
Ten years earlier, a yellow fever epidemic had broken out in Philadelphia. The disease spread swiftly and eventually 5,000 people, one-tenth of the population, would succumb. In July 1795, the first yellow fever death in New York City came. Within a single week in August twenty-one victims died. Around the time of the cemetery's opening, panic was such that those who could afford to leave the city did so, moving to the fresh air of remote hamlets like Greenwich Village. The Jewish population was not immune to pernicious disease. The New York Times later reported, "Many interments were made here during 1822, when the number of deaths in the City from yellow fever was very large."
The famous Commissioners Plan of 1811 laid out the streets and avenues, and placed West 11th Street through the Spanish-Portuguese Cemetery. The thoroughfare that had existed only on paper suddenly became real in 1830. On April 16, the Commissioners of Estimate and Assessment published their appraisal of "the loss and damage sustained by the owners" of the land and properties required for the opening of West 11th Street from Broadway to Greenwich Lane. The Evening Post reported that the opening "took portions of two cemeteries--one belonging to the Jews, and the other to the Presbyterian Church."
Knowing that the cemetery was soon to be decimated, on June 2, 1829 Congregation Shearith Israel acquired land from Horatio Wilkes on West 21st Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues for a new burying ground. That cemetery was opened on August 17, 1829 and the first interment, that of Mrs. Judith Lopez, took place on November 6 that year. The last burial in the 11th Street cemetery was that of Israel Phillips, on January 6, 1833.
In the months and weeks before construction of West 11th Street began, many of the bodies in the 1805 cemetery were reinterred in the 21st Street grounds. But, according to The New York Times, others were simply crowded into the remaining little triangular plot. On May 18, 1879 the newspaper recalled, "A great many bodies that were dug up at the opening of the street were reburied in the south-west corner, which is now all that remains of the old burial-ground, and of which every foot is supposed to be occupied by humans remains."
By the time of that article, the forgotten little cemetery was showing the first signs of neglect. In 1875 The Jewish Messenger noted, "The ground is covered with a sparse growth of grass, and there are a couple of trees. It is in fairly good condition, but by no means presents as nice and clean an appearance as the Oliver Street [Chatham Square] and Twenty-first Street burying grounds." Interestingly, it was an Irish immigrant rather than the congregation itself, who rescued the neglected parcel. In 1882 the New York Chronicle explained:
All that remains of the second cemetery...is a parcel of ground in the shape of an obtuse triangle, on the south side of Eleventh street, near Sixth avenue. It contains about fifty square feet. In the centre is a pyramidal monument bearing the names of Joshua and Jacob Canter, and the date 1822. It is surrounded by a number of tombstones. The cause of the curious shape of this cemetery is that when Eleventh street was opened all but the southeast corner of the property was cut away. Since then it has been allowed to run to waste, until recently Mr. Callanan, the owner of adjoining property, built a fence around it and fixed up the grounds.
The Joshua Canter mentioned in the article, was a well known portrait and landscape painter and art teacher. He, like Jacob Canter, were most likely victims of the 1822 yellow fever epidemic.
Once sitting in a field, in 1925 the little cemetery was hemmed in by apartment buildings. photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Another grave belongs to German-born Ephraim Hart (originally Hirz, he changed his surname when he arrived in Philadelphia around 1780). Having fought in the Revolution, he became an elector of Congregation Shearith Israel on April 2, 1787. One of New York City's most successful merchants, he helped organize the Board of Stock-Brokers, today's New York Stock Exchange. His gravestone reads: "Ephraim Hart / Pennsylvania / Pvt Capt. Henry Graham's Co. / Rev War / July 16, 1824."
As Mr. Callanan had done, the Congregation Shearith Israel has refocused interest in restoring the more than two-century-old cemetery. Its West 11th Street Project Committee, formed in 2013, hired architect-conservator firm Rachel Frankel Architecture, as part of the ongoing restoration/preservation effort.
photographs by the author
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