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Title: Farewell to the Old Episcopal Graveyard in Fulton Street!

Creator: Walt Whitman

Date: January 28, 1862

Whitman Archive ID: per.00245

Source: Brooklyn City News 28 January 1862: [unknown]. Transcribed from a digital image of the original issue. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the journalism, see our statement of editorial policy.

Contributors to digital file: Brett Barney and Ashley Lawson




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FAREWELL TO THE OLD EPISCOPAL GRAVEYARD IN FULTON STREET!

———

PROGRESS AT WORK IN BROOKLYN—THE GROUND AND AROUND IT THIRTY-THREE YEARS SINCE—INCIDENT OF THE DEAD OF THE U.S. STEAMER FULTON THE FIRST—ST. ANN'S CHURCH AND ITS HISTORY.

———

Of the thousands of our citizens daily hurrying up and down Fulton street, these days, between Tillary and Concord, perhaps some of them bestow a flitting glance of curiousity at the deep excavation now being proceeded with, on the premises of the old, and once so well known, Episcopal burying-ground of Brooklyn, on the east side of our city's great thoroughfare; yet how few will think of the profound and varied associations connected with that old spot, or realize how many and close the ties that bind it to a long list of some of the best known names and families of our city.1 All day at this part of Fulton street, the living thousands are the thickest—always hurrying along. Once in a while some venerable form stops, gazes musingly and seriously at the laborers, driving their heavy wedges into the frozen upper crust of the ground, or at those in the half-dug cellar, filling their carts, or picking away with their pick-axes—and then he, too, goes his way, perhaps puzzled at the strange scene, and not recognizing its former looks in the display of dirt-carts, heaps of stones, debris of the old trees, &c.

Yet these premises, soon to be covered with lofty, elegant, and expensive buildings, for stores and dwellings, are the site of one of the oldest of Brooklyn's burial places, and are intimately interwoven not only with the history of St. Ann's Episcopal Church, to which society the grounds belong—but, through the burial of nearer or remoter connexions, with most of the descendants, at the present day, of many families that smack of our own soil.2 That load of brown and yellow ground they are shoveling in and carting off so fast, for all the worthless dirt it looks to be, has curious references to many of those most familiar names among the families of Brooklyn; the Sands, Nichols, Prince, Graham, Radcliffe, Furman, [Bache?], Thorne, Cornell, Morton, Waring, Barbarin, Duffield, Pierrepont, Carter, Low, Sanford, Clarke, Fiske, Van Nostrand, Doughty, Leavitt, [Rushmore?] families, and many others.

We don't know how far back this grave yard dates for its beginning, but as the Society to which it belongs is nearly a hundred years old, it must have quite an age of itself. The writer first remembers it, with distinctness, somewhere about thirty-three or four years ago, (1828). Fulton street, in its neighborhood, was then possessed of large and beautiful trees. The houses were, many of them, (especially on the west side) large mansions, quite a distance back from the street, with ample grounds and good kitchen gardens around them. There were only seven or eight houses from Orange street up to Joralemon, on that side. In one of them lived Rev. Mr. McIlvaine, the rector of the church to which the old burial yard belonged, and whose members, at death, were there laid away.3 All along this west side of Fulton street, streched a row of as large and stately elms as could be found in America.

Joseph Sprague, the President of the then village of Brooklyn, lived within rifle-shot of these grounds, in a wooden building, still standing, on the east side of Fulton street, below the grave yard.4 Losee VanNostrand, one of the the Trustees of the village, a little lower down on the opposite side; James B. Clarke, another of the Trustees, not far from opposite the grave yard.5 Of course, neither Clarke, nor Pineapple, nor Court, nor Pierrepont, nor Montague streets were then cut through. Just above the grave yard was a large, double, yellow house, which had been a noble family mansion, but had been given up, and then became a tavern, (Dempsey's) and afterwards a convent.6 Commencing at this part of Fulton street, within stone's throw of the grave yard, and running east for many rods, was one of the largest of Brooklyn rope-walks, owned by Norris L. Martin, whom any of our old citizens will remember well.7

Nor are those old premises, (so soon to be span-new with brilliant brick and iron fronts, and goods of latest fashion in the windows, lit at night with gas-light, through rows of patent burners); nor is this ground without reminiscences of thrilling personal interest. One of that sort at [least?], will we narrate, as coming within our own ken, and which can be verified by any Brooklynite of that period and locality. Here, on this spot towards sun-down of a beautiful day in June, long ago, how well does the writer of this article, (then a little boy, just ten years old,) remember to have seen buried some of the victims of the blowing up of the United States steamer Fulton the first.8 We climbed up with other youngsters on the fence, and saw the whole procession and funeral service. It was a solemn scene. The downcast faces, the tears of many, the wailing notes of the music that came like living voices of lamentation—the blue-dressed sailors, hand-in-hand—the army and navy officers in their uniforms and with uncovered heads—the black pall draping that coffin in which lay the mutilated body—the procession, so slow—the ministers, the sublime service, the weeping group around the grave—and, to end all, the volley that was fired in military fashion, and then the return marching off to a lively air from the band—we saw the whole. This was in the summer of 1829.

The Fulton the First, at our Navy Yard at the Wallabout, was probably the earliest steam vessel-of-war ever built. Her cost was enormous, considering her size, which would now be looked upon with derision. She was constructed under the eye of the great originator himself, here at the Brooklyn station. Three hundred thousand dollars did not suffice to pay the bill. A terrible fate befel this steamer! She blew up, and was instantaneously destroyed at her moorings off the Navy Yard, where she had been a long time kept as a sort of receiving-ship. She blew up on the afternoon of the 4th of June, 1829. The most authenticated supposition, or rather certainty, is, that one of the sailors, moved by a spirit of revenge for being wrongfully whipped, fired the magazine, and deliberately immolated himself among the rest, to secure the death of the tyrannical officer who had had him flogged. That very officer, however, escaped—having put off unknown to the sailor, and just landed on the wharf at the Navy Yard as the Fulton exploded. Thirty-three persons, three of them women, and several officers, were killed by this catastrophe. Some of the bodies were carried to their friends at distance places, but most were buried in Brooklyn. The ones we saw entombed at the Episcopal burying-ground were some of the officers.

Such may be mentioned as one of the incidents, out of many, which have had to do with this venerable ground. From its central position it has probably been the most familiar to the eyes of the Brooklynites of all the burial places of the city. The Episcopalians have been quite numerous in Brooklyn, dating back to the period, nearly two hundred years ago, of the taking possession of the province by the English, and the rule of English governors.

The history of the St. Ann's Church Society, to whom this old grave-yard belonged, is itself worthy of a brief record, before concluding our article. The Society, as such, is nearly a hundred years old, although it did not assume the name of St. Ann's till about seventy years ago. It is said that the congregation was originally formed here in Brooklyn, about the year 1766, although there are no official data of the fact. As is usual in such cases, it is likely that for a while, at first, the meetings were informal. From 1778 there are more regular accounts; in that year the Rev. Jas. Sayre commenced his duly commissioned pastorate over the Society.9 In 1784, the Rev. George Wright was the pastor.10 This was just after the close of the Revolutionary War. He preached every Sunday in a private house sufficiently roomy, at the corner of Old Ferry (now Fulton) and Front streets.

This place being soon after torn down, the preaching was transferred to an old and roomier edifice, that had been used by the British for soldiers' barracks, during their long occupancy of Brooklyn, through the war. This edifice stood at the corner of Middagh and Fulton street.

Pretty soon, however, the congregation growing a little stronger, they purchased a regular church building, (on a small scale,) that had been erected for another society; and to that house removing, it was regularly consecrated with Episcopalian ceremonies, by the Bishop. This must have been about 1785 or '6.11 About this period an act of incorporation was procured for the society, from the State Legislature. The church now assumed an established and definite form. It had seven trustees, and could legally transact business, purchase and sell, &c.

During the few following years the society still prospered. The grounds it now stands on were donated to it by the Sands family, especially Joshua Sands.12 His wife, Mrs. Ann Sands, also befriended it powerfully and steadily. So that, in compliment to her, the society, in [1793?], regularly assumed the name of "St. Ann's." This is the origin of the title of this well known society.

On the present grounds, donated as above mentioned, a thick-walled stone edifice was commenced at the beginning of the present century. Like many other of the buildings of those times, it was put up, as if for all time. It was consecrated in May, 1806—and at the same period thirty-five persons received confirmation in it from Bishop Moore.

Unfortunately, this heavy stone building received a bad shock and partial breakage of its walls, from the explosion (in [1806?]) of a large powder mill, in what is now Jay street. The church, being repaired, still continued to be used, however, for nearly twenty following years.

In 1824, the present St. Ann's Church edifice was commenced, and in the following year was finished and consecrated. The writer does not recollect the old stone edifice, but knows its appearance, from a picture, an oil painting, carefully and handsomely made of it by Mrs. Spooner, widow of the former Alden Spooner, just before the work of its demolition commenced.13 It was evidently quite a picturesque old pile, covered with creeping vines, and surrounded by shrubbery and trees. Of the succession of rectors then and since, we have only space to mention Rev. Henry James Feltus, from 1807 to 1814; Rev. John P. K. Henshaw, 1814 to 1817; Rev. Hugh Smith, 1817 to 1819; Rev. Henry U. Onderdonk 1819 to 1827; and Rev. Chas. P. McIlvaine, 1827 to 1835.14 We remember Mr. McIlvaine and his wife very well. He was a good man, and the wife is affectionately remembered in Brooklyn, as that rare character, a genuine Christian lady. Since the departure of Mr. McIlvaine, as Bishop of Ohio, nothing worthy of favorable mention seems to have occurred.

The position of the old grave yard, in the most thronged part of Fulton street, has of course made it unfit for a grave yard, and it is now quite a long time since any burial has taken place there. Some three years since it was resolved to disinter the remains from the old graves there, and remove them to some of the various cemeteries around Brooklyn. Our citizens will remember the high board fence that shielded the ground from the street all last summer. Behind this fence the work of removal proceeded, and when the fence was taken down, lo! the place was bare of its graves, monuments, shrubbery, mounds, &c.

The past week, the laborers have had it all to themselves—often working away long after dark. The cellar yawns deeper and wider every day—the architect is flitting around with a stout roll of paper in his hand—the materials will soon arrive and be dumped on the ground; and before another winter is upon us, St. Ann's Church, instead of having that old memento of the graves of its founders and ancestors, with all its clustering associations to point to and gaze upon, and become pensive over, will be the thrifty owner of a row of valuable dry-goods and jewelry stores, which, (notwithstanding our Brooklyn tax rates these years) will be paying the vestrymen a noble return per cent.


Notes:

1. Though Whitman writes of its excavation in 1862, Henry Reed Stiles notes, “The graveyard was for many years disused, being finally removed in 1860, and ‘St. Ann’s Buildings’ erected on its site.” See Henry Reed Stiles, History of the City of Brooklyn: Including the Old Town and Village of Brooklyn, the Town of Bushwick, and the Village and City of Williamsburgh (1867; repr., Westminster, MD: Heritage Books), 1:90. [back]

2. In 1785, a place of worship was built upon an Episcopal burying ground at Fulton Street in Brooklyn. On April 23, 1787, the church as incorporated by the legislature as “The Episcopal Church of Brooklyn.” On June 22, 1795, the church was reorganized and renamed St. Ann’s Church, as it had long been popularly described, in honor of Mrs. Ann Sands, the wife of Joshua Sands, both of whom had donated large amounts of money. In 1798, a stone church was built on ground donated by the couple. After the powder mill explosion Whitman mentions, the church was deemed structurally unsound and a new church was built and consecrated in 1825. See [F. G. Fish], St. Ann's Church, (Brooklyn, New York,) from the Year 1784 to the Year 1845 (1845); and Henry Reed Stiles, History of the City of Brooklyn: Including the Old Town and Village of Brooklyn, the Town of Bushwick, and the Village and City of Williamsburgh (1867; repr., Westminster, MD: Heritage Books), 1:390. [back]

3. Rev. Charles Pettit McIlvaine (1799–1873) officiated at St. Ann's from 1827 to 1833. In 1831 he was elected bishop of Ohio, and in later life he acted as President Lincoln's special emissary to Great Britain following the Trent Affair. [back]

4. Before Brooklyn obtained a city charter in 1834, Joseph Sprague had served several terms as its president. In 1843 and 1844 he was elected mayor of the city, and he held a number of other offices before his death in 1854. [back]

5. Losee Van Nostrand (1775–1852 was a ferryman in Brooklyn, associated with the Fulton and South Ferries for many years in the early nineteenth century. He also served on the board of directors of the Apprentices' Library. Whitman mentions James B. Clarke in his article "Brooklyniana No. 17". [back]

6. Henry Reed Stiles identifies a Dempsey’s hotel located near the Episcopal burying ground. This locale was also known as “The Village Garden,” where Stiles reports "the gay young fellows used to go to 'shoot turkey.'" See Henry Reed Stiles, History of the City of Brooklyn: Including the Old Town and Village of Brooklyn, the Town of Bushwick, and the Village and City of Williamsburgh (1867; repr., Westminster, MD: Heritage Books), 1:91. [back]

7. Norris L. Martin’s rope-walk ran from the south side of the Episcopal burying ground to the Wallabout meadows. See Henry Reed Stiles, History of the City of Brooklyn: Including the Old Town and Village of Brooklyn, the Town of Bushwick, and the Village and City of Williamsburgh (1867; repr., Westminster, MD: Heritage Books), 1:91. [back]

8. Built for use in defending American harbors against the British during the War of 1812, Fulton the First was not finished until the battles were over. It was taken to the Navy Yard in Brooklyn and used for more than ten years as a receiving ship. Its explosion on June 4, 1829 was likely produced by the ignition of barrels of gunpowder; its rotted condition at the time of the explosion led to damage so complete as to rule out any chance for repair. Twenty-five people were believed to have been killed, with five others missing; another nineteen men were wounded. The cause has never been definitely proven, though many at the time stated it could not have been an accident. See Thomas Wallace Knox, The Life of Robert Fulton and a History of Steam Navigation (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1886). [back]

9. Rev. James Sayre was a preacher at the Episcopal church during the British occupation. Sayre, a Scotsman ordained in England, preached for some of the British loyalist troops in 1775. In 1778 he began his work in Brooklyn, where he stayed until he was evacuated with other British Loyalists to New Brunswick on November 25, 1783. [back]

10. The first established Episcopal church in the town or county began in 1786 in a rented home on the corner of Fulton and Middagh streets. Rev. George Wright was chosen to be the pastor of the small congregation, which eventually became St. Ann’s. [back]

11. The small church was consecrated by Bishop Provost in 1787, during the period when Rev. George Wright was an officiate there. [back]

12. Joshua Sands and his brother, Comfort Sands, were wealthy landowners in Brooklyn in the early nineteenth century. Joshua Sands served as a representative to the U.S. Congress and as a New York state senator, and he was the eighth president of the New York Chamber of Commerce. Joshua Sands is also mentioned in Whitman's ""Brooklyniana No. 15." [back]

13. Alden Spooner, who served in the American Revolution, was a Vermont printer who handled much of Vermont's official printing during his lifetime. He also owned and published the Long Island Star newspaper from 1811 until 1819. [back]

14. Rev. Henry James Feltus became rector of the St. Ann’s Church in 1807 after the vacancy of John Ireland, and he presided there until 1814. During his tenure of seven years, the parish became one of the strongest in its diocese. Educated at Harvard University, Rev. John P. K. Henshaw served at the head of various Episcopalian churches in Massachusetts, New York, Maryland, and Rhode Island, of which he became bishop in 1843. Rev. Hugh Smith was pastor from July 1817 to 1819. Rev. Henry U. Onderdonk was rector from November 1819 to 1827. He afterwards went on to serve as assistant bishop in Philadelphia. [back]


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