The two square blocks bordered by Union and Lorimer Aves. and Devoe and Powers Sts. in Williamsburg are as pleasant a place as any to live in Brooklyn.
The streets are tree-lined and relatively quiet, yet only a short distance from everything Williamsburg has to offer.
But the area wasn’t always residential. I was looking at the awesome 1849 map of Brooklyn on Hypercities when I noticed something very different. Here is the present street layout today:
But if you look on the 1849 map, you’ll see something very different:
A cemetery! That’s right, all you hipsters are living on top of a former burial ground once packed with corpses. Could your neighborhood get any cooler?
From what little information I could find online, this cemetery was once known as the Old Methodist Burying Ground. It was founded in 1835 (when the area was best described as “rural”) to service The Attorney Street Methodist Church in NYC and the First Methodist Protestant Church of Williamsburg. Ainslie Street (pictured below) once bisected the cemetery.
In 1856, the church closed the cemetery and the bodies were reportedly moved to Cyprus Hills Cemetery. At some point, an idea was either proposed or enacted to create a park on the former cemetery, to be named Freestone’s Burying Ground after the church’s undertaker, Thomas Freestone. Map-wise, the area appears to be residential by 1860.
Could a body (or two…or ten) still remain? No one knows for sure, but in researching this, I learned that the same Methodist churches later founded Union Cemetery in eastern Brooklyn. As the city limits stretched closer and closer, the proposition again arose to move the bodies out of Union Cemetery and sell the land. Union Cemetery was insanely over-crowded, with 30,000+ corpses (when they ran out of room, they simply began burying the newly deceased in old plots).
The idea of moving the bodies did not sit well with the cemetery’s families, however, who claimed that they owned the land their plots were on. The church conversely argued that they could do whatever the hell they wanted to with the bodies. This great NY Times article from 1893 describes the issues at hand, suggesting that money was of slightly more importance to the upset families than the actual location of the bodies. Take this quote from “chief of the macontents” Mr. Berger, when asked if he had a problem with moving the corpses:
“Fudge! They are only bones, so much rotten old bones! I don’t care a fillip (sic?) about them! What I want to know is whether there will be a surplus of cash after the removals are made and whether it will be divided among the plot holders.”
In the end, the bodies from Union Cemetery were moved in 1893 to Cedar Grove in Flushing. However, when they started transferring the remains, they found thousands more than were recorded. In other words: considering what happened at Union Cemetery, who knows what they might have missed the first time around in Williamsburg?
Amazingly, years later, a second graveyard would appear on the site of the Old Methodist Burying Ground: Barcade, a bar that better as a cemetery for old arcade games. Next time you’re playing Pacman and drinking a beer, remember that you might be standing over a corpse or two.
Full quote: Steve: You son of a bitch. You moved the cemetery, but you left the bodies, didn’t you? You son of a bitch, you left the bodies and you only moved the head stones. You only moved the head stones. Why? Why?
Idea to ponder: How many, if any, of those trees date back to the cemetery?