Santaria At Old Trinity Cemetery

Last week, I was scouting the Church of the Intercession in Washington Heights…


…and after, I took a quick swing through Old Trinity Cemetery to see if I could find anything…weird.


As I’ve written about before, a lot of locals in the area practice Santeria, a religion combining elements of Roman Catholicism, African beliefs, and Native American tradition.

Walking around Old Trinity Cemetery, you can often find evidence of Santeria in the form of sacrifice: everything from eggs and jars buried in the earth, to liquor bottles and dollar bills left on graves, to entire dead chickens and cows rotting on crypts, all left in exchange for good favors from the great beyond.


On my trip through this time though, I didn’t find anything – maybe the cemetery caretakers had done a recent sweep? Disappointed, I took a final walk onto the Edgar vault (pictured above and below), one of my favorites for its four small roof windows that let in sunlight.

Strangely, there was a pile of brush covering it that felt somehow unnatural, like it had been purposefully arranged there.


And that’s when I noticed something…


…Was that a rope tied to the cement frame?


I did my best to take a picture inside the vault. The rope appeared to go all the way to the ground, where it was tied to what looked like a gold…something? It was hard to tell.


So leave it alone and go on my way curse-free, or yank it up and risk the ire of local spirits? Quite the conundrum. While I don’t believe in this sort of thing, standing alone in a decaying cemetery on an overcast afternoon debating whether or not to interfere with ritual sacrifice certainly fires the imagination.

Ultimately, in true bad horror movie fashion, I started pulling up the rope. Whatever was at the end of it kept wobbling around, as if it were filled with liquid (perhaps a liquor bottle?). And the rope kept coming. Just as I was about 6 feet in, I noticed a thumb tack stuck carefully through the rope – I’d love to know the significance of this.


And then, just when the rope seemed to be endlessly long, a gold-foil wrapped something came through – perhaps a bottle, perhaps an animal part…


But more importantly, what the hell was on it??


Seriously, what is this?? It appeared to be a red and black lizard looking quite annoyed at having been disrupted from its graveyard slumber. I checked a list of New York’s most common lizards, and none seem to resemble it.


I carefully lowered the gold object back into the crypt, then headed to my car for some soul-cleansing Purell. Nice to see that the strange and esoteric traditions of Santeria continue at Old Trinity Church…but can anyone identify that lizard? Or should I just assume I had a chance encounter with Satan’s Familiar?


Update! Thanks to readers, looks like that evil hell spawn might actually just be a common New York salamander. Check the comments for more info!

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  1. That’s no lizard, that’s a Salamander (an amphibian)! This site ( suggests that it might most likely be a Northern Redback Salamander.

    Keep up the great scouting, I really do enjoy reading and learning more about the city through ScoutingNY!

  2. Suddenly I heard a rustling of leaves behind me.
    I looked around and there was nothing.
    Again I heard it. On my left. Nothing.
    From the right. Nothing.
    It was then that I realized the sound was coming from below.
    Down it the hole a faint sound. A stirring.
    It was building. It seemed to grow louder.
    I leaned over the hole amnd peered in.
    In a flash . . . .

  3. yes, this is definitely a salamander…they are actually pretty common…used to catch them as kids 🙂

  4. I think you were probably wise to leave the bottle undisturbed!

    I really love Trinity Cemetery–especially Audubon’s cross:

  5. It’s best never to disturb things like that. The thumb tack probably symbolises the wish or hope of the person who put it there.People use knots also. I never heard of Santeria. It sounds very intriguing.

  6. Nick,
    Have you ever thought about giving a walking tour to help raise funds? I have dropped 30-50 bucks without blinking an eye for tours around the city. I know it’s the wrong season, but I just found your blog and I love it! Loooove. It’s my new favorite thing. I will be reading daily! Tours. Walking Tours. For locals, or people new to the city. Also, I would love to be your assistant, though I just got a new fancy job!

  7. Ünnecessary Ümlaut

    That looks like a gold-foil Chipotle burrito,
    Which would be the question: offering or sacrifice?

    Great stuff as always. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Scout, you really have a list of New York’s most common lizards? I myself, during my time in Australia, scoured the library in the reptile section to understand the difference between skinks and common lizards… not to mention Gila Monsters, and all manner of frightful snakes. And if I were a red or black lizard, I as well would be disturbed to have been awakened from my graveyard slumber. But let’s not digress, you have a film to produce… All give generously to the cause, why don’t you, because Scout deserves it and the world could use it.

  9. I concur with the masses: it’s a Redback salamander. Very common, and may or may not be in league with Satan, depending on the individual animal’s proclivities and the time of year.

    And wow! What a cool post. There is a whole tradition (not specifically Santeria) of cord or rope magic, involving knots and sometimes feathers or beads passed through the cord. Spells are recited while creating the knot, which then holds the power of the spell. That’s an impressive knot at the top.

    Also, traditions involving eggs also exist in Mexican folk tradition. Years ago, when my baby wouldn’t sleep, a Mexican friend waved an egg over the crib, then place it below the area of the crib where his head lay. The egg would, she assured me, absorb any bad thoughts so that he could sleep. Sadly, it didn’t work.

    Let us know how your luck runs in the coming weeks, and here’s wishing you good juju.

  10. Whenever I face such a conundrum, I employ the help of an unwitting accomplice. Usually a maintenance person or the likes and have them open the item. So, I beg you, please find a maintenance person, slip them a $20 and have them open the dang foil!!! Also, I’d bet the thumbtack was to discourage just such behavior!

  11. NYC doesn’t have any common lizards, but we certainly have salamanders. This time of year they are tucking themselves in (presumably) out of the way places to make it through winter.

    The uncommon lizard here is the Italian Wall lizard, introduced on Long Island in the late 1960s. I’ve seen them in Queens, and photos of them being fed to baby kestrels in Manhattan. Staten Island has a small population of another introduced species, Northern Fence lizards, released by the local zoo. For details about these and other reptiles in the region, check out

    I’ve run across sacrificed squirrels and coconuts in Trinity.

  12. If you went that far you shouldve opened the gold thing.

  13. You should totally do a walking tour. I’d definitely go!

  14. Perhaps it had nothing to do with the dead. Perhaps you stumbled across a smugglers exchange point that was carefully hidden amongst the brush(sounding rather Famous Five-ish, isn’t it). The thumb tack is a rudimentary booby-trap laced with poison… the package: a Maltese falcon.

  15. Scout, be afraid, be VERY afraid!

  16. Besides seeing the remains of Santeria rituals on gravestones at Trinity Cemetery, I have seen live chickens roaming the grounds, no doubt escapees of a failed ritual. Red tailed hawks also live in the vicinity, and one very memorable visit I witnessed a hawk catch a chicken and proceed to eat it for lunch.
    Not that this should put off anyone’s plans to make a visit. It’s a beautiful unique place and is sadly unknown to most New Yorkers.

  17. Sometimes it is best to leave well enough alone. If someone went to the trouble of hiding this they obviously wanted it to remain a secret. You know what happened to that famous curious cat.
    I am, however, equally guilty because I read this article to the end.

  18. As a former summer employee at Trinity Cemetery I too can attest to the prepondernace of “sacrifices” left throughout the cemetery. As an employee they didn’t raise the spooky level as much as anger. Have you ever smelled a chicken having been in the summer son for a weekend? Brutal. we would have to sweep the cemetery every Monday morning to round up everything left behind by the weekend worshippers. and don’t get me started on the mess of coconuts, bottles, crack vials and other debris left on the grass across the street from the church

  19. It’s a wonderful location. I’d shot a portion of my mystery/supernatural web series, The Third, there last year. And the list of people buried there are noteworthy.

  20. Intercession is in Hamilton Heights, not Washington Heights, a distinct neighborhood. Along the river it goes like this: Upper West Side, Morningside, Manhattanville, Hamilton Heights, Washington Heights, Inwood, and some might throw in Hudson Heights.

    Anyway… wonderful site. The interior of Intercession is magnificently timbered but requires some persistence to get in on non-Mass/service days,but well worth the effort; and the small cloister on the north side, which is often open, is a trip.

    The cemetery is loaded with famous people. Audubon, assorted Astors, Greta Garbo’s lover, one of the Ronettes, Ralph Ellison, Jerry Orbach, Eliza Jumel and Clement Clarke Moore. Ed Koch has a plot ready and awaiting him.

  21. I live north of there of that area it’s more likely people are doing a good deal of 21 Divisions, which is basically Dominican Voodoo… though I’m sure there are a whole lot of other carribean spiritual practices going down as well, not that I would know 😉

    Def best not to disturb anything left in a graveyard, as you can think of things left there as being spiritually toxic, whether or not you believe in such things is inconsequential to whether or not touching or displacing such a thing will effect you, which could lead to either something minor like a few weeks of bad luck, or something major, like a spirit or ‘energy’ following you around, f-ing up your life (health/wealth/love/mental stability etc). Better safe than sorry. Also, if you are ever looking for a consultant on occult matters for films (whether there is a jinx/brujeria effecting a production or actor etc, or if more realistic set props and/or set-ups are required etc) email me at the address provided. I’m pretty well versed in a general sense in such matters in terms of info, and I can put you into contact with people with particular specialties, especially of the carribean variety, regarding more complicated matters.

    • My ex husband who openly practises Santeria has been visiting cemeteries where he knows no one that is buried there. He has told my mum that he wishes bad things to happen to me. Can I even mention this to my solicitor

  22. My friend showed me a picture of a jar, a common pickle jar filled with red liquid and what appeared to be stitches in something, found in an old Catholic mostly Hispanic Cemetery. It was found buried in a grave belonging to her Father. After reporting it to the caretaker, a search of the graveyard found twenty of the jars hidden in around the Cemetery. Is this a practice of Santeria? Does anyone know what the jars mean or were intended for? Just curious.

  23. Carolin Duplessis

    I went to my Family Reuion in Gonzales Louisiana while I was there for the weekend I went to Cemterty to visit the Greaves of Family members the buried in Donaldsonville . What was so very strange was there a object wrapped in Foil on top of there the Greaves and what my Family member where the only one that have this Foil square object on top their Graves .and so asked a Couisin what would be the reason for someone to place some thing like that on their Greaves . Her said to me that she did not know I asked her because grew up their . I try to do some reasuch on my own I can ‘t seem to fund any information about this . So if you have any information about this . I would be very glad to here from you . Desperately seeking an andwers actually i’am a little afraid .