What Remains of the Day


Site Administrator
Sep 17, 2002

You may find this interesting if you are into old graves and digging them up. I believe you have to be a member of the NY Times website to view this, so I have added the link to the photo that was with the article. Here is the photo.


Here is the article.


What Remains of the Day

Published: December 13, 2003

Maybe the bones were still there.

Through the years, the historians and preservationists would come to the triangular lot on the corner of Hudson Avenue and Front Street in Vinegar Hill, Brooklyn. They would press their noses to the lot's chain-link fence and stare down at the dirt. They were almost certain that there, just below the surface, lay the forgotten bones of martyrs from the American Revolution. But they could not get at them.

"It was enormously tantalizing," said Otis Pearsall, a retired litigation lawyer who was one of the petitioners asking since 1996 that the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission allow an archaeological dig at the site, which was privately owned.

The historians and preservationists, who had formed an ad-hoc group, were convinced that they would uncover remnants of the Tomb of the Martyrs, an 1808 monument that included an underground crypt. In its cool womb, the crypt held 13 coffins containing the bones of hundreds of patriots from the Revolutionary War who had died on British prison ships in nearby Wallabout Bay.

The coffins were moved with great ceremony in 1873 to a new spot in Fort Greene Park that was later topped by a monumental column designed by McKim, Mead & White. But preservationists like Mr. Pearsall and Joan Geismar, an archaeologist, thought it likely that some human remains had been left behind, as is often the case when burial grounds are disturbed.

"Historically, classically, typically," she explained with rising emphasis, "when bones are removed, something is left behind."

The commission refused permission to dig until October, not long after a developer applied for city permits to build a three-family house on the site. Moving quickly, commission chairman Robert B. Tierney persuaded the developer, Sau Cheung of the Vinegar Hill Group, to delay his building long enough to allow the preservationists to dig for artifacts. At the same time, the preservationists obtained an emergency grant of $2,500 from the J. M. Kaplan Fund, hired a backhoe and began their long-awaited excavation on the morning of Nov. 12.

A dozen people watched as the backhoe's bucket clawed a trench eight feet deep, piling beside it a hillock of sandy soil pocked with bricks, old bottles and other debris. Ms. Geismar was battling a cold and described herself as "hopped up on Sudafed," but she had waited for years for the chance to jump into the trench, which she did at each pause in the digging, to sift through the dirt with her hands.

At one point, she wrenched a large bone from the soil. Sophia Perdikaris, a professor of archaeology from Brooklyn College with a specialty in bone identification, was called over. There was hushed suspense as she squinted at the blackened object. Then she rendered her verdict.

"It's from a pig," she said. "Probably the thigh."

No human bones would be found this time or on another dig on Wednesday. But the group did uncover a 14-foot-long, 20-inch-wide remnant of what they believe to be the monument's original crypt wall. They also found the post holes for a decorative fence that once flanked a wooden antechamber built above the tomb in 1839. Although these are tangible and enticing links to the past, they are almost certainly not enough to preserve the site as a city landmark, Mr. Tierney said.

"That," he said, "is not in the parameters of our agreement with the owner."

But the preservationists still held out hope. Perhaps, at a time when the United States is again at war, there would be great public sensitivity to recognizing and honoring the casualties of battle, and perhaps a public groundswell might even save the site from development.

But their case seems to have rested on finding human remains.

This did not happen, as Ms. Geismar will note in a report she expects to submit to the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the J.M. Kaplan Fund.

At least, Mr. Pearsall said, the preservationists' questions are answered. "I feel a lot of disappointment," he said. "But I also feel relief. Now we don't need to be concerned with the destruction of something that might have been there."

He is not the only one feeling relief. Mr. Cheung's lawyer, Harry Fong, said his client took a calculated risk in agreeing to allow the dig at all. "We were concerned at the beginning because we didn't know the effect on us," he said. "But, ah, thank God we got this issue out of the way." He added that Mr. Cheung expected to begin construction within weeks.

Still, some residents say that building should not be permitted on land originally dedicated, as the monument's cornerstone once read, "to the spirits of the departed free; sacred to that portion of American seamen, soldiers and citizens who perished on board the prison ships of the British."

Nicholas Evans-Cato, an artist with a studio a few doors down from the site on Hudson Avenue, certainly feels that way. "It's a shame that construction is going to be allowed at all," he said. He would rather see the city buy the land and turn it into a memorial park for the martyrs. After all, he said, the past is not as distant as it may seem.

For proof, he referred a reporter to Kenneth Rush Jr., his former high school teacher at Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn Heights. Reading from a genealogy published in 1943, Mr. Rush recounted that a forebear on his mother's side named John Randall left his home in Connecticut in 1776 at age 18, enlisted in the Continental Army, was captured at the Battle of Brooklyn and imprisoned on a British ship in Wallabout Bay.

"Two of his companions died on board, and two others died shortly after their release," he said. "It was a real horror. They basically were put on those ships and left to rot."

Standard histories of the war record that most of the 8,000 to 11,000 people who died on the prison ships, often of starvation and disease, were tossed overboard by the British or buried in shallow graves along the shore at what became the Brooklyn Navy Yard. These were the remains that were collected and interred in the crypt at Vinegar Hill in 1808.

Such facts are of more than passing consequence to Mr. Rush: "Had John Randall ended up in that crypt, I wouldn't be talking to you."

Mr. Tierney said that once a building goes up at the site, he will consider marking it with a plaque that tells of the prison ships and the crypt that once held their victims. That will not be enough for Mr. Evans-Cato, but he will grudgingly support any measure that would raise Brooklyn's buried history above ground.

"Geographically speaking, we're a dead-end neighborhood in New York," he said of Vinegar Hill. "You don't go through it to get anywhere else. It ends at the Con Ed plant, the Navy Yard and the river. But the triangle and the monument make us look at it in a different way. It's not a dead end anymore. It's meaningful."