Photo by Alexandra Atiya


A short history of Calvary Cemetery

Calvary Cemetery in Queens has the largest number of interments of any cemetery in the United States. It contains about three million bodies. The first burial occurred in August of 1848. Esther Ennis was buried there, having reportedly “died of a broken heart.”

At that time, Calvary Cemetery was an innovation in New York: until 1847, it was illegal for corporations to sell burial plots not affiliated with town or church graveyards. The dead were buried on town or church property, or on their own farms.

Calvary was accessible by ferryboat from 23rd Street and the East River. It cost an adult seven dollars to be buried there. Burial of children under age seven cost three dollars; children aged seven to fourteen cost five dollars. As development in the East Village expanded, bodies buried in that neighborhood were transferred to Queens. In 1854, ferry service opened by 10th Street and the East River.

The New York Times notes, sometimes with condescension, many incidences of Irish, German, and Italian processions from Manhattan to Queens (See Excerpt 1). As the unconventional cemetery was the receptacle for burials from multiple parishes, it became the center of conflict among clerics who felt it was wrong for bishops and priests to be selling off plots of land in an overfilled burial ground. Parishioners too occasionally complained of poor management (See Excerpt 2). Archbishop Hughes and Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral had purchased the land in 1845 for $16 an acre, and the Archbishop was accused of overcharging and not giving deeds to the individuals who had purchased the land.

Nonetheless, the number of people buried there grew rapidly. During one week in 1854, as a Cholera outbreak pervaded the city, The New York Times reported that “two hundred and twenty-six bodies have been interred in Calvary Cemetery (Roman Catholic) on Long Island since Saturday last.” In this way, the cemetery became an indication of “City Morality of the Week.” In that same year, one Irishman wrote that men were “sleeping four deep in that Calvary Cemetery.” The land received men who died of sunstroke while working outdoors, and men who died in factory fires and accidents.

During the Civil War, the Board of Alderman of New York accepted a gift from St. Patrick’s — “a piece of ground in Calvary Cemetery, to be used for the interment of such Catholic soldiers as may die in the hospitals of this city.” (See Excerpt 3). Members of the Irish Brigade were buried there and in 1865 the city offered $12,000 to erect a civil war monument.

In the early 20th century, influenza and tuberculosis epidemics created a shortage of gravediggers, and people dug graves for their own loved ones.

Now the Cemetery only accepts immediate interments; plots cannot be purchased in advance.

I visited the original Cemetery on a cold, clear Sunday, expecting there to be friends standing beside the graves. I only saw two families, though there was evidence of flowers and gifts. A number of mausoleums encircle the dome of Calvary Church, which holds only Mass on Sundays.

Beyond the church stand a multitude of small, irregular tombstones, which commemorate people who died last year, or well over a century ago. The markers complement the outlines of the skyscrapers in Manhattan and the singular figure of the Citibank building in Queens. Looking in the opposite direction, the Kosciusko Bridge overhangs a series of tall crosses and white statues of the Virgin Mary.

Excerpt 1
New York Daily Times, July 15, 1857

The funeral of Muller, the German, who was killed on Sunday evening during the riot at the corner of Third Street and Avenue A, took place yesterday. It was attended by an immense concourse of people, the majority being Germans.

The post mortem examination of the body deceased, held on Monday, was unsatisfactory. The ball could not be found — its direction could not even be traced. Yesterday, another examination was made, when the ball was found embedded in the neck, showing that it had made an upward passage from the thorax, and that Muller was not shot from a window, as was asserted. The news that the ball was found added fuel to the fire that already burnt bright and vivid enough among the exasperated crowd. Almost each man indicated to his neighbor with his finger, the path which the missile had taken and stirred up afresh whatever embers might have been in need of kindling. There was certainly not lack of excitement in the vicinity of the premises where the corpse of the deceased was exposed, and which was visited from about noon until the time it was removed for interment, by thousands of persons, a strong body of Germans keeping guard at both entrances, to turn back any persons suspected of being a Metropolitan policeman or a reporter. Several parties came nearly being roughly treated, who were suspected of serving under the White Street Commissioners.

Avenue A is principally inhabited by Germans of the lower class. The rag pickers live in the neighborhood. It is the German Five Points. Most of what is Teutonically dirty in person, and equivocal in morals, as far as this City is concerned, may be found there. It is not astonishing, therefore, that the Germans yesterday who followed the body of Muller to the grave, were generally of that class which the respectable portion of their country are disinclined to recognize.

The procession left No. 27 Avenue A, the residence of the deceased, shortly before four o’clock and proceeded up Third-street to the Bowery. At the corner of Third-street they passed the Seventeenth Precinct Station-house of the Metropolitan Police. A policeman, showing his shield and baton, came forward, making himself conspicuous. The procession, which had moved along quietly up to that time, immediately became exasperated, and if the officer had not instantly been withdrawn by some of those within the building, a row could, in all probability, have ensued. As it was, loud cries of indignation were raised, and a disturbance was very imminent.

In the procession, as it moved up the Bowery, there could not have been less than from five to six thous. and persons in rank, before and after the hearse, while on the sidewalk, and walking loosely in the road there must have been four or five thousand more. A band preceded the hearse, playing suitable funereal tunes. After the hearse a banner was borne with these words inscribed, “Opfer der Metropolitan Police,” which being interpreted reads: “The Victim of the Metropolitan Police.” It was almost amusing — it would have been quite amusing, if the occasion had not be so mournful, to hear the people on the sidewalk comment on that German inscription. “What does it mean?” said one. “Well, it just means to h-l with the Black Republican Police,” was the reply. “That’s what I say,” chimed in a third. “Let’s go to Calvary with ’em, Jim, and see if the Police will dare to touch us.”

The police had no design to interfere with them. They proceeded along their chosen route, up Bowery to Stuyvesant-street, and thence to Tenth-street attracting more attention than is usually bestowed on funeral processions, but in nowise provoking interference. At Calvary Cemetery, the corpse was interred with the usual rites of the Catholic Church and the friends of the deceased, with the thousands of sympathizers in his fate, returned to the neighborhood of the fatal riot.

Excerpt 2
To the editor of the New York Daily Times, August 21, 1854

SIR: In June 1851, I buried a sister of mine in Calvary Cemetery, and sometime afterwards I purchased the ground, in my own name, and afterwards erected a headstone there. During last week I learned that another person was buried in the same grave. Immediately I made inquiries, and, on applying to Mr. Hart, I received from him supercilious insolence. He at first absolutely denied the fact. But I had the grave opened and the newly buried coffin removed.

Now, Mr. Editor, I want to know what steps I can take to defend my right to this spot of earth, which has cost me at least $70. I am sure a great many people are treated as I have been.


We think that Mr. Lawler had better apply to an attorney.

Excerpt 3
From The New York Times, December 24, 1862

Soldiers’ Burial-Ground — Yesterday morning Alderman Farley, Chairman of the Committee on National Affairs, accompanied by President Henry, of the Board of Aldermen, and Aldermen Brady, Boole, Reed, Mitchell, Ottiwell and Smith, and Councilman Jones, visited Calvary Cemetery, to view the plot of ground recently accepted by the City as a gift from the Trustees of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, for the interment of Catholic soldiers from this City who fall in the war. It is about fifty feet square, and handsomely situated on a high ground, nearly at the crest of a hill, and overlooks a large portion of the surrounding country. Near by are graves with headstones bearing dates as far back as 1650, at a spot that was used long after, as well as long before, the Revolution, as a family burying-ground, by the early settlers who occupied the farm of 120 acres, now converted into a great cemetery. The appropriateness of such a contiguous position to this spot for the Union soldiers’ resting place was recognized and commended by all the visitors....

Excerpt 4
From New York Daily Times, May 26, 1854

SERIOUS RIOT ON A FERRY BOAT — On Wednesday evening, Edward Brown, Peter Collins, Tim Hannigan, and nine others, all Irishmen were arrested by officers Sampson, Watson, Wallace, and others, on a charge of rioting on board one of the Calvary Cemetery ferry boats. They were returning from a funeral, and having become intoxicated, created a disturbance, during which they beat the hands on the boat severely, took forcible possession of the boat, and mutilated the same in a shameful manner. While the boat was yet in the stream, Lieut. Bennett, who had been notified, dispatched a force of men to the foot of Twenty-third-street, where the boat was to land, and arrested the whole gang as they came ashore. They were taken before Justice Stuart and committed to prison, preparatory to being removed to Astoria for trial, the offence having been committed within the boundaries of Queens County.

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