A Desolate Burial Spot: "Old Quarantine Burying-ground." 1882

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On the southern shore of Staten Island, at what is known as Seguine Point, there rises from the beach a small stone sea wall which extends for little more than a dozen rods. This protects from the inundating waters a small plot of ground surrounded by an unpainted picket fence.

Inside this enclosure little straggling boards mark some hundreds of low turf-covered mounds. Here lie the ashes of those unfortunates who have fallen victims to contagious diseases after reaching this port. The little plot of land is called the "Old Quarantine Burying-ground." But it seems that even in this secluded corner, where the unfruitful fields of southern Staten Island slope slowly down to the water's edge, the unknown dead are grudged their neglected graves. The people who live in the neighborhood have for many years strenuously objected to having the ground put to this use, and have made strong and even unlawful endeavors toward the removal from this spot of the remains deposited there. But the agitation of this subject, although often revived, soon dies out again, and it seems as though these few neglected bones would be allowed to quietly crumble on where they were originally buried.

One afternoon recently a reporter of The Times picked his way along the red, muddy road that leads from Prince's Bay Station down to the water. After walking for quite a distance around some marshy land close tot he beach, the old burying-ground was reached. In the centre of this plot stand a few gnarled, misshaped trees with withered branches. Around these is a miniature forest of tall, leafless brush-wood. No care has been taken in the laying out of the graves, so that the streets and avenues in this little city of the dead are winding and crooked. The small white-painted boards that mark the graves are all numbered, but only a very small proportion are lettered. There is but one marble slab in the whole burying-ground. This indicates the spot where the remains of Hypolite Reybaud were interred. The inscription on this marble tablet is "died August 16, 188o." At the other end of the same grave is the board originally placed there, and which was numbered 280. No. 262 has marked in pencil below the figures the inscription, "James Wharton, died June 19, 1880." This grave is covered with sea shells, and is the only one that bears marks of having been recently decorated. On one of the boards is marked "242. James Reilly." R.T. Pinkham was interred at 232 and Roigry Riba at No. 247. Mrs. M.A. Ferrer was buried at No. 248.

Few of the other boards bear any inscription beyond the mere number of the grave. The highest number is 269. No. 94has been split in halves, which have fallen apart, and No. 142 appears to have been on fire at some time. Several of the boards have become decayed and have fallen, and many are missing. Over one of the mounds is a bush on which are clusters of blood-red berries, and a portion of the thicket has grown up over some of the unmarked graves. A tall, slender sprig of green rises from one of these unkempt hillocks, and contrasts strongly with the dull, sickly looking brush around it. The rotten wood of a small decayed tree lies among the graves where it appears to have recently fallen. Nearly all of the graves have been dug on the southern side of the burying-ground, toward the shore end of which lie the turf-covered foundations of a building which was burned down years ago. Near this is an open cistern half filled with stagnant water. No attempt seems to have been made recently to clear up the little plot.

The low lands of Staten Island to the westward look almost like a barren and inhospitable waste. The beach is coarse and covered with stones. Here and there are pieces of refuse that have been cast up by the flood tide. The surf has become partially discolored by red dirt, and in that condition its appearance is far from attractive. But a scene of beauty presents itself tot he eastward. Numerous craft at anchor or in motion, with the sunlight striking a slant upon the white sails, stud the broad expansive sheet of water which extends out of sight to where it unites with the ocean. Fishermen can be seen at work in their boats and along the shore at some distance to the southward. Across the bay the Highlands of Navesink rise out of the water, and seem to guard the approach from the ocean. The broad, bright sheet of rippling water, skirted by rising grounds and dotted by snow-white patches of canvas, presents a strange contrast tot he low, flat lands that extend tot he westward as far as the eye can reach, and the monotony of which is rarely relieved by buildings or trees. With this gloomy outlook to landward and with the bright visions which lie to seaward, the little plot remains at all seasons of the year, wrapped in its own solitude. No garlands are strewn here and the perfume of lowers never sweetens the air. The buried dead in this ground have no mourning visitors like those who repose in the humblest cemeteries elsewhere. Even the grave-digger avoids the place when his work is not required there, and the body-snatchers hold aloof from the spot in wholesome awe. In stormy weather the loud surf dashes against the sea wall and drives salt spray over the neglected mounds, while the misshapen trees creak and tremble before the blast, In storm the roar and in calm the ripple of the moving waters near at hand are heard there.

Not far from the burying-ground the reporter found an intelligent young colored man at work repairing a row-boat. He said he had passed the greater part of his life in this part of Staten Island. "They've been burying people that die on ships in that ground ever since I can remember," he remarked. "A while ago there was a lot of talk among the neighbors here of having that burying-ground taken away from there. Folks mostly don't like it. I suppose it's because the people they bury here from the ships died of yellow fever and such as that. But there ain't been no talk of taking it away of late, and I guess it will be kept where it is. Every now and then the folks get a fit for having the bones carted off, and then the first thing you know the thing is all dropped. I don't see as that graveyard can hurt us around here much. The graves is ready dug when the bodies come ashore, and they just throw them in and cover them right up, so the disease don't get any chance to start here. That yard ain't half so much a nuisance as that factory along the shore there where the dirty smoke comes out and makes the air so it ain't fit to breathe. I've never been in that factory myself, but I've got white friends who tell me about it. Lots of gentlemen come down around here in the Summer to fish. The fishing is good, but the swamps just turn out the mosquitoes. There's millions of them, and they're always hungry. We sometimes wish we was them yeller fever chaps that's got a foot or so of ground 'twist them and the mosquitoes. It's frightful cold down here in Winter, specially when the wind blows from on the water. I once see them bury a poor chap in that ground. They just hurried his coffin off off a tug-boat and dumped it into the grave. They didn't have no prayers, but they just covered him up with dirt and left. Some Summers they only bury six or seven there, but other Summers they do a good deal more planting in that ground. Sometimes when it comes Winter the friends of some one get out a permit and have the body removed."

A number of years ago, when the plot was first selected for this purpose, a hospital building was built on it and a small dock ran out from the sea wall. From the first the people of the neighborhood have objected to this burying-ground. Some 15 years ago they became greatly incensed against the quarantine authorities. One evening a prominent citizen of the vicinity was seen stealing away from the enclosure. In a few moments the hospital building was in flames. The neighbors were called out to extinguish the fire. Some of these people were known to have thrown oil instead of water on the flames. The building and the dock were both burned, and the prominent citizen mentioned was arrested. The authorities feared that he would be acquitted if the trial was held before a Staten Island jury, and they arranged for his being tried in some other county. He was being taken down to the ferry-boat when he was brought back on a writ of habeas corpus. He finally escaped punishment. Neither the hospital building nor the dock have been rebuilt.

Every year just before the Legislature meets the subject of the removal of this burying-ground is agitated, but after a while the matter is dropped only to be taken up the following year. Once a tug-boat Captain took a body from the West-bank Hospital to Seguine Point and was burying it when a party of neighbors approached with guns and dogs and he was obliged to take to a tree. He finally escaped without injury, but he refused to bury another body there. Sometimes the good people threaten to dig up the graves and remove the bones, but this mood leaves them before any steps have been taken. Many of the more conservative citizens have no strong objections to this burying-ground, as there is little danger of disease being spread from the bodies buried there. In 1875 the Legislature passed a bill in which it was provided that the Quarantine Commissioners should remove these remains from Seguine Point.

They were directed to sell at auction the grounds, and with the proceeds to purchase other grounds to which the remains which were then at Seguine Point should be removed. But the bill explicitly stated that these new grounds should not be within-in the Counties of Kings, Queens, or Suffolk. As it would not do to procure a site in the County of New York, and as the citizens of New Jersey might object to having placed on their soil a cemetery for the interment of persons who had died of contagious diseases within the limits of another State, the Commissioners had no alternative but to remove the graves to some other portion of Richmond County. But the people of any other vicinity would have objected to a cemetery of that nature as strenuously as did those residing near Seguine Point. It would certainly have been criminal to have thrown the infected bodies into the Bay. Had the citizens of Richmond County obtained an injunction against the landing within its limits of such bodies, the Commissioners would have been forced to erect a cremation furnace somewhere near the West-bank Hospital. But the latter were quite willing to let bad enough alone, and since the passage of the bill in 1875 they have made no particular efforts toward carrying into effect the clause which provided for the removal of the old Quarantine burying-ground.


Website: The History Box.com
Article Name: A Desolate Burial Spot:"Old Quarantine Burying-ground." 1882
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


 New York Times Jan. 3, 1882. p.3 (1 page)
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