Brooklyn Public Library

Mobile AppDownload our Mobile App

eNewsletterSubscribe to BPL eNews


Mr. Death

Oct 28, 2011 10:03 AM | 0 comments

Now is the time when skeletons walk hand-in-hand with Super Marios and candy-hungry princesses trailed by zombie retinues are as regular a sight as dollar vans barreling down Flatbush. October is for lovers of the weird and morbid, and there is perhaps no better setting for our darker speculations than the bone tenanted grounds of a cemetery. In the course of doing research for a patron I came across the story of a lesser-known Brooklyn cemetery, the long-gone Union Cemetery in the Eastern District. It embodies a timely bit of ghoulish history which should serve our local masqueraders well as a backdrop for any number of scary stories they might wish to share with one another late at night over Snickers and Charleston Chews.

An 1855 map showing Union Cemetery.

In his book, Brooklyn's Eastern District, historian Eugene Armbruster quickly lays out the history of the cemetery: "During the cholera epidemic of 1832 a tract of ten acres was purchased of Mrs. Margaret Duryea by the Grand Street Methodist Church on Grand and Attorney Streets, New York City. The Grand Street Methodist Protestant Church of Williamsburgh became part owner of this cemetery which was opened for burial purposes in 1851. The grounds were bounded by Knickerbocker, Irving and Putnam Avenues and Palmetto Street. One part of the grounds was known as Snake Hollow. The New York congregation sold its share in the tract in 1875 to the Brooklyn Church. The latter sold the plot in 1897, the grounds having been filled. The remains of the bodies were taken out and removed to Cedar Grove Cemetery."

A quick search through the Eagle Online uncovers a slew of stories about the cemetery, most of which, like the one that appears with the above headline, have to do with the exhumation and removal of the dead. Needless to say, with the remains of roughly 30,000 people to identify, transfer, and rehouse in new rough pine and cedar boxes, the project was of a massive scale and drew a great deal of attention. Among the many onlookers that first day the transfer began was an elderly German woman who, with tears in her eyes, inquired of the manager when her husband's grave would be uncovered and whether they could assure her that his remains would all make it to the new plot to be reinterred without incident. The laborers charged with digging out the dead were all Italian and, as the Eagle reported, "worked like beavers" to move the cemetery in the allotted 60 day window. In the coffins they found a number of curiosities: dolls and dishes buried with children, pennies, costly "metallic cases," and in more than one instance, extra bodies.  

In addition to this remarkable story of the raising of the dead, Union Cemetery also often appeared in the pages of the Eagle as the scene of much grief and pain.

This headline comes from a brief story, published in the July 14, 1876 issue of the Eagle, describing the plight of a widow and her five children. Utterly bereft, the woman, Maria Ruhl, had taken her family to her husband's grave to die. A police officer, spotting the wailing children, brought them in to the station where a small sum of money was raised to help the family get back on its feet.  

A similar story, but with a far different ending, appeared just a year later in the Eagle. On September 25, 1877 it was reported that Sebastian Trinkhause, a 70 year old German, had been found hanging by a thick cord from the branch of a willow tree. His son ran a lager saloon at 431 Bushwick Avenue, and his wife, who had died several years earlier, was buried in Union Cemetery.


Also appearing in 1877 was the above headline, which ran at the top of a long list of missing Brooklynites. Among them was Martha Becker, who disappeared on September 3rd of the previous year. Just 21 years old, and listed in the paper as "insane," Ms. Becker had decided to take a walk to Union Cemetery and was never heard from again. Sounds a little bit like the Agatha Cunningham story Ivy wrote about the other day...

And from 1902, this snippet of the patrolman and his skull proves just how hard it was for the dead to stay buried and the cemetery to be, once and for all, gone.

A Belcher Hyde atlas from 1912, showing the plot of land where the cemetery had been.

Another Belcher Hyde atlas, this one from 1920, shows Woodbine Street now running through the old cemetery. That large orange polygon at the corner of Irving and Woodbine is Bushwick High School.

This photo, from 1912, shows the school under construction. Graduating its last class in 2006, Bushwick High School is now closed. Three small high schools currently occupy the building: Bushwick High School for Social Justice, Academy of Urban Planning, and the Academy for Environmental Leadership. Complementing our healthy clippings file on Bushwick High School, we also have a number of photographs of the school and its students, early yearbooks, and issues of the Bushwick Bulletin, the "Oldest High School Newspaper in Brooklyn."  

And in leafing through one of these old school papers, the one pictured above, in fact, I found a piece written by someone named Carmine Forestiere which, when looking back on the area's history, struck me as eerily consonant with the tales of Union Cemetery. The dead don't stay dead, or something like that.

Haunted Brooklyn

Oct 24, 2011 2:36 PM | 1 comment

During this time of year, with darkness falling earlier and earlier every night, with cold winds whispering under collars and up shirtsleeves, with miniature ghouls and goblins trolling the streets and demanding candy sacrifices, a person's mind quite understandably entertains superstitions of ghosts and hauntings.  In a city as aged as New York, it does not take a stretch of the imagination to start seeing ethereal appartitions in the dimmed windows of brownstones, to start hearing centuries-old horse hooves clapping against cobblestones, or to start smelling the decaying rot of ancient burial grounds (or maybe it's just trash pick-up day?). 

A testament to October's inherently spine-tingling nature is that most of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle's ghost stories appear in the tenth month.  For those who thrill to a good ghost story (as I do), the newspaper is a wellspring of macabre tales, with spooks popping up in every neighborhood of the borough.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 14, 1887 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 9, 1895

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 23, 1901

One of my favorites, albeit from the usually happier month of April:

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 20, 1896.

And finally this Long Island ghost, who proved that women can haunt too, in the age of suffragettes.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 3, 1902.

One of the most heavily reported haunted houses was Melrose Hall, which once occupied a sumptuous 20 acres of land on Bedford Avenue, between Winthrop Street and Clarkson Avenue in the Flatbush neighborhood.  The large mansion was a prime setting for a haunting, both for its appearance and its history.  The house was set back from the street at the end of a long lane of trees, and was, according to the Eagle, "the quaintest and queerest old place one could imagine."  The main building was two-and-a-half stories high, with a wing on each end, and "steep roofs slanted in all directions and gables projected here and there in the oddest sort of way." 

Descriptions of the interior cast a more sinister shadow over the property, with "dark corridors, oddly shaped rooms, winding stairways, black holes, mysterious trap doors, and other unprecendented features."  The structure was built in 1749 by an Englishman named Lane, who was banished from his homeland for his wild, carousing habits, which he quickly took up again in his new American home.  After Lane's death, the house was sold to a Colonel William Axtell, a loyalist to the British crown who was himself a "rollicking fellow and a lusty drinker," and was at his frequent parties "noted as a three-bottle man."  Axtell allegedly built secret chambers in the mansion to hide his Tory friends along with dungeons under the house to imprison American patriots during the Revolutionary War. 

Although riddled with dungeons and secret chambers and possessed of a bacchanalian past, Melrose Hall, from its outward appearance, looked every bit the distinguished mansion. 

It was Axtell's residency that produced the ghost which would immortalize the mansion.  The story was popularized by celebrated actress and author Anna Cora Mowatt, who lived in Melrose Hall (and gave the mansion its name) in the mid-1800s.  Upon retiring from the stage Mowatt published a memoir, The Autobiography of an Actress, in 1854, which described her years in the historic Flatbush home and included a story of doomed love that made the mansion, according to the Eagle, home to the "largest assortment of the most grewsome [sic] ghost stories of any house in the state."

From the Eagle, October 13, 1895:

"Colonel Axtell, according to tradition, was the second son of an English nobleman, and he married the daughter of a wealthy British merchant.  His fiancee was accomplished and prepossessing, but unfortunately she had a sister named Alva, with whom the colonel fell in love."  Miserable, Axtell set sail for New York to serve in the American colonies, but little did he know that, "the next ship which sailed for that port from England bore the colonel's beautiful sister-in-law, who, as the story goes, had disguised herself by putting on on men's clothes."

Alva revealed herself to Axtell, who was then living in Melrose Hall.  He had a secret chamber (again with the secret chambers!) built above the ballroom, "fitted up with all the luxury and comfort that money could buy," and hid Alva there.  One of Axtell's slaves was charged with taking care of Alva's needs, but no one else was to know about her presence.  After three years of this unlikely arrangement, Axtell was called away for several weeks.  During his absence, the slave woman died and, accordingly, so did Alva, who starved to death in her gilded cage.  Mowatt heard about the grisly fate of Alva from her neighbors in Flatbush, who "affirmed that a young girl had been purposely starved to death in that chamber and that her ghost wandered at night around the house." 

A grainy photograph of Alva's eternal home, from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 7, 1901.

The Brooklyn Public Library is said to have its own ghost, one not unlike poor Alva of Melrose Hall.  Legend has it that a six-year-old girl, Agatha Ann Cunningham, was visiting the Central Library with her classmates in October of 1977 when she strayed, unnoticed, from the group.  Her absence wasn't discovered until several hours later, and the child was never found.  But employees and patrons alike say they hear mysterious noises coming from the library's basement stacks -- sometimes the soft laughter of a girl at play and other times the nervous sobs of a lost child.  A documentary crew recently visited the library to investigate the rumors of a ghost, and we eagerly anticipate the unveiling of their findings:

Bushwick Avenue: A Preservation Plan. Weds Oct 26 at 6:30 P.M.

Oct 20, 2011 12:56 PM | 0 comments

Students from the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture and Preservation Planning talk about their research uncovering the rich architectural history of Bushwick Avenue, and the preservation plan they produced as a result.

Illustrated talk begins at 7 p.m. Wine and cheese reception precedes the talk at 6:30 p.m. in the Brooklyn Collection Reserve Room, 2nd floor, Central Library, Grand Army Plaza, Brooklyn NY 11238.  Seating is limited to 40 people. Tickets will be handed out at 6:30.


The Philanthropist, His Oil, His Institute, and a Library

Oct 17, 2011 10:15 AM | 0 comments

On October 6, 1887, a humble little advertisement ran in the classifieds column of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

"Applications for enrollment in classes in mechanical and freehand drawing, designing and modeling, will be received on and after October 10.  Class work will begin October 17.  Circulars giving general information furnished on request.  Personal interviews at office of Institute 9 A.M. to 5 P.M. and 7:30 to 9 P.M."

A little over a week later, on October 17, 1887, twelve intrigued students attended the aforementioned drawing class, and thus Pratt Institute was born.

Photograph of Pratt's inaugural faculty, 1887. 

Since then, the Institute, which is now kicking off its 125th anniversary year, has built a reputation as a leading undergraduate art and design school (incidentally, it is also home to a graduate program in library science, with which we are collaborating in the Project CHART grant).  As told in Pratt's 50th anniversary publication, The Story of Pratt Institute, 1887 - 1937, the school wasn't originally conceived as a fine art school, but rather as a center for vocational training.  The art classes supported founder Charles Pratt's belief that "to co-ordinate the hand and eye was fundamental in all expressions of manual skill," and the curriculum evolved from that combination of practicality and artistry. 

Above, Pratt students learn blacksmithing.  Other trades were taught as well, including wood-turning, tinsmithing, carpentry, plumbing, stone-cutting, house- and sign-painting, and bricklaying.

Below, female students gather in the Pratt gymnasium.  While the purpose of this solemnly geometric assembly is unknown, it is certain that Pratt accepted female students from the beginning, often in its domestic arts department, which taught sewing, dressmaking, and millinery.

Much like the libraries that sprouted up all over the country thanks to Andrew Carnegie's steel wealth (and like the university that was founded by glue magnate Peter Cooper), Pratt Institute was funded by Gilded Age industry -- in this case, oil.  Charles Pratt made his fortune in petroleum oil in the second half of the 19th century, establishing the Astral Oil company in Brooklyn's Greenpoint industrial corridor.  The oil works occupied a patch of land on the East River, bounded on the south by North 12th Street and the east by Kent Avenue (known until 1885 as 1st Avenue). 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle advertisement, 1875. 

Eventually becoming a well-known brand of illuminating oil, one of the company's slogans claimed it "will not explode."  That may have been true for the end-product, but danger is inherent at oil refineries, and Pratt's oil works was not without its hazards.

Above, the tremor caused by an explosion at Astral Oil wreaked havoc within a mile-and-a-half radius of the plant in January of 1880.  By the Eagle's estimate, three-quarters of the windows in the vicinity were shattered by the shockwave.  Below, an explosion in December 1884 set the East River aflame.

Pratt's oil business was absorbed by John D. Rockefeller's growing Standard Oil company in 1874, at which point Charles Pratt joined that company's board of directors and installed his son, Charles Millard Pratt, as secretary of Standard Oil.  Finding himself even wealthier than he had been before, Pratt turned toward philanthropic pursuits.  In addition to founding Pratt Institute to train Brooklynites in technical trades and higher arts, Charles Pratt tackled what the Eagle described as "the problem of how to live decently and economically."  As the city's growing population spilled from Manhattan into Brooklyn, overcrowding became a social concern, and a better solution than squalid tenements was sought.  In line with the efforts of other industrialists like London housing benefactor George Peabody, Pratt conceived of a building that would provide attractive, wholesome apartments for working people at an affordable price. 

The Astral Apartments building, occupying the entire block of Franklin Street between India Street and Java Street in Greenpoint, was completed in 1887.  The Eagle fawned over the structure, declaring it, "the most perfect type of an apartment house in the world."  An advertisement from that year promised three- to five-room apartments with hot and cold water, bathrooms, natural light, and ventilation.  Profits from the apartment building, which in 1887 were expected to total $30,000, were promised to support Pratt's other new project, the aforementioned institute.

Below and above right, the Astral Apartments as they look today.

The gifts did not end there. Pratt installed a library in the basement of the Astral in 1889, which the Eagle described as possessing a "an artistic and homelike air, suggestive of the cheer and comfort which may come to a wanderer on a stormy night."  Although membership was initially limited to Astral residents, the library was opened to the general public in 1890.  By 1900, the library boasted a collection of 6,500 volumes. 

The Astral Library in 1901.

The Astral library was eventually incorporated into the Brooklyn Public Library system, in 1901.  In that time, as the city was using some of Andrew Carnegie's promised funding to build more libraries throughout the borough, consolidation of existing libraries became a hot-button issue, one that reflected the various tensions and viewpoints of New York City's recently-consolidated constituents.  The library was offered as a gift to the city, provided a $50 monthly rent for the site was paid to Pratt Institute.  The city's Sinking Fund Commission balked at the steal of a deal and refused the gift in a move one library trustee described as, "indicative of the attitude of Tammany Hall toward libraries... the organization cannot control the appointments to be made in the library force, and, therefore, is not interested in the library system itself."  After much back-and-forth, the Astral branch was approved in the waning days of 1901 -- a year that saw an additional five new libraries established in Brooklyn.  Alongside Greenpoint's Carnegie building, the the Astral branch served the neighborhood until it was closed permanently in late December of 1934.

Charles Pratt did not live to see the controversy of the Astral library, having died of heart failure in May of 1891.  At the time of his death the Eagle praised him as Brooklyn's "wealthiest man and greatest philanthropist," and went on to downplay his fortune in favor of highlighting his generosity.  "A horsehair, imprisoned in a bottle of water, will draw to itself animalculae which will barnacle upon it and make it seem a living thing.  But neither artist, nor poet, nor historian, nor publicist would regard the horsehair as deserving praise, because the animalculae twined about it.  No more is the wealth on which more wealth accretes entitled to distinction."  A bizarre metaphor, to be sure, but perhaps a fitting enough one for a man whose legacy resides more in his gifts to Brooklyn than in his bank account.

From the 16mm Film Collection: the Library, a Family Affair

Oct 6, 2011 11:24 AM | 0 comments

In the webpages of this blog, we have never missed an opportunity to praise the efforts of our mother institution, the Brooklyn Public Library.  Be it by cheering the library's legacy of bookmobile visits to underserved communities, by drawing attention to the efforts of our staff in difficult economic times, or by noting our various initiatives and collaborations with the Multicultural Internship Program, Project CHART, and Brooklyn Connections, we are unfailingly willing to toot our own horn.  Today's post is no exception. 

From the 16mm film collection, we present The Library: a family affair.  This 1952 film (divided into two parts for easier viewing) was made by Brooklyn Public Library in collaboration with the Board of Education.  It takes the viewer on a tour of the library's many services through the story of one "typical" nuclear family, the Greens.  Although the dramatic pacing is on par with that of an afternoon nap, it is a little gem of a film that shows a myriad of now-antiquated library technologies in action.  At the 9:55 minute mark, we are introduced to the Photocharger, a device that was invented by a librarian in the 1940s, and would take a photograph of a patron's card, the book's card, and a numbered and dated transaction slip to track circulation.  Now replaced by our computerized check-out system, the Photocharger was still in use at the library as late as the 1980s.

The Telautograph machine makes its appearance at the 10:07 mark, used in the library setting to remotely call up books from the storage decks.  This analog precursor to the fax machine used telegraphic technology which was, by 1952, rather old hat.  The Eagle made note of the telautograph's invention in 1888:

As a side note, the telautograph's inventor, Elisha Gray, is perhaps most famous for his claim to have beaten Alexander Graham Bell to the invention of the telephone.  The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported on the controversy as it unfolded through the closing years of the 19th century; the newspaper's 1901 obituary of Elisha Gray casts the inventor's life as a tragic story of ingeniousness thwarted by bad luck and dirty business dealings.

Aside from its gee-whiz adoration of 1950s library doohickery, The Library: a Family Affair also represents the creative efforts of local institutions working in collaboration.  The scenes that took place in the Central Library were, of course, filmed on site, and the family's few branch visits were filmed at what appears to be the Carroll Gardens Branch:

The home interiors of the film, where Mr. Green toiled so uselessly over his little wooden boat, were shot at the Brooklyn High School for Homemaking, just down Eastern Parkway from the library, at 901 Classon Avenue (now the site of Clara Barton High School).  At this all-girls school the curriculum was, not surprisingly, centered around the domestic arts -- childcare, cleaning, sewing, food preparation, even upholstering -- with the idea that these skills could be applied in the home or in the workplace. 


At right, students care for toddlers in a "laboratory nursery school" in 1946. 




Below, students learn out to arrange sheets on beds. 

The school was trumpeted, by the Eagle, as the first school of its kind in the world, unique for its laboratory approach to home economics.  The Eagle featured the school in its always interesting "What Women Are Doing" section in March of 1946, remarking that "within the school itself are home units of every size, business offices, a doctor's office, hospital rooms, sewing rooms..." and on and on -- all simulacra of functioning  workplaces designed to prepare students for the real-life scenarios they would encounter once employed.

But I digress.  You are no doubt dying to learn if stodgy old Mr. Green ever swallowed his pride and admitted that the library was a useful institution, and so I present the exciting conclusion to The Library: a Family Affair: