New York City’s “Second Cemetery”

Standing some for over 200 years, the tombstones of the Second Cemetery at 76 W. 11th between 5th and 6th (closer to 6th) have all but worn down. Their faces display the remnants of words and the small plot is harder to find than it is to pass by, like I have for months on my morning commute.

Second Cemetery Synagogue

Second Cemetery Sign

The Second Cemetery is much smaller than it originally was. Burials began here in 1805, in what was a much larger, square plot extending into what is now the street. It was the cemetery, founded by Portuguese Jews, for those who died by plagues, particularly the dreaded yellow fever of 1798. The Commissioners’ Plan had established the city’s grid in 1811, but not until 1830 was West 11th Street cut through, at that time reducing the cemetery to its present tiny triangle. The disturbed plots were moved further uptown to the Third Cemetery, which is on West 21st Street.

Worn Tombstones

Worn Tombstones

“According to legend, the location of the red-bricked building abutting the cemetery has an unusual history of its own. On the site of that building, there was a Civil war tavern known as the “Grapevine”. Many Union officers went there including many southern spies, and many incognito newspaper reporters.

Of course everyone knew that everyone else was eavesdropping on conversations there, so the tavern became known as the place where many rumors originated. This became the origin of the phrase “heard it through the grapevine”! The newspapers began using this phrase which is in common use now, and later it made Gladys Knight and Marvin Gaye a lot of money.”  Source: Willensky and White’s AIA Guide to New York City

The Little Things Make all the Difference

Flower at the cemetery

If you’re reading this and wondering, well where is the first cemetery? Here you go. The first cemetery of Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue, Shearith Israel, is located at St. James Place just off Chatham Square in Chinatown. This cemetery dates to 1683! The Shearith Israel Jews emigrated from Brazil beginning in the mid-17th Century.

* Most of the information presented in this post was gleaned from the helpful folks at The Foundation for the Advancement of Shepardic Studies and Culture. Other bits I found through forgotten-NY.com, a must-see website that I have an unhealthy obsession with and suggest you visit when you are through scouring the pages of I Spy NYC. They are my inspiration.

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3 thoughts on “New York City’s “Second Cemetery”

  1. Holly says:

    Nice … I have a somewhat-unhealthy obsession with cemeteries, especially crumbling and forgotten ones. This one in Georgetown is particularly lovely: http://www.oakhillcemeterydc.org/gallery.html

  2. Bryan says:

    I read with interest your article on the Second Cemetery and you mention that it was founded by Portuguese Jews. Although I can’t say for certain, I believe that it was likely founded by Jews feeling the inquisition from Spain masquerading as Portuguese. At that time period, Spain did not permit conversos or new christians converts to emigrate to the new world, while Portugal permitted it. Accordingly, many Spanish Jews masqueraded to be Portugese, to escape the inquisition to the Americas. Although I am not sure if it is of interest to you, an interesting book on this subject is “Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean.” It speaks a lot of this topic.

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