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A Grave Tale: Roswell Graves, Jr. and the Cemetery of the Evergreens

By Adrienne Lang

Posted on July 30, 2020

Cedar Knoll, from map 161, Cemetery of Evergreens: [by Robert] Graves, surveyor, Robert Graves, 1860; B A-1860.Fl; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Among other things, Roswell (Robert) Graves, Jr. was a civil engineer, New York City Surveyor, real estate developer, and not-so-honest businessman. In 1849 he was one of six trustees to incorporate the Cemetery of the Evergreens (also known as Evergreens Cemetery) on the Brooklyn Queens border, part of what’s now known as the Queens Cemetery Belt.

Prior to the 19th century, New Yorkers were buried in small cemeteries in churchyards or on private property. But by mid-century, a rapidly growing population and increasing concern over public health following outbreaks of cholera and yellow fever pushed the City to ban burials in Manhattan below 86th Street. As an alternative, the New York State Legislature passed the Rural Cemetery Act in 1847, which allowed for the construction of commercial cemeteries and started the rural cemetery movement. Beautifully landscaped and open to the public, rural cemeteries were intended to be like public parks; resting places for the dead that the living could enjoy, too.

The Cemetery of the Evergreens got off to a rough start, and was plagued with controversy and legal troubles for decades to come. The New York Times reported that the six trustees had purchased the land for the cemetery, then sold it back to themselves in the form of bonds, making a healthy profit. But by 1858, the company’s income was “insufficient to cover expenses” and it was said that bondholders would be lucky to get twenty cents per dollar for their investment. In the same article, Graves was identified as the “principal agent in buying, surveying, and re-selling the lands,” and, it’s implied, the one most to blame for the cemetery’s troubles.

Notable people buried in Evergreens Cemetery include tap-dancing legend Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, censor Anthony Comstock, and one of the first New York tattoo artists, Martin Hildebrandt. Roswell Graves died in 1873 from a combination of bronchitis and “nervous exhaustion.” It seems likely his body was not welcome in the cemetery he helped to found and left in such dire straits; he is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery, instead.

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Sources

Cedar Knoll, from map 161, Cemetery of Evergeens: [by Robert] Graves, surveyor, Robert Graves, 1860; B A-1860.Fl; Brooklyn Historical Society.

“Cemetery of the Evergreens.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle. September 24, 1850.

“The Cemetery of the Evergreens.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle. September 30, 1850. Link.

“The Cemetery of the Evergreens Controversy.” New York Times. Oct 2, 1858. Link.

“The Evergreens Cemetery.” Times Union (Brooklyn, NY.), Oct 7, 1858. Link.

Middleton, Kathleen M. Bayonne Passages (Arcadia Publishing, 1999). Link.

“Roswell Graves” in New York City Department of Records & Information Services; New York City, New York; New York City Death Certificates; 1873. Via Ancestry.com.

Williams, Keith. “Why the Brooklyn-Queens Border is Full of Dead People.” New York Times. April 27, 2014.

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