A sign to the Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens gravesite.
History — iconic and strange, ancient and foreboding — rests quietly all across New York State. In a land rich with legendary artists, comedians, politicians and activists, one can only imagine the centuries’ worth of spirited personalities lying below the surface. Armed with Chuck D’Imperio’s “Great Graves of Upstate New York” (available below), and our own “underground” research during our statewide travels, Team NYSOM uncovered (though not quite literally) some of the spookiest stories and remarkable figures buried in each of New York’s regions.
Adirondacks: Abolitionist John Brown’s life ended shortly after his Oct. 16, 1859 attempt to pillage the U.S. Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry. Brown’s planned to use the weapons in an extensive campaign to liberate Southern slaves, but was captured only two days after the armory assault. Imprisoned and tried by the Commonwealth of Virginia, Brown was executed by hanging that December. The song “John Brown’s Body,” originally written in honor of a Scotsman in the Massachusetts Volunteer Militia who shared the same moniker, caught on with other military units, and is now associated with John Brown, the abolitionist. At the John Brown Farm historic site, Brown’s body lies “a-mouldering in the dust.”
Capital-Saratoga: “Erastus Corning” is a prominent name in the city of Albany. Erastus Corning not only founded and led the New York Central Railroad, but also served as Albany’s Mayor from 1834 until 1837. He is interred in Albany Rural Cemetery, as is his grandson, Erastus Corning II. The latter Erastus garnered his own prestige as Albany’s longest serving mayor; his 40-year tenure ceased only upon his death in 1983. (And we give Bloomberg a hard time…).
Catskills: It’s only appropriate that Hudson River School Founder, Thomas Cole, is buried in the Catskill Village Cemetery, surrounded by natural beauty and vast landscapes, not far from the Hudson River itself. Pay homage to the artist with a trip along the Hudson River Art Trail and end with a stop at his gravesite. The Thomas Cole National Historic Site is an excellent tool for planning a visit.
Central New York: One notable cemetery in Central New York is the Hamilton College Cemetery, a quiet refuge tucked just behind the College’s theater. In honor of Hamilton’s bicentennial anniversary in 2012, professor Maurice Isserman’s 200 Years: A Bicentennial History of Hamilton College inspired bicentennial walking tours, including a stroll through the college cemetery. “The most famous person buried in the cemetery is Elihu Root,” says Isserman, “whose father (and later whose brother) taught mathematics at Hamilton for many decades.” Root, who graduated from Hamilton in 1864, is one of Hamilton’s most esteemed alumni. He went on to become the U.S. Secretary of War and Secretary of State, 1912 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and later, a U.S. Senator from New York. Buried alongside Root in the Hamilton Cemetery is Samuel Kirkland, founder of the Hamilton-Oneida Academy (which later became Hamilton College) and Skenandoa, a chief of the Oneida nation.
Chautauqua-Allegany: Don’t be fooled by trick gravestones in Hollywood. We have it on good authority that after being buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Hollywood Hills, Lucille Ball’s remains were exhumed and relocated to her hometown of Jamestown, at her children’s behest. Jamestown is the perfect final resting place for Lucy, as the city devotes much energy and attention to preserving the Queen of Comedy’s memory. So who’s laughing now, Hollywood?
Finger Lakes: Harriet Tubman, a former slave, abolitionist and crusader of the Underground Railroad, successfully made 19 trips into the South and escorted more than 300 slaves to freedom without ever losing a single “passenger.” In the Antebellum period, Tubman settled in Auburn, New York . She remained there until her death in 1913, and is buried at the town’s Fort Hill Cemetery.
Hudson Valley: George Clinton, the first governor of New York State, served in office for 21 years, longer than any chief executive in the State’s history. Later, he was the first elected Vice President for both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the only VP in history to hold this office under two different Presidents. Better known as the “Father of New York State,” Clinton now rests at the Old Dutch Churchyard in Kingston (preceding Albany at that time as the State’s capital.
Long Island: East Hampton’s Green River Cemetery includes many eminent 20th century poets, artists and glitterati (we would expect nothing less of the Hamptons). Most famous among the erstwhile cognoscenti are Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, whose gravestones lie next to each other despite the couple’s estranged relationship. Following Pollock’s fatal 1956 car crash, the cemetery became a popular final resting place for many other artists and writers; we like to imagine the impossible conversations taking place among them.
NYC: Thanks to the subway, there’s already too much happening underground in this city. With that in mind, we’ve highlighted five special graves, one in each borough, beginning with the Marble Cemetery in Manhattan’s East Village. The longtime residence of a NYSOM team member, we mean it with love (and insider knowledge) when we say that the East Village neighborhood knows how to keep things weird. The remains of a member of one of New York’s most distinguished family trees — which included Hamilton Fish (sometimes known as “Ham Fish”), who served as a New York Governor, U.S. Senator and eventual Secretary of State — can be found in the Marble Cemetery. His particular name? “Preserved Fish.” Truth is stranger than fiction.
Machpelah Cemetery, just off the Jackie Robinson Parkway, and part of the Queens Cemetery Belt, is rumored to be one of the eeriest cemeteries in the state. Henry Houdini rests amid the rundown and deserted land, just steps away from the abandoned cemetery office. Could his actual gravesite be deserted as well? We cannot be certain as to whether or not the infamous escapologist’s talents extended beyond his own lifetime.
Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, a National Historic Landmark, may be the city’s most elites-per-capita burial site. New York Times writer Seth Kugel encourages us to consider that the most modest graves are simultaneously the most beautiful, and represent some illustrious personalities. Miles Davis, whose headstone is etched with a trumpet and the musical notes from his piece “Solar,” rests across the road from Duke Ellington. How harmonious is that?
Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, another National Historic Landmark, might land a close second in New York’s celebrity cemetery rankings, but the interred Jean-Michel Basquiat rarely falls from first place in any art auction, even posthumously. Though his life ended tragically at the age of 27, the artist’s works are known to set sales records at auction.
Fear not, Martin Scorsese is still alive and well (with, not unpredictably, several projects in the making), but his future burial site is slated for the Scorsese family mausoleum in Staten Island’s Moravian Cemetery. It’s a fittingly gorgeous final resting place for a man whose aesthetic sense is vibrantly conveyed in each of his legendary films.
Southern Tier: A visit to Elmira would not be complete without a “Trolley into Twain Country” tour. The ride marries the history of Elmira with the life of Samuel Clemens (best known by his nom de plume, Mark Twain), and ends with a visit to his gravesite in Woodlawn Cemetery. His headstone is often littered with gifts from visitors who flock to pay their respects to one of America’s most treasured writers of all time. “Explore, dream, discover,” and be on the lookout for offerings of cigars to feed Twain’s seven-a-day habit, which persists (apparently) even in the afterlife.
Thousand Islands-Seaway: A new aspect of Fort Haldimand, on Carleton Island, was recently unearthed: it houses a massive Indian burial ground. Carleton Island was a crucial post during the Revolutionary War, so it’s no surprise that this site sits in such close proximity to the garrison cemetery. When the graveyard opened in 1860, the skeleton of a tribal chief was found wrapped in buffalo hide and birch-bark.
Western New York: Former President Millard Fillmore is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo. Is it a coincidence that the 13th President (spooky!) of the United States was also the last member of the Whig Party to hold office as President? Rest in Peace, Millard. Party’s over.