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Secrets of New York

The ultimate insider's guide to the best-kept secrets of NYC's must-see places and buzzed-about people.

The Gothic Revival arches of Green-Wood Cemetery welcome

The Gothic Revival arches of Green-Wood Cemetery welcome visitors at the main entrance on Fifth Avenue in Greenwood Heights, Brooklyn. (Credit: The Green-Wood Historic Fund)


Secrets of Green-Wood cemetery: Famous residents, Civil War connections, more

500 25th St., Brooklyn, NY 11232

Sprawling across 478 hilly acres in Greenwood Heights, Brooklyn, Green-Wood Cemetery is one of New York’s hidden treasures. Established in 1838, its roster of “residents” reads like a "Who’s Who" of great New Yorkers -- political macher William “Boss” Tweed, composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein and communications pioneer Samuel F.B. Morse are all buried at this National Historic Landmark.

But dig beneath the surface (no pun intended), and you’ll find stories of war, adultery and more. Here’s a look at some of the cemetery’s secrets.

When Green-Wood first opened, most New Yorkers didn't

Credit: Polly Higgins

'A surprise around every bend'

When Green-Wood first opened, most New Yorkers didn't understand what a cemetery was. Back then, people were usually buried in local churchyards.

So when developers began transforming rural Brooklyn farmland into a magnificent park, locals speculated that they were actually searching for hidden gold in one of the area's ponds.

But the land was actually selected for its rolling hills, created by the movements of Ice Age glaciers. In addition to breathtaking views of New York Harbor, the hills were a perfect site for winding paths that promised what the cemetery calls "a surprise around every bend."

Wander these paths and you'll encounter many surprises. You'll probably also get lost -- the paths twist and turn, creating a maze in Brooklyn's orderly grid. So make sure to grab a map at the front entrance at Fifth Avenue and 25th Street.

When you walk up to Green-Wood's main gate,

Credit: Polly Higgins

Live parrot sketch

When you walk up to Green-Wood's main gate, you'll hear an unfamiliar sound: the screeching and squawking of monk parrots. The bright-green birds feast on berries from nearby bushes, and live in an enormous twig nest atop the gate's central spire.

No one knows quite how a Brooklyn cemetery became home to a colony of Argentine birds. One story has it that a shipment of exotic pets was accidentally loosed at Kennedy Airport. But in 2013, the The New York Times reported that pet owners who freed their birds probably bear much of the responsibility.

More than 5,000 Civil War veterans are buried

Credit: Polly Higgins

Soldiering on

More than 5,000 Civil War veterans are buried in Green-Wood. Most of them fought for the Union, but there are some Confederates too.

Among them is Robert Selden Garnett, who once served as commandant of cadets for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. When his wife and infant child died in 1858, Garnett buried them beneath a stately monument at Green-Wood. Three years later, Garnett returned to his home state of Virginia, and became a brigadier general in the Confederate Army.

Garnett died in battle in 1861 and, in 1865, his body was sent north to lie next to his wife and child. Cemetery officials feared that after President Lincoln's assassination, war-weary New Yorkers might vandalize Garnett's grave. So, according to Green-Wood historian Jeff Richman, his final resting place was kept secret until 1959. Today, it features a small stone bearing his name and rank.

At the bottom of a gentle slope is

Credit: Polly Higgins

Every picture tells a story

At the bottom of a gentle slope is one of Green-Wood's most beautiful monuments, which marks the grave of Jane Griffith. (Find it in lot 106, toward the southwest part of the cemetery.) Her husband commissioned sculptor Patrizio Piatti to create a marker that depicts the day of her death. Look closely, and you'll see Jane standing in the doorway of her house, with her husband bidding her goodbye as he leaves for work on Aug. 3, 1857. Richman points out that you can even see the Sixth Avenue horsecar that's about to take him downtown to his job on Wall Street. By the time he got home that evening, his wife had died suddenly of a massive heart attack.

Piatti himself is also buried at Green-Wood -- but his grave is unmarked.

Green-Wood opened before Prospect Park and Central Park,

Credit: Polly Higgins

Picnicking in the graveyard

Green-Wood opened before Prospect Park and Central Park, and it soon became New York's most popular spot for picnics and weekend outings. By the early 1860s, it was attracting 500,000 visitors a year; according to the cemetery's website, Niagara Falls was the only spot in America that drew more tourists.

By this point, Green-Wood had also become the preferred resting place of New York's elite. "It is the ambition of the New Yorker to live upon the Fifth Avenue . . . and to sleep with his fathers in Green-Wood," an article in The New York Times said in 1866.

There are more than 560,000 residents at Green-Wood

Credit: Polly Higgins

Room for more

There are more than 560,000 residents at Green-Wood . . . but the population hasn't stopped growing. You too can be interred there if you like; prices for single graves start at $17,000. Several notable New Yorkers have already bought lots, according to Richman; the group includes authors Paul Auster and Kurt Andersen, as well as former Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz.

African-Americans have always been welcomed in Green-Wood Cemetery.

Credit: Polly Higgins

The last living slave in New York

African-Americans have always been welcomed in Green-Wood Cemetery. In 1847, one of the cemetery's first 2,000 plots was sold to Samuel Cornish, who organized New York's first black Presbyterian Church. And one of Green-Wood's most famous residents is painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, who died in 1988. 

Green-Wood also boasts the grave of Margaret Pine (1778-1857), the last living slave from New York State. New York outlawed slavery during the 1820s, but Pine declined empancipation. According to an 1857 article in the Brooklyn Star newspaper, she told her owner that she'd given him the best years of her life, and now expected him to care for her as long as she lived. The owner agreed, and Pine is buried in a lot (in the cemetery's center, not far from the Twilight Path) that he purchased. Although her name has been weathered away, her memory lives on.

Wander around the cemetery, and you'll find the

Credit: Polly Higgins

Pets are buried at Green-Wood

Wander around the cemetery, and you'll find the occasional headstone for a family pet, including Rex. But only historic pets are allowed.

William Holbrooke Beard (1824-1900) painted some of the

Credit: Brian Levinson

Lions and tigers and . . . well, you know

William Holbrooke Beard (1824-1900) painted some of the weirdest art of the 19th century. Many works depict bears acting like humans. In one, a large group of them dances on two legs as they celebrate a drop in the stock market; in another, a young bear appears to ask his girlfriend's father for her paw in marriage.

Beard was originally buried in an unmarked grave. But a 2003 retrospective of his work led to renewed popularity. A large headstone, topped with this sculpture by Dan Ostermiller, was placed on his grave his later that year.

On Aug. 27, 1776, British and American troops

Credit: Polly Higgins

Minerva and the Woolworth Building

On Aug. 27, 1776, British and American troops faced off for the first time in the Battle of Brooklyn. One of the biggest skirmishes occurred inside Green-Wood, at the highest point in Brooklyn -- a ridge known as Battle Hill. Three hundred American troops seized and then defended the hill, killing or wounding 86 Redcoats in the process. The British won the battle, but the fighting on Battle Hill marked a figurative (and literal) high point for the Americans.

In 1920, history buff George Higgins planned to commemorate the fight by placing a statue of Minerva, the Greek goddess of wisdom, atop the hill. In Higgins's original plan, Minerva's arm would be outstretched as she saluted . . . the Woolworth Building.

At the time, this "cathedral of commerce" was the tallest building of the world, and it symbolized Manhattan's central role in the world economy. Fortunately, someone pointed out that the monument might work better if Minerva saluted a different structure: The Statue of Liberty, which is clearly visible just 3 1/2 miles away.

Higgins agreed, and the connection between the two statues became iconic. When developers wanted to build a condo between the two structures, they had to prove to preservationists that it wouldn't obstruct Minerva's view of Lady Liberty. So, per a 2008 piece in The New York Times, they hoisted a construction worker 40 feet in the air to show that their building wouldn't block the view!

The Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, pastor of Plymouth

Credit: Brian Levinson

The preacher’s girlfriend

The Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, pastor of Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights, inspired thousands with his passionate sermons against slavery. Beecher and his wife are buried at Green-Wood. . . . and so is Beecher's girlfriend.

During the late 1860s, Beecher had a passionate affair with a young female parishioner named Elizabeth Tilton, whose husband sued Beecher for adultery. The husband also dragged her to their family plot at Green-Wood, ripped the wedding ring off her finger, and stomped it into the earth.

When Elizabeth Tilton died in 1897, her name was still tainted by the Beecher scandal. So her grave is marked only by a stone that reads "GRANDMOTHER." Richman used a metal detector to search for the ring, but came up empty-handed.

A craze for art, architecture, and fashion inspired

Credit: Dreamstime

Die like an Egyptian

A craze for art, architecture, and fashion inspired by ancient Egypt spread through Europe and America during the 19th century, and its effects can be seen throughout Green-Wood. The cemetery has pyramids, sphinxes and other statues that would look right at home in the Valley of Kings.

Pointed stone obelisks, which Egyptians used to honor the sun god Ra, became especially popular. In 1896, millionaire John Stemme marked his grave with a 65-foot obelisk, inscribed with hieroglyphics that spell out his name.

Obelisks that appear incomplete or broken-off were used to mark the graves of men who died young, Richman says. The resting place of Alfred Vanderwerken Jr., who died at age 36, puts a unique twist on this idea. Instead of an obelisk, it's a stone tree stump that bears the inscription, "He Loved Nature."


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