On a sprawling, idyllic cluster of rolling hills in an otherwise industrial section of New York City, history’s finest and most notorious have been laid to rest.
Green-Wood Cemetery should have its own ZIP code. Covering nearly 500 acres in the middle of Brooklyn, the land of the dead feels a world away from the skyscrapers of Manhattan, visible in the distance from the hilltops.
Visitors are greeted by a looming gothic gate, the kind used to signify that important residents lie behind its spires. The cemetery is home to 560,000 dead. In past lives, the area served as the location of the Battle of Long Island during the Revolutionary War. Once the first dead were interred in 1838, it became the country’s second biggest tourism attraction thanks to its scenic and fashionable burial grounds. In the 1860s there were more sightseers than entombed residents, as 500,000 visitors flocked there per year.
“They had a different relationship with death than we have now,” says Allison Meier, who leads regular tours of Green-Wood for oddity website and events company Atlas Obscura. “It was much more connected with life. They were less squeamish about spending sunday afternoon in a cemetery—it wasn’t a place you went to just to bury your grandparents.”
It’s no wonder that Victorian-era visitors were taken with Green-Wood. Many thousands of years ago, glacial floods swept through the area and carved out the sloping sides of the current grounds. Today, their legacy is a series of pristine glacial ponds scattered throughout the cemetery. Green-Wood’s natural beauty makes it a scenic day trip for a New Yorker looking for some quiet and a touch of green.
“You have to imagine, it wasn’t just a cemetery,” Meier says. “This was before there was Central Park and before there was the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was a public green space, a place go and have carriage rides and picnics.” At that time, the city’s most famous artists and sculptors were leaving their mark on mausoleums and headstones.
But today, it’s residents are the real draw. A quick who’s-who of Green-Wood’s dead recalls the guest lists of New York City’s most exclusive gatherings, and the most notorious criminals prowling a much darker era’s streets. There’s the music world’s celebrated composer Leonard Bernstein; FAO Schwartz, the saint of children everywhere; and New York Tribune founder Horace Greeley, now eponymous with the prestigious high school.
But Green-Wood is more famous for its nefarious residents, those of the drug-peddling, political-swindling, hit-men variety. In a low-gated section, there’s an entire collection of Tweeds. They’re descendants of William “Boss” Tweed, positioned around the man himself who boasts the tallest grave marker and bears the distinction of entering history as perhaps the most corrupt politician ever to rule the state. Tweed is estimated to have swindled the equivalent of $3.5 billion from New York during his time as a senator.
Not far from Tweed, on a sloping hill, there’s a dollar pinned down by a rock on the gravestone of “Bill the Butcher,” possibly a gift to gangster gods on high. Bill, full name William Poole, was a real life butcher, skilled with knives and raised in the art of street fighting. He finally died in a drawn-out battle with his Irish mobster nemesis, John Morrissey.
His grave was previously unmarked, but Poole’s depiction in Martin Scorsese's blockbuster Gangs of New York, brought his brutality back to infamy, and in response, Green-Wood erected a grave marker. “Good bye boys, I die a true American,” were his last words, according to the headstone.
Despite his formidable name, Poole is far from being the Green-Wood resident with the most blood on his hands. In a tucked-away grave marked with a flat, unassuming stone, Anastasio Umberto bears that distinction.
Umberto, who went by Albert, oversaw mob killings during his reign in the mid-1900s. It’s estimated that he was directly and indirectly responsible for the murders of around 1,000 people. The enforcement gang he controlled was called Murder, Inc., and he was notorious for taking down his bosses with a bullet to move up in rank.
Along with murderers, there are the victims, like Harvey Burdell, a local dentist found strangled and stabbed 15 times in 1857. The main suspect, a woman who ran his boardinghouse named Emma Cunningham, was secretly married to Burdell and claimed to be pregnant with his child. She later attempted to buy a baby when the time game to give birth, but was never charged in his death. Today, she’s buried just a few hundred yards across the cemetery from Burdell with an inscription on her tomb that reads: “May god rest her troubled soul.”
Green-Wood has its own catacombs, which grounds keepers will unlock for tour groups. The long crypt tunnels into a hillside, only visible by a smattering of skylights peeking up between graves. Inside, family names are etched above their designated rooms, the members buried in long, brick slots, like a filing cabinet for bodies.
Green-Woods beauty lies in its excess of postmortem remembrances: around every corner are ornately decorated crypts and mausoleums with huge names carved into marble. There’s John Matthews, AKA the “Soda Fountain King,” responsible for bringing carbonation to the masses. He rests lavishly, depicted in a marble sarcophagus that stares up for eternity at the carved depictions of his life story.
An impressive mausoleum is dedicated to John Anderson, a tobacconist known for pioneering the wily business strategy of hiring only beautiful women sales associates. One of these, Mary Rogers, went missing, only to turn up in the Hudson River in 1841. Anderson was suspected, though never convicted, of being responsible for her sensational death, which is widely thought to have inspired Edgar Allan Poe’s “Mystery of Marie Roget,” making it the first mystery fiction based on a true crime.
Scattered through Green-Wood are remnants of New York City’s lowest days, from the victims of the Park Avenue tunnel crash, which changed subway history forever, to the fading gravestones of the Lexington steamship disaster, a wake up call for ship safety after the accident killed all but four of the 143 passengers. But it also showcases its highest moments, like the inventors and innovators who shaped this metropolis into the city of skyscrapers that’s very much alive and visible from Green-Wood's hills of the dead.
“What’s most interesting to me about cemeteries is they can be these portals to history and connect you better to the New York you know today,” Meier says.