The Bowery Boys have been busy recently chronicling the Great Fire of 1835, which destroyed much of the area now known as the financial district. Don’t miss their thrilling podcast or the follow-up post from today recounting a tremendous explosion in a munitions warehouse a decade later, a devastating reprise to the blaze.
I’ve long been fascinated by the ways in which the Great Fire’s scars are still visible. Walk down Wall Street, for instance, and almost everything dates from the immediate aftermath: huge Greek Revival structures built of stone — as little wood used in construction as possible, so as never to feed such a fire again. (Bowery Boys borrow the map at the right from CUNY’s Virtual NY entry on the fire.)
I’d taken the devastation sort of personally, too. When I spent a couple summers in the city doing my dissertation research (for the project that would later become my book, Republic of Intellect), I’d take the train downtown after the N-YHS closed and walk distances mentioned in the diaries and letters I was working with. How long did it take to get from Cedar to the Battery? What would a late-eighteenth-century walker in the city have seen? Heard? Smelled?
I also visited cemeteries at Trinity and St. Paul’s, looking for names I knew, or taking in just how many headstones bore the dates of yellow fever outbreaks (1798, 1805, etc.). I was particularly eager to find the burial place of my project’s chief protagonist, a young Connecticut-born physician and poet named Elihu Hubbard Smith, the organizing force in the club I was writing about. Smith had died in the 1798 epidemic, and I’d seen references to him being buried at the Presbyterian Church on Wall Street.
Problem was, there was no Wall Street Presbyterian Church to be found; nor was there any sign of its cemetery. Even though I knew Trinity was Episcopalian rather than Presbyterian, I checked its cemetery’s burial register anyway, just in case, but as expected I had no luck. Dissertating in a pre-Google Books age, I gently set aside the question of where Smith’s body now lay and went on to wrap things up and graduate.
A few years later, and a lot more ephemera on the Internet, I returned briefly to the question of Smith’s burial as I was preparing the book for publication. I learned from some Presbyterian Church websites that the Wall Street Church had been lost in the Great Fire. (You can see it in the fore to the right in this 1824 image; Trinity lurks in the background.) I assumed its graveyard was overbuilt when the church was replaced by whatever stone structure sprung up at number 5 Wall Street. I even tried to correspond with some official church historians to find out if they knew about graves being moved, but with no luck. Would some descendant of Smith’s sisters have dug him up and carted him back to Connecticut? I’d probably never know.
Though I’m long since done with the book on Smith and his circle, The Bowery Boys podcast scratched the itch to know where Smith’s body rests. I tried googling a bunch of related terms, and these days, thanks mostly to Google Books, there’s a lot more online. I gather the cemetery remained on Wall Street until 1844, when according to one book on NYC graveyards, it was “removed” — but to where? Even more intriguing, I found a lead via the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, which apparently has a manuscript blueprint of the Wall Street cemetery. At least I can find out where in the cemetery he would have been. I’ll have to become a member to go access the document, but I should probably be a member anyway, right? (If I had been writing a different sort of history I would probably have become one to complete the book.) By coincidence, the Society is currently having a moving sale, and all the titles from its online store are 50% off the listed price through the end of the month — an appealing offer if slogging through the names of the dead sounds like good times.