Jeremiah Field and The Headstone That Was Not Lost

by Paula S. Lemire

March 2015

During much of the 18th-century, the deceased of Albany's Dutch Reformed Church were laid to rest in a graveyard just off South Pearl Street between Beaver and Greene Street.  As with the previous Dutch Reformed burial ground surrounding the original church at Broadway and State Street, this graveyard quickly became overcrowded.  Rather than open a new burial ground, new layers were created over the old graves.  Six feet of soil would be spread over the graves and new graves would be opened in that layer, a process that was repeated about three times so that bodies were stacked three to four deep in places. 

After the establishment of the municipal cemeteries, first on Eagle Street and later at the State Street Burying Grounds, interments in the old graveyard ended.  The lots assigned to the Dutch Reformed Church were among the largest at the State Street Burying Grounds.  When the Second (Middle) Church was constructed on the old site in 1806, most of the remaining graves were left in place.  The old headstones were laid flat over the graves and yet another layer of earth spread on top.  Remains interred in the vault of the original church on Broadway were moved to a vault beneath the new church. 

Most of the site of the Dutch Reformed graveyard and Middle Dutch Church is now occupied by a large parking garage built in 1980s for KeyCorp.  During the early stages of the garage construction, a number of remains were discovered there by archaeologists.  Such discoveries on the site, however, were not modern occurrences.  Past construction work along this stretch of Beaver Street below South Pearl Street regularly turned up remains, as these two articles from 1888 illustrate rather graphically.

"Three skulls and a number of thigh bones, ribs and other of the smaller bones of human skeletons were unearthed Tuesday afternoon in front of the old Jackson corps armory on Beaver street. Together with the space in front of the old armory building and the old public market building site, the [illegible] between Beaver street and the old Dutch church was used as a burial ground by the congregation of that church many years ago. The Dutch church on Beaver street was built in 1805, when the tombstones and the remains of members of the congregation who had been buried in the original Dutch church burying plat at the intersection of State street and Broadway, were taken up and re-interred at the Beaver street house of worship."

from Ancient Albanians, The Albany Journal, Tuesday, July 31, 1888

"The four human skeletons that were unearthed today on the site of the old Dutch church burying ground on Beaver street were placed in a sugar barrel. The barrel was about half fill when the last skull was dropped in. The bones were found about 8 ½ feet below the surface, after the three feet of filled-in earth had been removed. The skulls of the four skeletons were towards the west. They were laid out very regularly, the back bones of the arms and legs being held as if in a mould in the grasp of the light loam soil. Under two of the skeletons evidence of the cedar bottom of a coffin was found. There was nothing left, however, of the sides or top of the coffin. The decayed bits of wood were so very small and decayed that even if there had been a cover and sides to the casket, the shovels and picks of the Italian workmen would have scattered them before the bones of the dead were reached."

from The Crumbling Remains of Burghers Exposed, The Albany Evening Journal, Thursday, August 2, 1888

Among the graves known to have been uncovered during earlier excavations here in 1836 were those of Johannes Abeel, Albany's second mayor who died in 1711*, and one Jeremiah Field who died in 1762.  These two graves were discovered, according to Joel Munsell who compiled his multi-volume Annals of Albany from newspapers and other records, on May 19, 1836.  Munsell reports in Volume 10:

"In digging to make improvements in the north area of the Second Dutch church on Beaver street, a number of grave stones were thrown out, among which were the two following, the first being that of the second mayor of the city....

Munsell also included the inscriptions on two of the gravestones:

Here lies the body of John Abeel who departed this life ye 28 day of Jan'y, 1711, and in the 44 year of his age.
Dient begin van wel te leven
Uyt den Hemel was gegeven
Gingh der weer den Hemel waert
Storf maer verliet de aert.

"Here lies the body of Jeremiah Field, deceased Oct. 16, 1762, aged 32 years."

Munsell's statement that a number of gravestones "were thrown out" during this 1836 excavation has long been accepted to mean that the stones were discarded as rubbish. 

This was not the case

Munsell was stating that the stones were simply pulled up from the trench in the course of the work and not that they "thrown out" as rubbish.

The 1836 remains, according to the first newspaper article linked above, were reburied:

When the old public market was built a few years ago, many skeletons and tombstones were unearthed. A large quantity of those bones were collected and deposited in a hole east of the parsonage and lecture room, which was later the Jackson corps armory building.

The headstones discovered in 1836 must have also reburied, not discarded, since one of them that was found fifty years later.

The Middle Dutch Church ceased to be used as a house of worship in 1881 and the building became part of the J.B. Lyons printing company.  It was destroyed by a fire ten years later.  The remains in its vault had been moved to a vault beneath the Reformed Church at the northeast corner of Madison Avenue and Swan Street (now part of the Empire State Plaza).

In the summer of 1888, construction work on Beaver Street uncovered a number of very old graves.  Whole headstones, fragments of coffins, and various human bones were revealed, as described in the two newspaper articles above.  That article notes that the skeletal remains reburied by the parsonage in 1836 were not found in this later dig.  However, the article describes several of the discoveries in detail.  One of the stones described is the same Jeremiah Field memorial uncovered in 1836.

The inscriptions on the headstones show that the tombstones were made far back in the colonial days. They follow....Here lies the body of Jeremiah Field deceased Oct 15, 1762, aged 32 years."

The article also goes on to describe the Jeremiah Field headstone:

A Grinning Skull The tombstones had evidently been placed horizontally upon the top of the graves. Carved into the soft brown stone upon the top of the Field headstone is the outline of a human skull, the teeth being chiseled out in large squares and the skull of the figure being small. The skull at a distance appears to be grinning. The headstones are all appear well preserved. One of them was broken in removing it from beneath the elm tree stump.

What then became of the Field headstone?  The article states:

Mr. Rufus K. Viele has assumed charge of the bones that were reinterred there. “The relics will be carefully collected,” said Mr. Viele to a Journal reporter, “and placed in the cellar of the Dutch Reformed church at the corner of Swan street and Madison avenue.

The relics placed beneath the church at Madison Avenue likely included the headstones as well as the mortal remains.  An article by John Walcott reports that the oldest headstones laid in the Church Grounds lot at the Albany Rural Cemetery came from the vault below the Madison Avenue Reformed Church. 

The oldest headstones are grouped separately at the far end of the Dutch Church lot.  These stones came originally from the old Beaver Street Burying Grounds.  These were found in 1883 during the course of construction at the site of the Burying Ground.  They were placed, together with a large number of human remains, in a repository in the tower base of the new Second Reformed Church, at Madison and Swan Streets, whose congregation had, in 1881, vacated their original building in the Beaver Street Burying Ground. In 1938, the Second Reformed Church burned down, and the burials and headstones were then removed forth from the tower base vault to the Dutch Church lot in the Rural Cemetery. 

- from Albany's Dutch Stones, John Walcott, Washington Park Spirit, July 29, 1971

The gravestones mentioned by Walcott include those of Elsie Gansevoort Winne, Captain Peter Winne, and Catalyna Schuyler Bogart

Above:  The Elsie Winne and Catalyna Bogart headstones which also appear in this blog post regarding the oldest grave markers at the Albany Rural Cemetery.  Click to enlarge.

This brings us to a badly weathered sandstone slab laid near the above-mentioned headstones.  The sandstone is fairly soft and exposure to the elements has given it a pockmarked, almost spongy appearance.  The lettering is large, somewhat crude, and very difficult to read due to erosion. 

In such cases, photographing a stone from multiple angles and photographing the inscription letter by letter, then deciphering as many partial words as possible (often by manipulation in Photoshop, GIMP, or even with Instagram filters), and then cross-referencing a partial name with those listed in the Albany Common Council's inventory of graves removed from the State Street Burying Ground to make way for Washington Park in 1868-9 can help to identify the stone.  However, since these old Dutch stones came to the Cemetery from the Madison Avenue Reformed Church vault and not the State Street Burying Ground, that inventory is of no use here.  Nor do these stones appear in the Cemetery's burial card files.  Some, but not all appear in a list of Dutch Reformed epitaphs compiled and published in Munsell's Annals and some appear (but with wide variations in spelling) in the Book of Burials reprinted by Munsell.  

But the legible portions of the inscriptions, such as they are, are frequently the only real means of identifying these stones.  Several stones are so badly worn that this is impossible and at least one stone appears to be lying face down.

In the case of this particular sandstone slab pictured above, the first few attempts to decipher the inscription were unsuccessful.  The weathering had distorted some of the letters to the point that an "F" resembled an "h" and a "c" resembled an "O" or a zero.  It was the Ancient Albanians article that provided the needed inscription.

Here lies the body of Jeremiah Field deceased Oct 15, 1762, aged 32 years."

It is now easy to see the last few letters of Jeremiah, the full name Field, and part of the date.

The stone pictured above is the Jeremiah Field headstone presumed to have been "thrown out" (along with Mayor Abeel's) in 1836, but was in fact reburied and then discovered a second time in 1888, placed in the vault of the Madison Avenue Reformed Church, and ultimately moved to the Church Grounds.

The 1888 article on the discovery of the headstones noted that the Field stone was decorated with a grinning skull and there are vague hints of a soul effigy (a winged skull or face representing mortality or the soul) near the top of the stone. 

Above:  The remnants of the "grinning skull" enhanced with Instagram.

The lines are very faint, even with the help of Photoshop, but they are suggestive of a skull not too unlike this example in Schenectady's Vale Cemetery:

Since Field's stone was discovered twice, moved to the vault below the Madison Avenue Reformed Church, and eventually to the Church Grounds, it raises the possiblity that Abeel's headstone also survived.  A 1967 Knickerbocker News column by Charles Mooney states that Johannes Abeel's remains were disinterred previously in 1834 with then-Mayor Erastus Corning officiating.  The reason for this disinterment is not mentioned, nor does it mention what was done with the remains at that time.  Nor is there any mention of Abeel's gravestone.  A second column by Mooney mentions the 1836 disinterment occurring "without ceremony or fanfare," but again no mention of a stone (the remains could have been identified without a headstone if there was an intact metal coffin plate inscribed with Mayor Abeel's name).

Was the Abeel stone perhaps also uncovered in 1888, but no longer legible enough to identify? If so, is it one of those illegible stones laid in the Church Grounds at Albany Rural Cemetery?  Or does it remain somewhere beneath the downtown Albany Parking Garage.  It does not appear to have been found during excavations for the garage in the mid-1980s, though newspaper reports mentioned the possibility of remains still resting beneath the site. 

At least it was not, as has long been presumed, "thrown out" as rubbish.  Lost is better than merely discarded.

(Another question remains - who was this Jeremiah Field?  There seems to be almost no information on him beyond his headstone inscription.  Genealogical searches turn up several individuals by the same name, but the dates and locations are not a match. Research continues.)


The Church Grounds Project

 Albany Rural Cemetery - An Exploration of History

Related page:  The Garden Gravestone

See also:  Not The Right Stones