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Who Was Buried at Green-Wood, 1840-1937? Now It’s Easier to Find Out.

Good morning. It’s Wednesday. We’ll look at how a cemetery in Brooklyn is using 21st-century technology to take a closer look at 19th- and 20th-century records.

Credit…via The Green-Wood Cemetery

When a certain blockbuster about a certain ship began playing in movie theaters in 1997 — hint: It starred Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio — someone telephoned Jeff Richman and asked if any passengers from the Titanic had been buried at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, where Richman is the historian.

“I said, ‘No, I don’t think so,’” Richman said. “Then I went to see the movie, and they were pulling bodies out of the water, and it occurred to me that I had spoken too soon.” He looked in the ledgerlike burial records at Green-Wood and discovered an entry from about a month after the great ship went down in April 1912. It said that Wyckoff Van Derhoef, who had been a first-class passenger, was buried at Green-Wood.

If Richman would get the same question now, he could come up with an answer faster.

The 60 volumes of the burial registry, listing the names of everyone buried at Green-Wood from the first interment in 1840 through 1937 in chronological order, have recently been digitized. The ledgers contain the names of just under 433,000 people. (The more than 131,000 who have been buried at Green-Wood since 1937 are tracked on file cards or in other records not yet digitized.)

In the 19th century, Green-Wood was second only to Niagara Falls among tourist attractions in New York State. It came to house the famous and the infamous: In the first category were F.A.O. Schwarz, the toy retailer; Henry Engelhard Steinway, the sire of the piano-making dynasty; and Louis Comfort Tiffany, the stained-glass genius. In the second category by the time he died in 1878 was the longtime Tammany Hall leader William Magear (“Boss”) Tweed.

But digitizing old cemetery records raises a question: What’s left to say long after the obituaries have been written, the eulogies delivered and the estates settled?

A lot, apparently.

Researchers have had access to the enormous chronological volumes, but mining them was time-consuming, could only be done at Green-Wood and was tedious. “Having one open in front of you, it’s not an easy thing to work with,” said Stacy Locke, the cemetery’s director of communications and historical collections. “But they’re such a vital source of information.”

Digitizing the information makes it searchable in new ways that could lead to insights on demographic changes, immigration patterns or public health trends. The first students to use the new online database will come from a New York University course on marginalized populations.

The project to digitize the records began before the pandemic, when Green-Wood had the 60 volumes scanned and sent to a company in India that keyed in each entry. Locke said the process was delayed as the coronavirus spread, but the going was slow for a different reason: Some of the cemetery’s recorders had easily legible handwriting, while others did not. Over the 97 years covered by the ledgers, “many people wrote in them,” she said. “There were times when the letters were more difficult to read.”

Locke said each entry contained 12 “data points.” Besides a person’s name and the cause of death, the cemetery recorded where each person had lived before they died and where each person died, “which was very often the same,” Locke said — so much so that in the early years there weren’t separate columns for residence and place of death.

Locke, who was involved in proofreading the material transcribed in India, said she had been fascinated by the cause-of-death entries. “Thousands of choleras, thousands of dysenteries,” she said. Other deaths were said to have been caused by tuberculosis. Other chronic lung conditions, like asbestosis, were not identified until well into the 20th century; she said the digitization will help researchers cross-reference the information in the cemetery records against census data that might show what someone had done for a living.

“This is the kind of thing we hope researchers look into,” she said. “There was not the same kind of standardization of causes of death, you see different ways they were described” in the burial registry. “Where today you might see bodily trauma, you might see something specific, like ‘ground to pieces by train.’”

Or “died at sea,” or “died on S.S. Titanic.” Which brought Richman back to Van Derhoef, who was apparently the largest shareholder in an insurance company. He had gone to Europe on a business-and-pleasure trip, according to Encyclopedia Titanica, which says that he was wearing “evening dress” when his body was found, and he had two false teeth.

“His house is still on Joralemon Street,” Richman said. “I have stood across the street and contemplated him going to Europe and booking a ticket on this wonderful new ship the Titanic. What could go wrong?”


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METROPOLITAN diary

Angel of the evening

Dear Diary:

I was walking around my Crown Heights neighborhood one Saturday night when I passed an older man and woman sitting on the curb listening to music on a phone.

I was recording a voice note to myself, but as I walked by I smiled and did a little dance to the music.

“Come back, honey!” the woman yelled to me. She said it was her birthday, and we danced together to “Angel of the Morning” on the sidewalk: “Just call me angel of the morning, angel, just touch my cheek before you leave me, baby.”

After a few minutes and smiles and hugs all around, I kept on going.

I realized my phone had recorded the whole thing. Maybe now when things gets me down, I will listen to that encounter and think of two strangers dancing together for a moment on the sidewalk.

— Yehuda Fogel

Illustrated by Agnes Lee. Send submissions here and read more Metropolitan Diary here.


Glad we could get together here. See you tomorrow. — J.B.

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword and Spelling Bee. You can find all our puzzles here.

Melissa Guerrero and Ed Shanahan contributed to New York Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].

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