In 1840, the libel trial brought by Albany brewer (and later Mayor) John Taylor again hotel owner Edward Delavan touched on the condition of the State Street Burying Grounds. Delavan had made claims that Taylor’s malt-houses knowingly used water contaminated with run-off (referred to as “wash”) from slaughter-houses, glue factories. During the course of the trial, the condition of the State Street Burying Grounds was mentioned (sometimes in rather graphic terms) since it was located near the polluted water sources and possibly contributed to the fouled state of the so-called Poor-house Creek, Buttermilk Falls (now enclosed in a culvert in the Lincoln Park ravine), and ponds near present-day Lark Street and just south of modern Madison Avenue (then called Lydius Street).
The following are excerpts of testimony given in the trial.
(Note: The section referred to as the Potters Field in the trial transcript is also known as the Strangers Burial Ground on maps such as this. The section referred to as the Seceders was also known as the Associate Presbyterian lot.)
From the testimony of Henry Rector, surveyor and architect:
Were these burying grounds there prior to 1835?
I believe a portion of them were – don’t think all were – new grounds have been laid out there.
Which do you recollect?
The Dutch Reformed was used in ’35, and I believe the Stranger’s burying ground – the Potter’s Field – was then.
What is the inclination of the land on the sides of these ravines?
The land on the north and south slopes toward the creeks.
And about how deep are the ravines running through the burying ground?
One of them starts, I think, almost at the fence – the north fence of the Dutch burying ground. The depression is not great until it gets to the south part. There it is six feet; passes through the street there.
As to the Stranger’s burying ground, how is that?
The same one passes down the Potters Field – it is the same ravine.
Are the graves so placed that the wash of them goes into the ravine?
I think there are some in the Potters Field, if they had water in them. We saw one the other day, filled with water, and running into the ravine, and emptying finally into what is called the Poor-house creek.
What is the character of the soil – will it hold water?
I believe most of the soil is clay, after you get through a small portion of sand.
Is it the kind of clay that holds water?
Yes, a very good article to hold water.
Are there graves on the sides of the ravine?
There are in the Potters Field; in the Dutch burying ground they are not so near; the ravine lays rather west.
Have you any knowledge as to whether these graves hold water?
I have an indistinct recollection of seeing a person buried in the Dutch burying grounds, and that when the coffin was put in, there was water enough to cover as high as the top of it; that was some years ago.
Yes, sir, before that; it made an impression on me at the time, but I don’t recollect what case it was.
Where does the wash of all these grave yards run?
The wash of all of them, in the end, must go into the creek, if there is any particular wash that is obnxious.
You speak of the Poor-house creek – not connected with this pond?
No, sir, not connected with that.
In the fall of the year are not these graves wet?
It is wet ground.
How large a stream is this?
Not a very large stream, except in wet weather; I suppose the other day, the stream was 6 or 8 feet wide where they come together.
As to part of the Poor-house creek that lies above the burying ground – is that a considerable stream?
Yes; it is the largest nearest the city; it is the stream that comes down through the south part of the city in the neighborhood of Johnson-street.
Is it not the largest stream nearest the city – is there any as large till you get down beyond the Delaware turnpike?
I suppose the next largest is the one down at the mill and that one up there [pointing].
It forms the Buttermilk falls?
Is not the water of that stream used, not withstanding these burying grounds?
That I can’t say.
(Regarding the inclusion of items on map)
There is a hog put down – is that correctly located?
Yes, I believe it is.
Did you examine it?
I did not go near him at all; it lies just in the vicinity of the burying grounds, on the edge of the bank; the stream that runs down from [some place not heard
From the testimony of Robert Harvey
Am acquainted with the Stranger’s burying ground. It drains into a branch of the Poor-house creek. Some of the places were they dig are quite steep. I was here in the time of the cholera in 1832. Witnessed quite a number of burials. Witness spoke of three corpses lying in the Potters Field unburied at one time and of 314 buried in the hollow. Don’t know of more than one buried in the same grave. Have not seen the Potters Field for three or four years. Was there in ’33 or ’34. Saw then the edge of the coffins sticking out into the ravine. That was where the water runs.
Did not complain to the authorities of the city of what I had seen in the Potters Field. Did my part in the cholera season in assisting to bury the dead there. As to whether there was water enough in the ravine to wash out the ground and expose the coffins, witness said there was a good deal of water falling in them. It comes from the rail-road. The ravine runs up to the railroad. It passes through the Dutch burying ground and then through the Potters Field. The cholera season was a dry season.
Testimony of David P. Clark, Elder in Dr. Sprague’s church
(Dr. William Buell Sprague was the pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church)
I resided on the hill twenty-six years. [Witness describes the situation of the burying grounds and the manner in which they are drained into the creek – and described a hollow or ravine, commencing in the Methodist burying ground and running through the corner of Dr. Sprague’s [the Second Presbyterian] burying ground, across Hudson-street, and Lydius (through an arch) into the creek.] There is sometimes considerable of a puddle above its junction with Hudson-street, and in the Methodist and Catholic burying grounds. The greater part of Dr. Sprague’s burying ground is clay. The ravine on the southeast corner is considerably deep – ten feet below the level, I should think. The ravine carries off the surplus water from the burying ground and the slaughter-houses, of which there are three, I think. This is the ravine that runs under Lydius-street, through an arch in the creek. These three slaughter-houses are right on the valley or ravine. Slaughtering is done there, I believe, year-round. I am the clerk of Dr. Sprague’s church, and attend the burials. Frequently the water has to be dipped out of the graves when dug. It is very impure water – exceedingly offensive – strongly impregnated with the decomposition of animal substances. As it is dipped out, it partly washes down into the ravine. Water sometimes rises in the grave a foot and a half. Frequently, it is bailed out and straw in the bottom to prevent its being seen. There is another ravine that used to commence above State-street before the rail-road was made. It runs through the Dutch burying ground, and through the Potters Field, where it becomes quite deep. I have seen the ends of coffins exposed there. Others are so near the surface, that by just putting down a stick you can feel them. I examined after the cholera season, and found the graves were very shallow – so much that complaints were made to the board of health.
Was this exposure caused by the water running down from above?
It might have been partly that and partly negligence.
Is the ground there very wet?
It was then. In the spring and fall, it is very wet – so much that it is very difficult getting there with carriages. I had occasion to pass the pond frequently on my route to the burying ground – sometimes a number of times in a week – sometimes not for months. I considered it impure water. It always had a rather dirty appearance. Sometimes I have seen a dead hog lying in the pond. Don’t recollect any others distinctly. I have seen geese in it, and boys. As to any other standing water for geese to resort to, there used a kind of quagmire in Spring-street, back of McNab’s. Don’t know whether it was there year round or not. There is an outlet to this quagmire, running now I believe, under State-street, through the northwest ravine into this pond on Lark-street. At all events, before State-street was graded, this quagmire was one of the sources from which the pond was supplied. There used to be a small spring fifteen years ago in the middle of the ravine west of the pond. Sometimes there was a little water ran over the top of the barrel sunk there. In summer time, I believe, there is scarcely anything running over there.
Testimony of Laban Keith
It [Poor-house Creek] gets the wash of the grave yards, or one of them. There are drains dug out from the grave yards, and it runs right down into the creek.
As to the drain to the grave yards, witness spoke of the drain under the vaults, that comes of out a stone building, and runs down into the creek. Meant the stone building where they put coffins. Don’t suspect it affects the water in the creek at all.
Did the drain run through the yard?
It runs under the vaults.
Does it pass in its course through the grave yard?
Yes. It is all connected – the grave yard and the vaults.
Given the condition of the State Street Burying Grounds and its environs as described in this testimony, it is little wonder that certain civic-minded residents of Albany took notice of the need for a more dignified resting place for the City’s dead and, following a sermon by the Reverend Bartholomew Welch, took the steps to establish the Rural Cemetery in 1841. It is also not surprising that, once the new Cemetery was consecrated, a number of families began removing their lots from the forlorn State Street Burying Grounds and transferred them to new private lots at the Rural Cemetery well in advance of the Common Council’s mass relocation of graves to the Church Grounds in the late 1860s.