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The Grave-Digger of Other Days

Monuments in former State Street Burial Grounds

This story from the September 8, 1905 edition of the Albany Evening Journal provides a few details about the old State Street Burying Grounds, its gravedigger, and a crime thwarted by fire.  A few words of the scanned article are illegible and indicated byunderlined spaces.  Hopefully, an alternate copy will provide the missing words.

Old Jack The Grave-Digger of Other Days”

Man who Dug the Graves in Cemetery Where Washington Park is

Attempt To Rob Vault

Who remembers “Jack the Grave-digger?”

There are Jacks of other trades and callings, and Albany has had a good share of them in her day. But none were so well known as “Jack the Grave-digger.”

“Jack the Grave-digger” lived in the days of yore in a little frame dwelling on the northwest corner of State street and Sprague place, where today stands the mansion of Benjamin W. Arnold. He dug many graves in the old cemetery occupying what is now a portion of Washington park. The Presbyterians purchased “Jack the Grave-digger’s house and grounds for site of Sprague chapel and, as there was no more graves for him to dig in the old cemetery, which had been transformed into park grounds, he betook himself to other parts.

Dominies Buried There

The old burying ground was made such in 1800 and it was used for a half a century. Its boundaries extended along State street on the north, along where Englewood place is on the west, Hamilton street or Hudson avenue on the south and on the east along a line about 50 yards west of and parallel to Northern Boulevard. In the mound included in what is called the children’s playground some of the dominies of the Dutch Reformed churches were said to have been buried.

There were numerous receiving vaults in the old cemetery, most of which extended almost in a line opposite Sprague place. Many of them were private vaults, owned by rich Albanians.

James H. Kelly, a former city detective, tells of an adventure which he had some years ago in the old cemetery. There was a report common among the citizens of Albany that a certain wealthy person had been buried in one of the vaults with a fortune in jewelry, etc. upon the body.

Mr. Kelly got wind one day of a plan to break into the vault under consideration and rob the corpse of his valuables. He reported the matter to his superiors and received permission to attempt the capture of the would-be vandals alone. He said he preferred going along on such a case.

Attempt to Rob Vault

Mr. Kelly had gotten the tip straight, and he knew the night on which the attempt to break into the vault would be made. Accordingly, he made preparations to be on hand to receive the grave robbers. On the appointed night, Mr. Kelly concealed himself in the bushes whence he could command a view of the vault. He carried a stout iron bar. It was his intention to slip the bar through the handles of the doors of the vault when his quest had entered and then he would have them in a trap of his own choosing and he would be able to keep them there until he could obtain help to lodge them in the station house.

The detective waited through the stilly night in his place of concealment and his presence was finally rewarded by the sight of approaching object through the gloom which proved to be men. They advanced cautiously to the door of the vault, and while one kept watch the other set himself to work at the lock.  ___ ___ ___ to carry out their ___ ___

Sky Illuminated

Suddenly the sky was ___ the sound of an alarm of the ___ ___ upon the stillness of the night. The vandals were startled out of there work and they stood gazing at the sky. Mr. Kelly was likewise excited by the sudden light and the noise of the thunder. Every instant the sky grew ___ and it was evident that a great fire was raging in the ___ far away. Soon he could see the flames leaping above the tops of the trees. The area in the vicinity of the vault was almost as bright as day. Shouts could be heard in the distance and the citizens were fast awakening.

The vandals gathered their tools together as quickly as they could and disappeared. Mr. Kelly made no attempt to apprehend them as he was sure that he would be able to catch them the next day at a “job” they had scheduled.”

The fire which had so suddenly interrupted the game of the vandals and likewise the detective destroyed a large oilcloth factory in the West End.


See also:  The Albany Vault Company

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From The Evening Journal

As noted in this previous post, the removal of remains from the State Street Burying Grounds was proposed as early 1845 (though it was more than twenty years later that the actual removal was undertaken by the Common Council).  While the author of the previously posted letter was in support of the removal of remains from the old municipal cemetery to the new Rural Cemetery, the opinion was clearly not unanimous.


At the last meeting of the Common Council, Alderman Robert H. Pruyn, introduced a Resolution, having for its object the removal of the dead from the various Burying Grounds in the city, to the new Cemetery in Watervliet. This appears though something like the moral compulsion of the subject was in contemplation. That the new Cemetery is a beautiful place, and well adapted for the purpose designated; and that the undertaking is most praiseworthy; and that the gentlemen engaged in it are deserving of high credit for their good taste and public spirit, is denied by none; and the writer of this most cordially unites in the universal sentiment; but that the public should be compelled to break up, disturb and eradicate the present receptacle of the departed, and carry the bones of their ancestors (perhaps for the second or third times) to a new resting place, merely to please the fancy of a few individuals, will be an undertaking, it is believed, beyond the power of an Alderman, or even a body of Alderman, to accomplish.

The grounds appropriated, some forty years ago, for the public cemeteries of the different churches of the city, comprises about thirty acres of land, which, although yet but partially occupied, contains the remains of more than forty thousand persons and there is scarcely a family, or a individual in the community, who have not friends or relations interred there; it is, therefore, very obvious that it will be a herculean task, to coerce the change hinted at in the Resolution now pending before the Common Council. In the language of Alderman Bleecker, “the Corporation have not the right to interfere in this “matter;” and I will go yet further, and ask, what right do “the Clergy” (as one paper has it) or “the Trustees of the different Churches,” (as another paper states the Resolution,) posses to enter into any arrangements for such a removal?

I do not believe that the Trustees of the Watervliet Cemetery countenance this movement, or that they desire to advance their undertaking in any other way than by the voluntary preference of the citizen. Let them, those who think proper, bury their dead hereafter in the new Cemetery, and let those who prefer the present Burial Grounds, use them as heretofore; but let not the “place of our fathers’ sepulchres” be disturbed or desecrated. People are not yet prepared to root out and (word blurred) up the bones of their friends and relatives, without some better cause than now exists, and I venture to predicted that the mover of this resolution will gain neither credit nor success by any further agitation of the subject.


July 16, 1845 – Albany Evening Journal

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The Final Traces of St. Mary’s Cemetery


The photo above gives a glimpse of the last traces of old St. Mary’s Cemetery which occupied land just off Washington and North Main Avenues.  Long since replaced first by the park of the same name and, later, by the present Albany High School.  A 1932 article in the Albany Evening Journal profiled Mary Conway, the widow of the cemetery caretaker, who lived in the cottage shown until just before it was demolished.


See also:  Saint Agnes Cemetery – The Altar Monument

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Thurlow Weed’s Editorial

tebutt68close copy

The July 19, 1859 edition of The Albany Evening Journal carried the following column by editor Thurlow Weed.  Weed advocated the closure of the State Street Burying Grounds to make way for the establishment of a new Park.

 Washington Park – Many of our leading citizens are considering the expediency of procuring the two blocks between State and Lydius Streets immediately west of and adjoining the Washington Parade Ground, embracing the old burial ground of the several churches, and establishing a Park of fifty acres, under the name of the Washington Park. Continue reading

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The Unclaimed Dead

In 1868, as the removal of bodies from the State Street Burying Ground progressed, the Albany Evening Journal ran the following item:

The Unclaimed Dead – in the process of the work of removing the dead from the State Street burial grounds, it is discovered that in some instances where there has been no tombstone to mark the graves, there are found plates upon the coffins.  Some means should be adopted by the Committee and the Contractor to advise relatives and friends of such discoveries, so that they may take charge of the remains. 

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