Under the shade of dogwoods and tulip trees, freelance writer and tour guide Eric Washington was conjuring the lives of dead people for a group that woke up early on a Sunday morning to trail him along the winding walkways of Trinity Church Cemetery on West 153 Street.
“In the early 19th century, garden cemeteries, in many ways, were blueprints for parks. People would go to the cemeteries with picnic baskets to spend time with loved ones,” he says. “That’s why we say ‘communing with the dead.’”
This group communed with a graveyard full of figures who rarely appear in history textbooks. Washington introduced Richard Sands, an 18th century circus impresario credited with inventing suction boots to walk on theater ceilings, and Madame Eliza Jumel, a prostitute’s daughter who became the nation’s wealthiest woman and inherited the Manhattan house that served as George Washington’s Revolutionary War headquarters. He talked about Vinissa, a young girl from Cape Town who became a slave for a wealthy Irish family whose patriarch worked for the East India Company.
Ten years ago, when Washington, a 59-year-old with Stevie Wonderesque tinted glasses, was carrying his belongings to a new apartment on Sugar Hill, he took a shortcut through the cemetery. “When you’re carrying things, you walk slow and you see more,” he says.
At the cemetery office, he found a brochure describing Trinity’s three burial grounds—the churchyard on Wall Street, St Paul’s Chapel on Fulton Street and the cemetery uptown. “I was told that the cemetery uptown, which is 10 times larger than both the others, had only five notables” —including tycoon John Jacob Astor and ornithologist John James Audubon, he says. With about 24,000 burials uptown, “I was holding the brochure in my hand and saying in my head, ‘I smell a disparity,’” says Washington, who calls himself a “lay historian”.
He began walking the property, Manhattan’s only active cemetery, and corroborating cemetery records with information from libraries, museums, municipal archives and churches. He learned to decode funerary symbols on tombstones—a lamb indicates a child, a willow tree, a prominent person.
Washington conducted his first tour in 2005 and now leads a group of up to 35 people each month, charging $30 a person. He added a black history tour in February, a women’s history tour in March, a Bastille Day tour in July and launched an iPhone tour app in May. His Halloween tour, scheduled for Sunday, is already booked up.
“It was like walking through a neighborhood of fascinating people, says freelance journalist Noy Thrupkaew, who took the tour this spring. “Some of them had influential, colorful and unorthodox lives. The tour made me want to sit down with Madame Jumel and have a cup of tea with her.”
After Washington bombarded the church management with emails about his discoveries, Trinity commissioned him to give the cemetery staff an overview tour in 2009. A few months later, a new brochure published in English and Spanish listed 20 notables. Cemetery manager Raul Serrano says that although Washington has no official position, his tour drew cemetery staff closer to their work. “He’s very friendly and knowledgeable. He has a way of telling stories,” Serrano says.
Cultural anthropologist Robin Nagle, who took the tour in November on a day with “sparkly sunshine through gold leaves,” says he quickly realized that “Washington can’t possibly share everything he knows because there are not enough hours in the day”.
Washington’s interest in local history came about by accident. On assignment as a freelance journalist, he found himself writing about Sandy Ground, a free black community established in the 1830s on Staten Island, where he grew up.
Now, he’s often the only one in the cemetery. “A lot of people have squeamish feelings about the cemetery. I’m the opposite,” he says. “I’m not afraid of mean spirits, they already know me by now.”
His tours, he says, allow him to rediscover characters like Vinessa who fall through the cracks of history. “This burial ground is right on the cusp of Harlem, but the black community doesn’t relate to the cemetery,” Washington says. “There used to be a separate ground called the colored ground inside the cemetery but that vanished—possibly when Broadway was widened in 1871.”
He continues to unearth provocative stories from the past. His women in history tour, for instance, features two sisters descended from the Duchess of Alba, an 18th century Spanish noblewoman. Rita De Acosta was envied for her collection of shoes and turned heads when she walked into the newly-opened Ritz Hotel in Paris with 40 pieces of Louis Vuitton luggage. Her sister Mercedes De Acosta wrote a tell-all autobiography, “Here Lies the Heart,” published in 1960 that some historians consider the first lesbian memoir. Both died in poverty.
Stories like these, says Washington, make him want to know more. “I think the dead left with unfinished sentences,” he says. “I want to hear them.”
UPDATE: November 2
Hurricane Sandy destroys John Jacob Astor’s grave
John Jacob Astor’s grave marker, an Egyptian revival-style obelisk, cracked into pieces after an oak tree crashed onto it during Hurricane Sandy earlier this week. Astor, the multi-millionaire and philanthropist who traded in fur and smuggled opium, was reinterred here three years after his death in 1851 from St. Thomas Church.
“It seems the hurricane chose the most prominent grave,” says historian and tour guide Eric K. Washington. “His name-recognition—from Astoria, Queens, to Astoria, Oregon, and worldwide—endures to this day as the personification of American prosperity.”
Now, a trunk arches over the shattered white stone shaft. “My worry is that the broken pieces might be discarded in haste,” says Washington, who alerted cemetery officials as soon he discovered the toppled pediment Wednesday. “I’m worried it might get stolen.”
The cemetery, Manhattan’s only active burial ground, is home to at least 20 notables including ornithologist John James Audubon and Charles Dickens’ son Alfred Tennyson Dickens. Washington hasn’t been able to inspect the entire cemetery because of perilously hanging branches.
The cemetery’s offices were closed on Thursday and manager Raul Serrano was unavailable to comment on restoration plans. “The loss of the prominent Astor vault marker would have a detrimental impact on the integrity of this historic cemetery,” says Washington. “I’m hopeful that the marker can be restored.”
*The article originally stated, erroneously, that Astor was reinterred in 1858. He was moved in 1851.