The Gravestone In The Garden

It's no secret that I'm a taphophile.  It's a slightly sketchy sounding word, but I have a tremendous interest in old cemeteries.  I'm especially interested in the historic Albany Rural Cemetery and its predecessor, the State Street Burying Grounds.  The latter was a large municipal graveyard located in what is now the northeast quarter of Washington Park.  To make a long story short, when the over-crowded and neglected Burying Grounds were closed in the late 1860s, the remains and headstones were removed to a special section of the Rural Cemetery now called the Church Grounds.  Some headstones, however, didn't make it.  Over the years, there have been a few stories of stones found along the route from the park to the South Gate of Albany Rural. 

And then there's the gravestone of Mary McConnell Vanderveer.

Click the photo above to see the hi-res version.

Several weeks ago, my partner James and I were chatting with a neighbor on the next block.  He's retired and puts a lot of time into maintaining a nice little garden.  He was talking about his hobby and mentioned that all of his digging had, at some point, turned up a very old gravestone and some broken fragments of others.  Somehow, I managed to contain my excitement, but I did get permission to visit his backyard and take photos of the stone (all while wishing I'd find something that fascinating in my own somewhat neglected garden) which is set in the ground adjacent to the garden path.

The gravestone was dated 1823.  Years of being buried protected the carving; it's not completely clear, but it was certainly legible enough for me to read and copy the entire inscription.  The stone was In Memory Mary McConnell, wife of Tunis Vandeveer, who died August 25, 1823, in the 28th year of her life.

 The other fragments weren't large enough to yield any real information.  I left wondering exactly who this stone belonged to and how it came to rest in a backyard just steps away from the Empire State Plaza. 

A quick study of area maps showed nothing on my neighbor's lot in 1823; no farm that might have included a family graveyard, for example.  There was nothing on this block of Madison Avenue until 1827 when Alfred Conkling, a U.S. District Judge, build a large house with an orchard just west of this house.  The estate was later divided into lots (including the one where my neighbor's house was built in the 1850s) and the mansion became a Catholic seminary before being purchased by a wealthy grocer, Albert Wing, who restored it to a house.  It still stands, though an extra story was added and it was since converted into apartments flanked on each side by rowhouses.

Knowing the history of that block made me fairly certain this gravestone came from somewhere else.  The nearest cemeteries at the time were the previously mentioned State Street Burying Grounds about three blocks west and the Hallenbeek family burial ground further downtown.  Fortunately, when the former was transferred to Albany Rural Cemetery, the city's Common Council had an inventory of its burials compiled and printed.  It's not perfect; many of the oldest stones stones in the Church Grounds don't appear in the inventory and I've encountered a few misspelled names or incorrect dates.  Still, considering the length of the list and the fact it was complied by hand, it's a terrific resource. 

It only took a few minutes to find her, though her name was listed as Maria Van Deveer.  According to the inventory, she was originally buried in Second Presbyterian section of the State Street Burying Grounds.  Since the information in the inventory was compiled directly from the gravestones, this was definitely still standing in its original location in 1868. 

So far, I've found very little information on Mary and her husband.  A brief search of census and historical records shows that a Tunis Van Deveer (there's more than a few spelling variations on the surname) was a prominent farmer in Glen (Montgomery County), but the date of his marriage to a woman named Theodosia rules him out as the Tunis named here.  Aside from her entry in the Burying Grounds inventory, the only other record I've found for Mary McConnell is an entry on passenger list from the schooner John Dickerson which arrived from Ireland on June 30, 1820.  It's hard to say if this is the same Mary, but the age is a match.  Hopefully, a future search of church marriage and burial records will turn up more details!

The questions remain, though.  Was Mary McConnell Van Deveer moved to Albany Rural Cemetery with the rest of the bodies from the Burying Grounds?  Was she among the hundreds reburied there in Church Grounds?  The Cemetery has no record of her in their burial card files.  Was she reburied elsewhere by family?  If so, where and was she given a new gravestone, leaving this one to be discarded?  Or, if she was indeed moved to Albany Rural, why didn't her headstone make the trip with her? 

And what of those other fragments of gravestones? One of them appears to have the name Houston on it, a name which also appears in the Common Council's inventory of the State Street Burying Grounds.  The first name on the stone ends with the letter "L" and, of the two Houstons listed as interred in the Episcopal section, one was named Daniel (a twenty-year old "late of Hanover, N.H. who died in 1829.  This could be part of his headstone. 

Daniel Houston Fragment

If these gravestones had been discovered along Henry Johnson, Northern, or Van Rensselaer Boulevards, a likely explanation would be that the stones fell off the carts transporting the stones.  As previously mentioned, stones have been found in recent times;  this article mentions one such lost gravestone and I recall a news story about an old headstone found in the front yard of a house along Van Rensselaer Boulevard.  However, Mary's stone and these fragments were found well buried nearly a half a mile from the route used to carry the coffins and headstones from Albany to Menands.  There is also the possibility that these stones were stolen at some point after the inventory was made and before the removal of graves to the Rural Cemetery.  They may have also been simply dumped by someone who was supposed to transport them.

The Church Grounds Project is expanding and is now the Albany Cemetery Project with the goal of creating an in-depth on-line digital history of the Albany Rural Cemetery!  Click here for details or to support this research project!


Paula Lemire @ Garden Alley