"The Night In Question Was Dark and Slightly Stormy"

A Tale of The Van Rensselaer Tomb

by Paula Lemire

The name “Van Rensselaer” is certainly one of the most familiar in Albany history, beginning with Killaen, the Dutch merchant who never set foot here, but was one of the most instrumental figures in the founding of this city, and continuing on to such descendants as Stephen Van Rensselaer III, “The Good Patroon." Through marriage, the Van Rensselaers were connected closely or distantly to other prominent New York families, including the Schuylers and the Livingstons.

Some of the earliest Van Rensselaers in Albany were buried near their house just outside of Fort Orange. A letter penned by Maria Van Cortlandt, widow of Jeremias Van Rensselaer (son of the original Killiaen Van Rensselaer), mentions that he was buried in his garden after his death in 1674. This garden would have been just north of the Fort, probably close to today's Albany Bus Terminal and the Holiday Inn Express.

Most succeeding generations of deceased Van Renssalaers, however, were buried in a private vault on the grounds of their Manor, the extensive estate just north of the city in what's now called the Warehouse District. One of earliest written references to this family tomb comes from a list of burials from the Dutch Reformed Church between 1722 and 1757; the list records that one Geertruy Van Vechte(n) was buried “in the Patroon's vault” on November 8, 1745. Those records don't indicate just what Geertruy's relationship to the Van Rensselaers was, but the Van Vecthens were known to have close business ties to the Manor family.

The Patroon's vault was located just south of the present-day corner of North Pearl and Pleasant Streets. Another entry in the list of Dutch Reformed burials refers to Patroon Stephen Van Rensselaer I, as being laid to rest “at the mills” in 1747; the Manor complex originally included mills near what is now Tivoli Street which is less than 500 feet from the vault. Today, this area is a mix of industrial buildings, but in the 18th-century, it would have been a rather scenic spot with the vault probably overlooking a rushing stretch of the Patroon Creek which still cascades over a small concrete spillway near a facility which manufactures automotive springs and suspensions. The vault stood within a little fenced enclosure with a heavy wooden door and the tomb itself was later described as having a stone door. Some sources attribute the design to the vault to prominent Albany architect Philip Hooker, but if the vault dated to the 1740s, it's likely the surviving invoice from Hooker was for some remodeling work and not the actual construction of the old tomb.

Spillway carrying the Patroon Creek under North Pearl close to the site of the old Van Rensselaer family tomb.

The grand Manor house itself stood at the end of the appropriately named Manor Street just off Broadway. Eventually encroached on by rapid industrial development of the area, it was demolished in the late 1800s. However, it was a macabre crime decades earlier that prompted the removal of the family's departed from the Manor grounds long before the demise of the great estate itself.

According to a constable's memorandum dated October 5, 1849, Patroon Stephen Van Rensselaer IV reported to Albany police that the private burial vault located on the grounds of the family's Manor House had been violated some time earlier. There are conflicting accounts as to the exact time of the crime; all news articles were written years after the fact and variously place the crime between May and June of 1848 or in August of that year when the city was preoccupied with a fire which destroyed scores of buildings in the downtown area.

The Patroons' tomb was, by that time, well over a hundred years old and it had not received a new burial several years. Workers opening the vault to admit another coffin discovered that it had been recently been violated by thieves who doubtlessly believed that the Van Rensslaers had buried their dead with great wealth.

According to a later report on the theft published in the New York Times, the coffins of the Patroon family were “heavily plated with silver” and that the deceased were often buried with necklaces, pocket-watches, diamond rings, and other valuable jewelry. There were rumors that Westerlo Van Rensselaer, half-brother of the Last Patroon, was buried with a great treasure he'd supposedly acquired during a career at sea. Westerlo died in 1844 and was likely the last person buried in the Manor vault.

The thieves were identified in the newspapers as Pompey Howard, Bill “Foxy” Vosburgh, Bub Flemming, McCabe, Burns, Murray, and one man whose name was not given. The men, already known as “gang of reprobates,” entered the Manor property very late on a “dark and slightly stormy” night. The precise details of the crime, as later confessed by one of the thieves, were deemed by the Times as too revolting to appear in print. It is at least known that, with three men stationed as look-outs, the other four used cold chisels to break into the vault and loot the coffins. They removed solid silver plaques and handles, and other trimmings from the coffins' exteriors before breaking them open to strip gold jewelry, silver shoe buckles, and other valuables from the bodies of the Van Rensselaers and their kin.

At the time, many other notable figures who were connected by birth, marriage, or some other tie to the Patroon family were also interred within this vault, including General Philip Schuyler and General Abraham Ten Broeck. These were among the bodies stripped of their personal effects by the robbers. One coffin plate, belonging to Catherine Van Rensselaer, was dropped or discarded on the floor of the vault and was later kept by the estate's agent, Charles Van Zandt, in his office nearby (now the site of a CrossFit gym).

One of the men, Bub Flemming, was a boatman on the Erie Canal and facilitated the gang's escape. With the stolen valuables packed in trunks, they headed west via canal-boat with plans to sell their loot in some distant city. Hard liquor, however, loosened the tongue of one man who mentioned the stolen goods to the canal-boat's captain near Syracuse. The captain did not turn them over to authorities, but ejected from his vessel.

The thieves then hid in the woods and improvised a crucible to melt down as much of the silver as they could, and then headed for New York City to sell the stolen treasue. It is possible that the profits were not fairly divided among the gang because Burns, feeling he had been cheated, later confided the entire story to a New Yorker who then contacted an attorney or a constable. Another version of the story has Burns, fearing he might die, confess the crime to a minister. Whatever prompted the confession only one of the men was arrested and quickly released for unknown reasons.

According to an Albany Evening Journal article published years after the robbery, one of the men involved in the crime later served as an alderman in New York City. The rest of the robbers seem to vanish from the record with the exception of Bill “Foxy” Vosburgh who was described as “a notorious Albany thief” when he was convicted of an 1873 diamond theft in Springfield, Massachusetts (he'd previously been arrested for a large robbery in Paris, but was said to have “worked out of it”).

With the coffins of his parents were undoubtedly among those looted, Stephen Van Rensselaer IV quickly purchased a large lot at the new Albany Rural Cemetery. Progress, as well as criminals, was already closing in on the old Manor. Railroads passed close to the venerable house and a portion of the nearby Patroon Creek had been sold to supply the Albany Waterworks Company. It was time for the Van Rensselaer dead to move.

Stephen Van Rensselaer IV

The remains of the Van Rensselaer family and other relatives originally interred in the Manor vault were collect and quietly transferred too what the Albany Evening Journal would later describe as a “vast subterranean vault” in the new Cemetery plot. The old manor crypt was torn down. The removal and demolition must have taken place quite quickly and it seems Stephen IV did not consult his extended family about it; a granddaughter of General Schuyler only found out with “surprise and regret” that “the old family vault” had been “broken up” and its generations of crumbling coffins placed in metal caskets for a hasty removal without the rest of the family being notified.

No detailed description survives of the interior of this underground crypt. A flight of steps descended from the northeast corner of the plot to its entrance. A marble monument by William Gray (who also did the facade of Tweddle Hall and, with his son, Alexander, built the Samuel Schuyler house on Ash Grove Place in the South End) was erected in the center of the plot above. The monument is crowned with a large urn above which rises a flame symbolizing the eternal human spirit.

Advertisement for William Gray's marble works.

The entire terrible story seems to have been kept quiet at the time. Details did not appear in the newspapers for decades. Then, in 1878, a story appeared in the Albany Evening News with the headline, “Ghouls of Long Ago.” The article was prompted by the recent robbery of the Stewart vault in Manhattan (thieves had pried open the burial vault of “Merchant Prince” Alexander Turney Stewart at St. Mark's-In-The-Bowery and held the corpse for $20,000 ransom).

The Van Rensselaer Lot ca. 1900

The Van Rensselaer lot is located where two of the Cemetery's main thoroughfares – South Ridge Road and Cypress Avenue – meet. At the time the lot was deeded, this was close to the Cemetery's southern limit. The area from Cypress Pond to the South Gate were not yet developed (those sections were laid out after the creation of Cypress Pond by damming a series of bogs and springs after the Civil War). Early descriptions of the plot describe it as “almost hidden by evergreens.” A later account by a descendant mention an enclosure of shrubbery. Catharina Visscher Van Rensselaer Bonney wrote of the plot as “our 'home circle' in the sequestered Albany Rural Cemetery in her memoir, Gleanings. According to her, the family maintained a custom of strewing fresh flowers on the graves, placing flags, and crowning the monument with a wreath of fresh laurels in honor of those ancestors who had served in the Revolution. Eventually, though, that practice ended, the evergreens and shrubbery removed or died off, and the vault was permanently sealed. The last recorded burial was in 1949 and, at some point after that, the stone stairs were filled with earth and no trace of them can be seen today. Only a faint line on a hand-drawn map in the Cemetery's archive indicates where the entrance and steps would have been.

Map of the Van Rensselaer lot at the Albany Rural Cemetery office.

There is no complete list of those buried in the Van Rensselaer vault. The records preserved in the office don't include the names of all those brought over from the original Manor tomb, but some present (and past) occupants of the Van Rensselaer tomb at Albany Rural include:

William Paterson - a Signer of the U.S. Constitution, Governor of New Jersey, and father-in-law of Stephen Van Rensselaer III. After Margaret's death, the Patroon married Paterson's daughter Cornelia. Paterson was in poor health following a carriage accident in New Jersey. He was en route to the healing springs in Ballston Spa when he became ill at the Manor. He died there on September 9, 1806. In 1940, the Albany Bar Association placed a bronze plaque honoring him on the west face of the marble monument.

William Paterson plaque

General Abraham Ten Broeck - a veteran of the American Revolution and builder of the Arbor Hill mansion which bears his name, he was the uncle of Stephen Van Rensselaer III and, until the young Patroon came of age, served as administrator of the vast estate. After his death in 1810, he was buried in his own vault which stood just behind the Arbor Hill mansion (an interpretive sign in a grassy lot on Livingston Avenue marks the spot). When this vault became unstable, Ten Broeck and other members of his family were moved to the Manor tomb. His name is not inscribed on the monument, but a small metal marker was placed beside it by the local chapter of the Daughters of 1812.

Marker honoring General Ten Broeck

Philip and Catherine Schuyler - there are conflicting stories about just where General Schuyler and his wife were originally buried. It is known that he was among those transferred from the Ten Broeck vault to the Manor and that his coffin was among those looted by the thieves. After the removal of the Van Rensselaer vault to the Rural Cemetery, he was again moved to his present resting place in Section 29.

Reverend Eliardus Westerlo - an influential Dutch-born minister, he came to Albany to lead the Reformed Church in 1760. He married Catherine Livingston, widow of Stephen Van Rennselaer II, in 1775.

Margaret Schuyler Van Rensselaer - known to fans of the muscial Hamilton as “and Peggy,” she was the third child of General Philip Schuyler. In June 1783, she eloped with and married Stephen Van Rensselaer III. The couple resided at the Manor and had three children, including Stephen Van Rensselaer IV. Margaret died of tuberculosis at the Manor on March 14, 1801 at the age of forty-two. Thanks to the musical's popularity, visitors to the Cemetery have sought out Peggy's burial place to leave notes, small tokens, and flowers.

Stephen III - The Good Patroon

See also:

On Facebook - Albany Rural Cemetery - Beyond The Graves

Friends of Albany Rural Cemetery (membership form)

Jeremiah Field and The Headstone That Was Not Lost

Rediscovering Sibbie - The Last Documented Slave At The Schuyler Flatts