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The Pilot’s Monument

For Christmas this year, one of my presents was the book Green-Wood, a  Directory for Visitors by Nehemiah Cleaveland. Cleaveland was the first historian of Green-Wood (and eventually a resident of course), and the author of Green-Wood Illustrated in 1847. He published this little book in 1850.  It’s essentially a self-guided walking/carriage tour of some of the earliest sites in Green-Wood–along with some helpful illustrations.

One of the first illustrations and stories in the book that caught my eye was for The Pilot’s Monument:

thomas freeborn the Pilot's Monument

So I set out to find it. Cleaveland’s directions are pretty confusing, but the one thing he did mention is that this monument sits high up on a hill so that it can be seen from the harbor by other pilots. So I ventured up to the top of Battle Hill on a rainy winter morning, and lo and behold, I found it.

pilots monument green-wood

By the way, one of my favorite Green-Wood residents James Smillie created a lovely lithograph of how this monument must have looked back in the day:

james smillie pilot's monument

This must have been a popular attraction; here’s another depiction, this time by another Green-Wood resident, Nathaniel Currier of Currier & Ives fame:

The Pilot’s Monument is the final resting place of Thomas Freeborn (1808-1846). Freeborn was a nautical pilot. The Pilot’s job was to guide ships into the harbor, expertly navigating that area’s waterways. Pilots didn’t work on a particular ship–they worked in a particular harbor. Their job was to board approaching vessels and bring them safely to shore.

Freeborn worked the harbor in Mantoloking, New Jersey. On February 15, 1846, he was guiding the John Minturn into harbor when a violent Nor’Easter hit. This was a tremendous storm–the worst that region had seen in over two decades. At least nine ships were lost that evening, but the most dramatic and heart-wrenching was the wreck of the John Minturn.

The John Minturn was considered a “Packet Ship”–this meant that it carried U.S. Mail and other parcels, as well as a modest number of passengers. At the time of its sinking, John Minturn was carrying about 50 passengers and crew, 40 of whom perished that night–including Freeborn and the ship’s captain and his family.

The ship was not far from shore when it sank; in fact, when it finally went down it was only 300 yards away. Unfortunately, the storm and the choppy seas made it nearly impossible for any rescue efforts to reach the ship–despite the fact that they tried for over 18 hours. As a result, the John Minturn‘s final terrifying hours were witnessed by hundreds of stunned onlookers who had gathered on the beach throughout the night. The horrified crowd could do little other than watch as the ship went down in the frigid waters and frozen dead bodies washed up on the shore.

The New Jersey Scuba Diving Association has this chilling account from one of the rescuers. Here are some excerpts:

“At eleven o’clock at night with the storm still raging the Minturn went to pieces. We could hear the wailing shrieks that went up from the despairing ones, as the sea at last caught them in its merciless embrace. The cold was intense, and when the bodies came to in the shore, many were found frozen as rigidly as statues. Quite a number, I recollect, struck the beach in a sitting position, and thus we saw dead men sitting as upright as in life, as we drew them out of the way of the waves.”

“When day broke again, we saw the bow of the boat still remained intact and a group still huddled together upon it. One mother could be seen, with her babe clasped to her breast, her hair streaming in the wind, and her white face turned upward in prayer, appealing to Him who ruled and ruled above the war of the elements. When this section broke up, it was found that every one of the group had been dead for many hours.”

“Those on board were not idle. After several attempts and failures, two sailors entered a boat with a rope, and put off for shore. The current carried them so swiftly to the southward, that they were compelled to cut the rope, to save themselves from capsizing. They came safely ashore with the last boat, and found it impossible to return.”

I find this last story particularly interesting because if you take a look at the monument, you can see the severed rope, just above the depiction of the shipwreck:
pilot's monument green-wood

The Roosevelt Family

I’m surprised that not a bigger deal is made of the fact that Theodore Roosevelt’s first wife and mother–and his parents, grandparents, and a whole slew of other Roosevelts– are buried in Green-wood.

I first heard the story of the  tragic deaths of Alice Hathaway Lee Roosevelt (Teddy’s wife) and Martha Bullock Roosevelt (his mother) on Ken Burns’ documentary, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. It was such a dramatic tale that I decided to read more about it, and lo and behold I found out that they were buried in Green-Wood. Why didn’t I know that? Why aren’t their pictures shown in the margin of the Green-Wood map along with all the other famous residents? This is one of the great stories of American history. I’d rather see Alice Lee Roosevelt on the map than that boring tax dude*.


It’s easy enough to find the Roosevelt family plot–but it’s a bit of a long walk from the front entrance. I’d suggest if you are going to see it, you enter at the 20th Street/Prospect Park West entrance. From there, it is a straight shot across the middle of the cemetery, past Peter Cooper’s family plot, and past the catacombs. It’s located on the corner of Locust and Grape.

Roosevelt family plot
The Roosevelt family plot is about about a ten-minute walk from the 20th St. entrance.

Oddly enough, I have wandered around this area of the cemetery a million times (It’s shady and sometimes there are terrifying hawks) and yet have never noticed this huge, yet curiously humble plot. Maybe it’s because most of the stones are so decayed , sadly enough. It is difficult to read nearly all of them.

Alice_Hathaway_RooseveltAlice Hathaway Lee Roosevelt (1861-1844) was the beloved first wife of Theodore Roosevelt. She was tall, beautiful, athletic, and charming. She had such a delightful disposition that her nickname was “Sunshine” (a name I have only ever been called sarcastically).

When she was 17, she was introduced to 19-year-old Teddy through a cousin, who was attending Harvard with him. Roosevelt was instantly smitten with Alice, and set about wooing her with a passion. They were married three years later, just after his graduation.

Teddy loved Alice deeply. I mean, deeply. He wrote long, romantic love letters to her, and referred to her as his “purest queen.” In one letter, he wrote:

“Oh, my sweetest true love pray I for nothing but that I may be worthy of you; you are the light and sun shine of my life, and I can never cease thanking the Good God who gave you to me. I could not live without you, my sweet-mouthed, fair haired darling, and I care for nothing whatever else but you.”

It goes on and on like that for several more pages. You can see the actual letter here.

They had a happy life, and planned to have a big family. In 1882, at the age of 22, Alice became pregnant. Teddy was often working in Albany, so she stayed with his mother at their family home in Manhattan during the latter stages of her pregnancy. On February 12, 1884, she gave birth to a healthy baby girl, but immediately afterwards fell quite ill with Bright’s Disease, a serious kidney disorder.

Roosevelt received a letter the next day alerting him to her precarious state of health. He traveled from Albany as quickly as he could through terrible weather to be at her bedside. She died a day later, on Valentine’s Day.

This isn’t even the worst of it. Roosevelt’s mother, Martha Bullock Roosevelt (1835-1884)  had been taking care of Alice during the last few months of her pregnancy. She had also recently fallen ill–with typhoid fever. She died 11 hours before Alice, in the very same house. Roosevelt was there for both deaths–going back and forth between the two rooms where his mother and wife lay dying. It must have been absolutely terrible for him.

Here is what Theodore Roosevelt famously wrote in his diary that day:



Roosevelt was devastated. So much so that he forbid anyone around him to ever speak of his young wife again. This event was so painful that he didn’t even mention her in his autobiography. He was completely lost, it seems. He quit politics, left the baby with his sister, and moved out to the Dakota territories to live as a rancher and sheriff for a couple of years.

I tried my best to research the other Roosevelt family members buried there–but most of the stones were so decayed that it was difficult to read the names. What a shame. But here are the ones I could come up with:

Theodore Roosevelt Sr. (1831-1878)

theodore roosevelt sr grave
Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. is buried next to his wife

Theodore Roosevelt, Sr.–Teddy Roosevelt’s beloved father, and Eleanor Roosevelt’s grandfather. I could write an entire entry about him alone. This is one great man.

Theodore Roosevelt, Sr.–also known as “Thee”–was described by his son Teddy as “the best man I ever knew. ” He was a model of altruism and morality, and raised his four kids to be kind, goodhearted citizens who help others. One of his major achievements was founding the New York Orthopedic Hospital, so that children with deformed spines could get specialized help. He was also a staunch Union supporter, and a founding member of both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American History Museum. Thee died at the age of 46 from stomach cancer, after hiding his condition from his son for months–he didn’t want Teddy to get distracted from his studies at Harvard.

Cornelius (1794-1871) and Margaret (1821-1861) Roosevelt:

Cornelius and Margaret Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt’s grandparents! Cornelus V.S. Roosevelt  was one of the five richest men in New York City. He inherited his fortune from his father, who specialized in real estate and importing plate glass and hardware. He was one of the founders of Chase Bank (formerly called Chemical Bank). His wife, Teddy Roosevelt’s grandmother, Margaret Barnhill Roosevelt  is buried next to him.


Gladys Roosevelt  Dick (1889-1926)


Gladys Roosevelt Dick was Theodore Roosevelt’s cousin. She died during a fox hunt on Long Island in 1925. Here is the article from the Cornell Daily Sun:


Gladys was a painter, and her work was mainly focused on horses, ironically enough. She would paint horses at the race track, the horse show, the circus, and of course at fox hunts. She was 37 when she died.

Hilborne Lewis Roosevelt (1849-1886)


hilborne lewis roosevelt grave

An interesting fellow–this is another one of Theodore Roosevelt’s  cousins. Hilborne, unlike the rest of the Roosevelts, had no interest in making money or being in politics. His love was pipe organs. He invented and patented the first electric pipe organ in the U.S. when he was only 20 years old. Although the Roosevelt family frowned on Hilborne working in the trades, they quickly changed their tune when he started making money. Founding the Roosevelt Pipe Organs Builders company in 1870 with his brother Frank, he established factories in New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia.
His wife, socialite Katherine Shippen Roosevelt (1883-1886) is buried next to him:


*In all fairness, Henry George is realy not all that boring at all. But nonetheless I’d still rather see Alice Lee Roosevelt on the map!

Our Most Holy Trinity Cemetery

I decided to go on a little adventure today, so I took a trip out to see the Our Most Holy Trinity Cemetery here in Brooklyn. It is way to hell out on the outskirts of Bushwick, located on the end of a desolate street. I’ve included a map of where it’s located, in case anyone is interested in seeing this strange little cemetery. It’s worth the trip–and if you are in Manhattan, you can take the L train directly there. (Or you can drive like I did, and end up getting hopelessly lost on your way home.)


While this little Roman Catholic cemetery is not nearly as huge or beautiful or just plain nuts as Green-Wood, it has one unique characteristic: almost all of the monuments are made out of metal.

According to the Our Most Holy Trinity Cemetery web site “…from the earliest days, stone monuments were not allowed because no distinctions were permitted to be made between the rich and the poor.”

I found this cemetery wonderfully strange and serene. There were no other people there besides me and a very bored looking security guard. I asked him if a lot of people visited, and he answered, “over 100 years old”. Then I asked him why there were so many Virgin Marys sunk in the ground and he replied, “people buried underground.” So needless to say, I quit trying to ask the security guard questions.