The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

a sea of roots

with one comment

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Obliviated by exposure to the volatile climate of New York City, this cruciform statue adorns the small chapel found nearby the Johnston Mausoleum in First Calvary Cemetery. Depicting the latin, or suffering Christ, the affectation of its artificer in the choice of wood for its construction is both noted and appreciated. Raised in the Hebrew faith, your humble narrator abstains from ritual and dogma as an adult, and instead prefers to believe that every thing is true if one believes in it hard enough. Thor, Buddha, the Orishas, all true.

Atheism is a religion as well- a cohesive and dogmatic system of belief with absolute truths and undeniable heresies. It’s all magick, this jumping about and chest beating we call religion.

My personal world view and moral compass, of course, is built around the simple question “what would Superman do? or WWSD?” Measuring against this rubric, I must always come up short. Superman would have found Gilman by now, but he has x-ray eyes after all. I’m all ‘effed up.

Note: an interesting counterpoint to the suffering of the Latin Christ is the Hellenic “Christ as Athlete” tradition. This photo is from a Cretan church I visited a while back, it’s in a former fishing village called Kalives- notice the physicality and robust physique of the Eastern Christ in comparison to the mendicant like interpretations of the West. The Byzantine tradition focuses a great deal more on the power of the redeemed and revealed godhead, rather than dwelling on its  journey “through the meat” that ends on Golgotha.

from wikipedia

Western crucifixes may show Christ dead or alive, the presence of the spear wound in his ribs traditionally indicating that he is dead. In either case his face very often shows his suffering. In Orthodoxy he has normally been shown as dead since around the end of the period of Byzantine Iconoclasm. Eastern crucifixes have Jesus’ two feet nailed side by side, rather than crossed one above the other, as Western crucifixes have showed them for many centuries. The crown of thorns is also generally absent in Eastern crucifixes, since the emphasis is not on Christ’s suffering, but on his triumph over sin and death. The “S”-shaped position of Jesus’ body on the cross is a Byzantine innovation of the late 10th century, though also found in the German Gero Cross of the same date. Probably more from Byzantine influence, it spread elsewhere in the West, especially to Italy, by the Romanesque period, though it was more usual in painting than sculpted corpuses. Since the Renaissance the “S”-shape is generally much less pronounced. Eastern Christian blessing crosses will often have the Crucifixion depicted on one side, and the Resurrection on the other, illustrating the understanding of Orthodox theology that the Crucifixion and Resurrection are two intimately related aspects of the same act of salvation.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Whether decided by landscape design or geology, there are a series of steep hills at Calvary. Early maps and 19th century illustrations detail this land as quite hilly even before 1848, when the Rt. Rev. Bishop Hughes solemnly blessed and consecrated this place- formerly part of the Alsop plantation- as Calvary Cemetery on the 27th of July. The Alsops are still here, resting in a narrow plot of Protestant loam fenced off from the rest of the place. The deal that the Catholic Church struck with the family for the land stipulated that the protestant Alsop section must be maintained in perpetuity, and its organs have maintained the ancient agreement- rumor states that this is the only Protestant section to be found in a Catholic cemetery upon the Earth.


The male children of the first Richard Alsop, Thomas, Richard and John, became prominent in the legal profession and mercantile life. The children of the second Richard adhered to the ancestral seat in Newtown and married into the Sacketts, the Brinckerhoffs the Whiteheads, the Fisks, the Woodwards and the Hazzards – names now extinct save as they appear on the tombstones, many of which are sadly neglected. The Alsop Cemetery is within Calvary Cemetery, which absorbed all of the property, and is thus certain of receiving proper care. The owner in trust of the reservation is William Alsop, the only living lineal descendant, who resides in New York at present, but for a great many years had his abode in Florida. The family relics have disappeared almost entirely. The only thing that remains to be cherished is an old clock, which is in the remaining descendant’s possession. The house itself, two centuries and a quarter old, has now disappeared forever.

The yellow fever epidemic of 1798 made havoc in the Alsop household, and two tombstones mark the graves of the victims, one of whom was Elizabeth Fish, the widow of Jonathan Fish. She was the widow of the grandfather of President Grant’s Secretary of State. Several slaves died of the contagion, and one at least called Venus, on account of her remarkable beauty, was buried in the family plot. The graves were made ready before death, and no coffins were used. The bodies were merely wrapped in the infected cloths, saturated with pitch and tar, and hastily interred. The slaves’ graves are not marked by stick or stone, because the custom of that time forbade it. The house at one time occupied by Peter Donohue, near the side entrance of Calvary, at Blissville, was built by Thomas Alsop, the father of William. Eventually, it fell into the hands of Paul Rapelyea. The farm surrounding it was part of the Alsop estate, derived from the marriage of Thomas Wandell with the widow Herrick, who owned it in 1750.

After the death of Richard Alsop in 1790, the property was divided between the sons, John and Thomas. John retained the old homestead, and Thomas received the Blissville section. John Alsop died in April 1837, and his widow sold the property to a corporation, and it now embraced in Calvary. John Alsop left no children. Thomas, his brother, married Catherine Brinckerhoff, the daughter of George, a Revolutionary patriot residing at Dutch Kills. A British officer, Finlay McKay, cut his name on a pane of glass in the old Brinckerhoff house in 1776, and it remains there to this day. The well on the Alsop property, which was sunk at the time the mansion was built, still supplies water to many families in the neighborhood. The house was one hundred feet long, and the first floor was divided into four rooms, with a hallway eighteen feet wide. Two round windows, resembling port holes, were cut in the ends of the building in 1776 by Lord Cornwallis for musket practice, and as lookouts to guard against surprise. The chimney place, around which the slaves need to gather, had the capacity of receiving logs of wood ten feet in length. Rufus King married Mary Alsop. He died at Jamaica in 1827. Of this union came John Alsop King, who was Governor of this state from 1857 to 1859.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Johnston Mausoleum is surely the grandest structure, beyond the ceremonial chapel of the Cemetery itself, to be found here at First Calvary. Smaller tombs and mausolea ring the hillsides, as do vaults whose gated entry points hide tunneled corridors which burrow into the earth to unknown depths. The shot above, for instance, was captured while standing on the earthworks which bury just such a vault. Just as every other form of city, the Necropolis maintains infrastructure. Calvary has its own sewer system, roads, and irrigation channels. A vast buried culvert underlies the place, providing drainage for this formerly swamped valley of the shadow. Who can guess, what it is, that might be buried down there?

from, “How the Other Half Lives, by Jacob Riis

Life in the tenements in July and August spells death to an army of little ones whom the doctor’s skill is powerless to save. When the white badge of mourning flutters from every second door, sleepless mothers walk the streets in the gray of the early dawn, trying to stir a cooling breeze to fan the brow of the sick baby. There is no sadder sight than this patient devotion striving against fearfully hopeless odds. Fifty “summer doctors,” especially trained to this work, are then sent into the tenements by the Board of Health, with free advice and medicine for the poor. Devoted women follow in their track with care and nursing for the sick. Fresh-air excursions run daily out of New York on land and water; but despite all efforts the grave-diggers in Calvary work over-time, and little coffins are stacked mountains high on the deck of the Charity Commissioners’ boat when it makes its semi-weekly trips to the city cemetery.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Disturbing subsidences aside, there is obviously an expensive schedule of groundskeeping kept here, despite the ravages wrought upon the statuary and monuments by the acid rain and corrosive miasma which arises from the nearby Brooklyn Queens Expressway and the Newtown Creek’s industrial activity. In all the time I’ve spent here, peaceful rustications of devastating loneliness, not once have I ever noted “the colour” which is both odd and remarkable. The pernicious influence of that otherworldly iridescence does not seem to penetrate the fencelines of Calvary. Perhaps it is hallowed, this ground, and the working invocations of Dagger John still protect this place from that which lies beyond its gates.

from wikipedia

John Joseph Hughes (June 24, 1797—January 3, 1864) was an Irish-born clergyman of the Roman Catholic Church. He was the fourth Bishop and first Archbishop of the Archdiocese of New York, serving between 1842 and his death in 1864.

A native of Northern Ireland, Hughes came to the United States in 1817, and became a priest in 1826 and a bishop in 1838. A figure of national prominence, he exercised great moral and social influence, and presided over a period of explosive growth for Catholicism in New York. He was regarded as “the best known, if not exactly the best loved, Catholic bishop in the country.” He also became known as “Dagger John” for his practice of signing his name with a dagger-like cross, as well as for his aggressive personality.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Proverbial, the needle in a haystack your humble narrator seeks is the grave of a certain man, named Gilman. Engendering frustratingly unproductive journeys to dangerously obscure corners of the City of Greater New York in the name of finding a certain document, which might be used as a cypher to decode the ancient graveyards mysteries, my searching for Gilman is frustrated. Your humble narrator has been reduced to performing a visual census, wandering the place looking for his name recorded in stone.


Our Catholic Cemeteries have a history as old as the catacombs.  Early in the development of our Catholic tradition, our forefathers in the Faith found the ministry of burial of the dead to be most important.  From the catacombs, where early Christians met secretly in prayer and entombed the mortal remains of the early martyrs, to today where the Archdiocesan cemeteries serve the needs of the millions of Catholics located in the greater New York area, our Catholic cemeteries silently bear witness to the respect we give the human body, even in death, because of its status as Temple of the Holy Spirit.  Our Catholic cemeteries, filled with artistic expressions of our religious traditions, provide an environment of comfort in times of sorrow and are meant to continually remind us that Jesus Christ promised one day we would all be together in the Eternal Life of Resurrection.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

By 1900, nearly three quarters of a million people were buried here. Today, millions of interments are recorded. Many of these gravesites, according to Catholic tradition, represent a multiplicity of individual burials. Many of the stones and markers which once adorned these family plots are gone- destroyed or misplaced by careless workers, vandals, or in some cases lightning. Whatever records there are, maps and charts of the place, are sealed and vouchsafed by the bishops- who state categorically that the history of Calvary is no one’s business but that of those who are resident there. Frustrated, is my search for Gilman- by the sudden realization that the word “Gilman” was used during the 19th century as a given name- as well as surname.

from wikipedia, another Gilman with no tangible relation to the enigmatic Massachusetts man…

Henry Gilman (May 9, 1893, – November 7, 1986) was an American organic chemist known as the father of organometallic chemistry, the field within which his most notable work was done. He discovered the Gilman reagent, which bears his name…

For a short time after receiving his Ph.D., Henry Gilman worked an associate professor at the University of Illinois after being invited by his former instructor Roger Adams. In 1919, Gilman moved on to become an assistant professor in charge of organic chemistry at Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts (now Iowa State University). At the age of 30, Gilman was given the title of full professor. While at Iowa State College, Gilman met Ruth V. Shaw, a student of his first-year organic chemistry class, and the two were married in 1929.

Gilman had high expectations for his graduate students, and it often took them more than twice as long as the norm to earn their degrees. They were expected to work in the research lab well into the night and on weekends. Gilman was known for frequently visiting the lab during the day and questioning each student as to what they had accomplished since his last visit. Gilman had another common practice for his graduate students. He would not assign a research project for his graduate students, but he would push students to produce a series of preparations. Students would write short publications that would spark ideas about additional experiments to perform, drawing all the material together to form a central thesis.

During his career, Gilman consulted for many companies such as Quaker Oats and DuPont, although he continued as a professor at Iowa State University, as it came to be known. At the usual retirement age of 70, at that time, Gilman chose not to retire from Iowa State University and remained active in research until 1975 when he was 82 years old.

World War II brought new opportunities for Gilman to do research for the government. He took part in the Manhattan Project, which was the code name for the government’s work on the atom bomb. Gilman concentrated on preparing volatile uranium derivatives, mainly dealing with alkoxides.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Gilman… where is Gilman?

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  1. […] Visit Calvary Cemetery in Woodside with my favorite Queens blogger, Mitch Waxman [Newtown Pentacle] […]

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