New Yorkers are surrounded by history. But we don’t always realize it.
Take James J. Walker Park, for example. It sits just behind the Tony Dapolito Recreation Center at the intersection of Clarkson and Hudson Streets, an area that was once part of the Queen's Farm, owned by Trinity Church. Today, kids take batting practice and old men rest on sunny benches. It’s a quintessential New York scene. But the park, built in 1897, sits right on top of the old St. John’s Burying Ground. St. John's was a chapel of Trinity Church, established in the nineteenth centurty as New York's wealthy citizens moved northward. It’s estimated that 10,000 people were buried in St. John's Burying Ground in the years before 1860, when burials stopped—and very few bodies were removed and re-interred during park construction.
This is the story of one of the park’s original residents.
In September 1939, during a playground renovation, a child-sized cast iron coffin was removed from an underground vault. In shape and style it was made to look like a shrouded Egyptian mummy. The New York World-Telegram reported on the discovery, noting, “The girl’s cast iron casket…had a glass window in the top. Her white silk dress still looked fresh and dainty. After 89 years, you could still see that she’s been a pretty yellow haired child.” The World-Telegram also reported that the girl, dug up on city-owned land, was reburied in the Potter’s Field. It’s not true. She rests in peace in the catacombs under Trinity Church.
Who was she?
The silver coffin plate gave the child’s basic information: Mary Elizabeth Tisdall, 6 years and 8 months old, died April 14, 1850. A look through Trinity Church archives turns up the record of her burial. She died of “brain congestion”—probably encephalemia--and is listed as having lived at 219 East 9th Street in Manhattan, just off of Astor Place. The house is gone now. Her parents, Fitz Gerald Tisdall and Elizabeth Anne Clute, married at St. John’s in 1837. A visit to the New York Public Library reveals that her father arrived from Bristol, England, in 1833, and was a coal merchant. He was also a prominent Mason, grandmaster of St. John’s Lodge and author of a famous Masonic poem. Mary had a brother, Fitz Gerald Tisdall, who was ten years old at the time of her death and went on to a long career as a professor of Greek at City College. His portrait is available on Flickr.
Beyond the mention of her burial, there’s no record of Mary herself. The world around her is taking shape, but she remains a question mark. Was she mischievous or shy? Was she close to her brother? What excited her? What frightened her?
So the next time you walk past James J. Walker Park and hear children laughing, remember Mary Elizabeth, the pretty yellow haired daughter of a coal merchant. She probably would have enjoyed playing there.