Archives Month – Cemetery District/Canal Street Cemeteries Part 1

The records of the Clerk of Civil District Court’s Office, which date back to the 1700s, represent the rich history of New Orleans and its diverse communities. Our archives can be used for property, family history, architectural, and landscaping research.

The above Plan Book Plan was created by Deputy City Surveyor, Albert Blanchard, on March 22, 1853. The plan was created for the societies and institutions to lay out the dimensions of the cemeteries.

The above Plan Book Plan gives insight into the development of cemeteries along Metairie Ridge by the 1850s. (For the development of Metairie Ridge and associated areas, check out our blog on Jefferson Parish.) Today this area is commonly called the Cemetery District, referring to the cemeteries along Canal Street and City Park Avenue (previously considered part of Metairie Road).

Cypress Grove and Greenwood Cemeteries

Outside Greenwood Cemetery with Fireman’s Charitable Association and Elks Lodge monuments, August 2021.
Photo by Janine Smith.

Cypress Grove was the first cemetery established in the area in 1840. As discussed in our recent blog introducing benevolent associations, the Fireman’s Charitable and Benevolent Association was responsible for the creation of Cypress Grove and in 1852, Greenwood Cemetery. The Fireman’s Charitable and Benevolent Association is considered one of the oldest benevolent society still in existence in New Orleans.

Below is an 1848 act of conveyance from the Fireman’s Charitable Association to Charity Hospital for two lots of ground in Cypress Grove Cemetery. Charity Hospital later sold the two lots to a Mr. Samuel Smith on Jun 17, 1861, in another act of sale executed by notary, James Graham.

Graham, James. 1861 June 17. Vol 21, Act 4932

The above act of conveyance was attached to an 1861 act of sale as proof that Charity Hospital was the rightful owner of the two lots. From the attachment, we can gain some insight into the Fireman’s Charitable Association’s management over Cypress Grove Cemetery.

The stipulations associated with the sale state that the purchasers had the right to enclose the lots of land with a fence or wall as long as it does not exceed a foot in thickness, the lots were to be used for burial of the dead only, and “no trees within the lot or border shall be cut down or destroyed without the consent of the Association.” The association could determine “if any monument or effigy, or any structure whatever, or any inscription to be offensive or improper…” and also reserved the right, “for the time being… to enter upon said land and remove the improper object or objects.”

The Fireman’s Charitable and Benevolent Association “…administered the city’s [volunteer] fire department as an independent civic body while maintaining its activities as a charitable fraternity” for 37 years in the early history of New Orleans.1 By 1891, New Orleans had established a professional fire department and the association continued, and continues to this day, to preserve and maintain Cypress Grove and Greenwood Cemeteries where volunteer firemen and their families were laid to rest. Today, the cemeteries are still open for interments and are not exclusive to volunteer firefighters.2

Charity Hospital Cemetery

The fifth building of Charity Hospital, constructed in 1832.
Photo via http://old-new-orleans.com/NO_Charity_Hospital.html
The fifth Charity Hospital building, only indicated in pink above, was built on Common Street (now Tulane Avenue). A photograph of the building can be seen in the sepia tone image above. The elevation is of the property across the street from the hospital. This Plan Book Plan was created on April 28, 1854, by civil engineer and draftsman, Adolph Engelhardt.
Plan Book 13, Folio 25.

During its operation, Charity Hospital was once the second oldest functioning hospital in the United States. It was established in May 1736 a few months after Bellevue Hospital in New York in March 1736.3 It was one of the few hospitals in the country to provide free medical care to those who could not afford it.4 The hospital itself has a long and intriguing history and many locations in its timeline of care for the citizens of New Orleans, ending with its closure after Hurricane Katrina caused significant flood damage. Today, the Spirit of Charity Foundation (est. 1993) continues the legacy of Charity Hospital by promoting “…the ideals of humanism and caring for the most vulnerable in our society.”5

Charity Hospital Complex located in the Central Business District.
Photo via Downtown Development District, April 2006
https://canalstreetbeat.com/here-are-developers-plans-for-empty-charity-hospital-redevelopment/
Charity Hospital Cemetery, August 2021. Photo by Janine Smith.

The Charity Hospital Cemetery was establish in 1848 by the hospital. The cemetery was established as a potter’s field, or a place to bury the indigent. During the 1800s, the cemetery was used to bury “all unclaimed bodies…in New Orleans… but by the mid-1900s, it was used only for the unclaimed bodies of the patients who had died in Charity Hospital.”6 Those buried in the cemetery were often victims of the yellow fever and cholera epidemics that plagued the city or had donated their bodies to science. Many were interred in unmarked graves.7

The Charity Hospital Cemetery memorial marker indicates that the cemetery was originally known as Potter’s Field and was one of the few graveyards in the region with below-ground burials and was historically used to bury yellow fever and influenza victims and those who donated their remains to the Louisiana State Anatomical Board for Medical Education. Charity Hospital Cemetery, August 2021. Photo by Janine Smith.

Notice in the 1849 Times-Picayune article below that 32 individuals perished from Cholera and were interred in the Charity Hospital Cemetery. 20 individuals, also dying of Cholera, were buried in the Potter’s Field, a section of cemetery owned by the Fireman’s Charitable and Benevolent Association known as Cypress Grove No. 2, which was located next to the Charity Hospital Cemetery.8

“Chart.” Times-Picayune, vol. XII, no. 295, 4 Jan. 1849, p. [2]. NewsBank: America’s News – Historical and Current

Since the city’s founding, New Orleans has experiences a series of epidemics ranging from yellow fever and malaria to typhoid fever and cholera. Cholera is a bacterial disease that causes severe gastrointestinal symptoms and is caused by contaminated food and water.9 A brief but devastating cholera outbreak hit New Orleans from December 1848 to February 1849 so it was no surprise that cemeteries began popping up around Metairie Ridge at that time.10

The number of interments in the two cemeteries for the indigent compared to the others listed makes a startling point about the socioeconomic status of those groups hit hardest by the epidemic.

The survey below verifies ownership of the cemeteries and displays the layout and development of the cemeteries along Canal Street and Metairie Road (now City Park Avenue) in 1848.

Christy, William. 1848 April 12. Vol 59, pg. 305

The survey is attached to the act of sale from George Allan, Henry Mitchell, Henry Bier, and John Caldwell unto Charity Hospital for the portion of ground that is labeled “Charity Hospital Cemetery” above. The transaction took place on April 12, 1848, before notary, William Christy.

The portion of land is described as ” a certain lot or parcel of ground situate in this parish, at the Metairie Ridge, bounded on one side by the Fireman’s Charitable Association or Cypress Grove Cemetery and on the other side by the St. Patrick Cemetery, measuring two hundred and ninety-three feet, seven inches and seven lines front on the projected prolongation of Canal Street, thirteen hundred and eight inches and three lines in depth on the side adjoining the St. Patrick Cemetery and two hundred and forty feet, two inches and two lines in width, on the rear line. The whole as per sketch hereunto annexed…”

The sale was made for $2500 and was approved “by virtue of resolution of said [Charity Hospital] Council of Administration passed on the second day of November, last 1847…” The image below is the attached resolution.

A little over a year later, Charity Hospital purchased the remaining tract of land labeled with the letter “A” in red ink on the survey.

The hospital purchased the land from George Allan and Henry Bier before the same notary, William Christy, on August 21, 1849.

The reason for the purchase was provided in the attached extract of minutes from the hospital’s finance committee below.

The extract states, “Mr. Cenas on the part of the finance committee reported the impossibility of making interments in the cemetery belonging to the hospital, in consequence of the premises being completely inundated and the necessity of procuring ground free from inundation – and that the committee had examined a portion of ground on the Metairie Ridge near the cemetery now belonging to this institution which possessed the advantages desired and recommended the purchase thereof – the said ground could be had for four thousand five hundred dollars…”

As mentioned before, there is a common misconception that the high water table was the reason for aboveground burials when in fact it had much more to do with European architectural and cultural traditions. The early developed areas of the city were above sea level.11 However, there were some exceptions. In the early 1700s before the first cemeteries were established, there was evidence of burials in the “…natural levee along the river,” as it was essentially the only place at the time that would not result in a grave full of water.12 By the 1900s, massive pumps were installed to drain the wetlands and as a result, with a lower water table, “conventional” below-ground burials became convenient.13

In this related notarial act, the City of New Orleans as represented by the mayor, John R. Conway, contracted with “…the firm Grayer and Millspaugh, comprised of John Grayer and [Howard] Millspaugh.” The contract was for “…burying the indigent dead and conveying the indigent sick to hospital[s] within the city of New Orleans, for and during the term and period of one year, from and after the date of these presents.”

Hero, Andrew Jr., 1868 September 15. Vol 6, Act 1275

The agreement took place on September 15, 1868, before notary, Andrew Hero, Jr. The contract’s stipulations were laid out in the articles within the act. In the first article, the contractors were required to provide enough horses and drives for the “faithful performance of the said contract. The four charity wagons, the property of the city and now used for the above purpose, will be delivered to the contractor or contractors in whatever condition they may be in, to be returned to the said City upon expiration of contract in the same order and condition as received (usual wear and tear excepted)…”

Hero, Andrew Jr., 1868 September 15. Vol 6, Act 1275

The second article states that “it shall be incumbent on the contractor or contractors to have a wagon, horse, and driver at each of the police stations of the First and Second Districts during all hours of the day and night.”

Hero, Andrew Jr., 1868 September 15. Vol 6, Act 1275

Although the first automotive ambulances were utilized as early as 1885, “…the sick traveled to Charity Hospital in horse-drawn wagons, or similar bumpy transportation, which hardly benefited the patient.”14 The horse-drawn transportation continued on into the twentieth century as demonstrated in the 1906 image above.

According to the third article, the City of New Orleans would “furnish all coffins that may be necessary for the interment of the indigent dead, deliverable at the City Workhouse…The City of New Orleans also being bound for all sexton’s fees, according to existing ordinances, and also to furnish ground requisite for said burial.”

Hero, Andrew Jr., 1868 September 15. Vol 6, Act 1275

The fourth article stated that the contractors were responsible for providing “one competent person” for the Office of Street Commissioner located in City Hall and at the branch location at “No. 35 St. Peter Street, whose duty shall be to issue the necessary certificates of death and orders from the hospital…”

Hero, Andrew Jr., 1868 September 15. Vol 6, Act 1275

The City also reserved the right of discontinuing the different cemeteries and hospitals. The remainder of the contract described how the parties would fulfill their contractual obligations and the consequences for violating the terms.

Attached to the act was a public notice from the newspaper for bids on the contract followed by the resolution of selecting Grayer and Millspaugh as the contractors.

Hero, Andrew Jr., 1868 September 15. Vol 6, Act 1275

Both John Grayer and Howard Millspaugh were in the census records. Millspaugh appears to have had several jobs in his lifetime though none are relevant to the contract at hand. Grayer, however, was recorded as being an undertaker in the 1870 and 1880 censuses. The 1880 census also noted that John Grayer and his wife Anne Grayer were from Ireland; John was specifically listed as having Limerick as his place of birth.

Year: 1880; Census Place: New Orleans, Orleans, Louisiana; Roll: 462; Page: 13B; Enumeration District: 056

John and Anne (Deegan) Grayer were buried in their family tomb (pictured below) in St. Patrick Number 2.

Grayer family tomb, St. Patrick Number 2, August 2021. Photo by Janine Smith.
Grayer family tomb, St. Patrick Number 2, August 2021. Photo by Janine Smith.

Today, the Charity Hospital Cemetery no longer looks like a cemetery. There are no headstones, mausoleums, or tombs. What remains is the New Orleans Katrina Memorial, established in 2007, as a final resting place for the unclaimed and unidentified victims who perished during Hurricane Katrina.

In the next post, we will continue exploring the cemeteries along Canal Street and we will look more closely at a group of gentlemen and a couple of benevolent societies that were instrumental in the development of the cemetery district.

The Clerk’s Office has a rich amount of history pertaining to the cemeteries and properties along Canal Street and Metairie Ridge, also known as the Cemetery District. If there are any particular interests that you would like to learn about, please contact the Clerk’s Office. We are happy to assist.

Sources:

  1. https://www.greenwoodnola.com/the-firemans-charitable-benevolent-association/
  2. https://www.greenwoodnola.com/welcome/
  3. https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/the-oldest-hospitals-in-the-united-states.html
  4. https://64parishes.org/the-history-of-charity-hospital
  5. https://www.umcno.org/foundation/about/
  6. Salvaggio, John. New Orleans’ Charity Hospital a Story of Physicians, Politics, and Poverty. Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1992. pp. 50
  7. Dedek, Peter B. The Cemeteries of New Orleans: a Cultural History. Louisiana State University Press, 2017. pp. 220
  8. http://www.oakandlaurel.com/blog/the-canal-street-cemeteries-a-landscape-history-part-one
  9. https://web.archive.org/web/20101228115128/http://www.textbookofbacteriology.net/cholera.html
  10. https://historyengine.richmond.edu/episodes/view/5449
  11. Paredes, Sergio. “Odd Fellows Cemeteries.” The Three Links Odd Cast. Hanson, Toby, LeBouef, Eddie, Duplantier, Michael, and Ford, Emily. 30 Oct. 2020. iTunes app.
  12. Dedek, Peter B. The Cemeteries of New Orleans: a Cultural History. Louisiana State University Press, 2017. pp. 4
  13. Dedek, Peter B. The Cemeteries of New Orleans: a Cultural History. Louisiana State University Press, 2017. pp. 159
  14. Salvaggio, John. New Orleans’ Charity Hospital a Story of Physicians, Politics, and Poverty. Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1992. pp. 90

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