Tuesday, November 13, 2007


(All photographs of Prospect Cemetery in this post are by the tremendously talented Kevin Walsh of Forgotten New York, which The Village Voice rightly called "One of New York's best blogs." Many thanks to him for the use of his images.)

By Cornelia

Around 1990, when I last lived in Manhattan, my friend Ariel Zeitlin was working for a documentary filmmaker named David Tapper. One day she said to me, "I think I've met someone you're related to." One of her co-workers in the office was Cate Ludlam, and Ariel knew that Ludlam is one of my middle names.

A month or so later, she introduced us to each other at a party.

"We're definitely related," said Cate. "There were only three brothers named Ludlam who came over from England. One of them changed the spelling to Ludlum. All the people with those two surnames in America are related."

I'm named for Cornelia Parrish Ludlam, my great-great-grandmother. She and her sister Augusta married two brothers by the name of Smith, and omy mother's family's cemetery on tiny Centre Island is filled with Smiths and Ludlams and Underhills and Townsends. Cate told me she, too, had a cemetery up her sleeve--Prospect in Jamaica, Queens, one of the oldest on Long Island.

She'd gotten heavily involved in the place's restoration, and we promised to someday trade tours of our respective burial places. Last Thursday, I finally got to see Prospect, with Cate as my guide. It will be the focal point of my third novel, which will center on the discovery of a three-year-old boy's skeleton, turned up by a volunteer crew of Cate's some eighteen years ago.

Jamaica's Prospect Cemetery could well be the oldest cemetery in Queens, and perhaps all of New York City. It dates to 1668, and one finds buried within it 53 Revolutionary War veterans, 43 Civil War veterans, three Spanish-American War veterans, and members of many prominent Long Island families such as the Lefferts, Ludlams, and Duryeas.

When Cate first saw the place, Prospect's four-and-a-half acres bore more resemblance to an overgrown, abandoned lot than a family graveyard. The weeds and vines and nettles that had taken root sometimes stretched in great snarled piles to a height of twelve feet. Many of the gravestones and obelisks had been toppled by vandals, and a variety of homeless people had set up camp in tunnels carved through the riot of vegetation.

Because Prospect was privately owned, New York City never bothered with its upkeep--or that of the abandoned stretch of asphalt that ran to its entrance. The last interment was in 1988.

Richard Van Lew's headstone dates to 1812.

For the last eighteen years, Cate has devoted herself to renovating the grounds, and the small "Chapel of the Sisters" built there by Nicholas Ludlum in memory of his three daughters who died in their teens and twenties.

A native of Jamaica, Ludlum ran a successful local hardware business and wanted to give something back to his hometown. When Cate first saw the chapel, its floorboards were rotted through, its stained-glass windows smashed by thrown rocks.

On the day we visited, a crew of workman worked to install a heating system, and new floor joists were sturdily in place.

The broken windows have been carefully removed from their frames and sent to a stained-glass studio, where the missing pieces of colored glass are to be matched and replaced.

"Here lyes interr'd the body of Anne Carle,
who departed this life July 21st, 1751, aetatis suae [aged] 21."

As Cate led my mother and I outside, she began to show us her favorite headstones. She knows the names of many of the carvers who embellished each memorial with funerary art--death heads and angels that reflect the styles of passing decades and centuries.

Her favorite stone is the simplest of all, a simple rough shard of rock etched with the name and date of one Thomas Wiggens:

The carved side of this stone faces west, and Cate explained that at sunset, the rays penetrating the old trees of Prospect illuminate all the different colors and bits of mica trapped within the rock. "Someone loved this man a lot," she says. "They chose the most beautiful piece of stone they could for him."

She's recruited volunteers from every walk of life to help her clear and care for the grounds: local high school students, members of the National Guard, Explorer Scouts and groups of cops from the 103rd precinct. The day before she gave Mom and I the tour, she'd been hacking at weeds with a group of Mormon missionaries.

"Here lyes y. body of Judith, wife of Henry Ludlam,
who departed this life Aug. 25, 1712..."

Over the last eighteen years, Cate has raised upwards of $650,000 in grant money from various public and private sources. She's attended countless meetings of city councils and zoning boards, barreled through hundreds of pages of paperwork, rushed the ramparts of dozens of bureaucracies, all to save this bit of land and architecture from the ravages of time before there's nothing left to save.

"They wanted to mothball the chapel," she explained, as we picked our way through the rough forest toward the back of the lot. "That's the deathknell for any building." Thanks to Cate's efforts the once-abandoned street running alongside the entry gates is covered in handsome stonework and functions as a busy pedestrian thoroughfare toward the terminus of the E line of the subway system, cutting between Prospect and the City University's York College campus.

$150,000 has been spent to erect a beautifully patterned black iron fence around the perimeter of the grounds.

Even the rusted vent grates on the chapel's exterior have been replaced with new metalwork, cut with lasers to recreate the original pattern.

When the chapel is finished, Cate hopes to make it a centerpiece for the neighborhood--a place where the community can gather for meetings, gallery shows, readings of poetry and fiction.

As she and I worked our way further and further back into the woods, toward the setting sun, we discussed the murdered boy found here so many years ago, the boy whose story I hope to write about. His name was Andrew, and he was beaten to death by his mother's boyfriend, who then hid his body deep in the jungle that was Prospect--not even bothering to dig the three-year-old a grave.

"That little boy is what made me work so hard to save this place," Cate said. "I had to make sure that what happened to him could never happen here again, to anyone."

A Ludlam Family Tree, in Photographs

Edward Ludlam, born in 1812, was the father of

Cornelia Parrish Ludlam, who married

Isaac Smith (1845-1915), father of
Rita, seated right (Isaac and Cornelia to her left) and

Herbert Ludlam Smith, father of

Thurston Huntting Smith (right, with Cornelia, center),
who was the father of

Deborah Munson Smith (born 1939), mother of

(left to right) Cornelia, Race, and Freya,
seen here in 1970 outside Honolulu.


  1. What a delightful blog, Cornelia! I love old cemeteries and am so glad to hear this one is being revived.


  2. Love the photos of the Ludlams, Smiths, et al. Now that's what I call a family tree!

    And what great fodder for fiction.

  3. As usual, loved your post, and especially loved the family photos....


  4. What a fine inspiration for the book, Ms. C!

  5. Cornelia,

    What can I say that I haven't said before? My admiration and gratitude grow with each of your posts.

    The tour was beautiful. Thank you.

  6. So glad that you guys liked it--thanks for coming along for the ride!

  7. Hey Cornelia:

    Wonderful blog! There's so much history in old forgotten cemetaries. And you wonder what quiet ghosts lurk in their overgrown greenery, waiting to tell their stories before they finally move on. I wonder who the little murdered boy's ghost played with while he waited for his body to finally be found. Waiting for a final caring touch before moving on...

    Oohhh. Goosebumps. God, there is definitely a profound story in there somewhere. Go for it.

    Great for you to touch base with your forbears and forbears' relations as well. :-D

    Thanks for enhancing my recent reading of ghostlore... :-D


  8. I lived next to the oldest cemetery to Tallahassee while at FSU.

    I became familiar with many of the family plots I passed every day.

    Good post, Cornelia.


  9. I recently visited the veteran's cemetery near my home. As I walked though an alcove filled with drawers containing the ashes of fallen soldiers, I paused to read a note that had been left there. It was obviously written by a son to his father, expressing how much he was missed. Pure voyeurism but so poignant.

  10. Every time you read the names on memorials or gravestones, they are not forgotten. Even if you are a stranger, and your eyes or voice only linger for an instant, they're reawakened to memory.

    I think Jacqueline wrote about something like that once. I know I read it somewhere in passing.

    We live in Providence, and have been several times to the magnificent Swan Point Cemetary, where HP Lovecraft is buried. The saddest thing that I saw there, was an elaborate needle-like monument about 12-14 feet tall. Some vandal had hacked off every mention of the person or family's name, every word of care from all surfaces of the monument. If the details of the grave's occupant hadn't been registered with the curator, no-one would ever know who they were or when they'd lived.


  11. Thank you, Jim and Patty.

    Marianne, a lot of the stones at Prospect are no longer readable--due more to "spalling" (frost getting into the stone and shearing it off) than vandalism. Luckily, a woman named Mrs. Frost did a walking tour of the place in 1910 and wrote down all the inscriptions, so they're saved for posterity. Cate told me that she didn't make a map, however. Still, they can tell which stones are which because of proximity.

    And I love that you're reading ghostly stories. I just read a wonderful story by Saki about a young werewold--"Gabriel-Ernest." Excellent stuff!!

  12. Whenever we go to a new area, we usually end up at a book store that has a local history shelf. I buy the local ghost story
    books. The latest one is a brilliant tome about the ghosts of Saratoga County, NY. David Pitkin does a great job. :-D


  13. i'm honored to be an instigator in your life. i love all the old grave iconography and the photos of everyone. i think you do look a little like cornelia ludlam and i'm amazed by how similar the young deborah was to freya-la. this book is going to be SO COOL!! love, ari

  14. If ever you are there, try to see the old Judea cemetery in Washington, Connecticut. It is small but lovely, and has some remarkable headstones dating back hundreds of years. There is something really good about caring for our dead loved ones-- possibly even an indicator of longing to take better care of our living ones! Good hols to all. MBH