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Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Cuba Cemetery

by David H. Crowley
Cuba Cemetery

At a public meeting in September 1841, Cuba residents decided a common burial ground was needed. The Cuba Cemetery Association was formed and a committee was named to acquire a site. It was learned that Lewis Nash would sell two-acres behind his home for $300 and so the cemetery trustees began organizing the laying out of burial plots and roads, and interments in the new cemetery soon began.

The Association struggled to collect money from lot purchasers and did not pay their debt to Mr. Nash on time. After some efforts to revive the Association in 1850 and 1869, New York State intervened in 1898, and re-formed the Cuba Cemetery Association with a new board of trustees. This time, the director’s instituted better fiscal management, including an assessment on lot owners to pay for general maintenance of common areas and unoccupied lots; this finally led to consistent upkeep and beautification of the grounds.

By 1902, the efforts of the revitalized Cuba Cemetery Association were paying off. An article in the Cuba Patriot & Free Press noted:

Three years of time, much hard work and inconsiderable amount of money has worked wonders in Cuba’s silent city. This long neglected resting place of our dead, has in three short seasons by the untiring efforts of the officers and directors of the Cuba Cemetery Association, assisted by many public spirited citizens, been transformed from an eyesore to all who visited it, into a beautiful spot, where we can in some measure of comfort consign the bodies of our loved ones to their last long sleep. It were a sin that this peaceful village on the hillside was so long allowed to remain a tangle of wild plants and vines, but all is changed now and velvety green grass now flourishes where weeds and vines formerly grew unmolested. Carefully graded lots, paths and drives, and well-trimmed shrubs and trees, made the Cuba Cemetery of the present a place of beauty for the living, and a fitting resting place for the dead. 

(Cuba Cemetery, Cuba Patriot, 27 March 1902.)

In 1855, a Roman Catholic cemetery was consecrated in Cuba, on a half-acre of land immediately to the east of the existing Cuba Cemetery. Cuba’s Catholic population at the time was overwhelmingly Irish, consisting of laborers who had come to the area to work on railroad or Genesee Valley Canal construction. It was important for the Catholic community to have its own cemetery because of devout Catholics’ need to be buried in consecrated ground. Establishment of separate cemeteries was common in communities with both Protestant and Catholic residents.

By 1898, the Catholic cemetery had expanded to the south, into roughly a trapezoidal shape. In 1923, Cuba Cemetery and the adjacent Catholic cemetery merged. Today the two are fully integrated, with no fence or border distinguishing the two; only the prevalence of Irish names indicates the location of the former Catholic section.

The Cuba Cemetery has long been admired for its beautiful, peaceful setting and has been referred to as an “excellent example of the mid-nineteenth century rural cemetery style.”

Based on contemporary English cemetery and landscape design, the American rural cemetery movement in the late 1800’s, was inspired by romantic perceptions of nature, art, national identity, and the melancholy theme of death. Rural cemeteries were typically located on hilly sites at the outskirts of cities and villages, both due to concerns about sanitation and disease and to foster the sense of a special place, apart from the ordinary world, set aside for contemplating and honoring the memory of the dead. Rural cemetery landscapes are characterized by curving forms, irregular massing of plant materials, and asymmetry rather than a formal, regularized layout.

Cuba Cemetery is the final resting place of many of Cuba’s most notable citizens, including many members of the first families to settle in Cuba, business leaders, veterans of wars dating back to the War of 1812, politicians, abolitionists, and philanthropists. Also buried here are farmers, laborers, shopkeepers, homemakers, and other typical citizens who made their homes in Cuba. Very few, if any, cemeteries in communities the size of Cuba can boast that they are the final resting place of two Medal of Honor recipients.

The cemetery contains burials and monuments to men and women who served in wars dating back to the American Revolution. One soldier from that war, Ashbel Webster, is commemorated on a monument erected b descendants in 1929 that contains a lengthy description of his Revolutionary War record and a biography of him and of his wife (see accompanying photo). Eleven soldiers from the War of 1812, one from the Mexican-American War, 119 from the Civil War, six from the Spanish-American War, and scores of men and women who served in World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam in addition to more current conflicts all rest in the cemetery.

In the Cuba cemetery.

The cemetery has grown many times over since its origins on Mr. Nash’s two-acre plot. Additional land was purchased in 1854, 1869, 1898, 1899, 1957, and 1981, bringing the cemetery to its present size of 11.9 acres, including the Catholic cemetery added in 1923. More than 5,700 people have been buried there. It includes two mausoleums and its most notable feature, a century-old receiving vault, to which no known changes have been made since its construction.

Newer sections are distinguished by their flatter topography and more modern monuments; Section E is developed in the twentieth-century memorial park style, with markers flush with the ground to give the appearance of unbroken lawn.

In 2014, Cuba Cemetery was nominated to the State and National Registers of Historic Places, in recognition of its historical importance to the town and village of Cuba and its notable design. Many notable individuals are interred in the cemetery and this designation is certainly a tribute to their contributions of to the proud heritage of our Western New York area and our nation. Still run by the Cuba Cemetery Association, it remains a peaceful place of contemplation and scenic beauty. The cemetery is located on Medbury Avenue, in the northeast corner of Cuba Village.

About the author: David H. Crowley has served as Cuba Village mayor and Cuba town Clerk. He is currently serving on the Cuba Rushford Central School Board of Education; is Historian for both Town and Village of Cuba; and for many years was owner, publisher, and editor of the Cuba Patriot and Free Press.

Hart Island

By Michael T. Keene

In 1654, a 130 acre island, located at the western end of Long Island Sound, was purchased by English physician Thomas Pell. Upon Pell’s death, in 1666 the land passed to his nephew, John Pell of England. In 1774, his heirs sold it to Oliver Delancey, a Loyalist politician, soldier and merchant during the American Revolution.

In 1775, British naval cartographers chartered what they originally named “Heart Island” because of its general shape, which seemed to resemble a human heart. Other historic reports claim that the island was named after deer, known as "Harts" who roamed the area. The island was the ancestral home of the Siwanoy Indians.

In 1864, as the Civil War gained momentum, construction of barracks began at the southern tip of the island to hold approximately five thousand prisoners of war. The island was also used as a training facility for new soldiers. Between two thousand and three thousand raw recruits were initially expected, but more than fifty thousand men ultimately trained there.

When visitors and family members of the Union recruits came to Hart Island, they were required to get a pass from General Dix’s office on Bleecker Street in Lower Manhattan (Greenwich Village) and had to pay fifty-five cents to board the ferry, John Romer, before it sailed twenty-one miles from the Battery to Hart Island.

Leaving the island was more difficult than landing on it. Visitors were hurried onto their return boat trip as the ferry docked only a half-hour before sailing back to Manhattan. Once travelers accomplished this part of their trip, they would board a tugboat to New Rochelle and hire a rickety carriage at twenty cents per person to take them to the designated railway station in Manhattan. The railway charged fifty-five cents for the next part of the trip to the Twenty-Seventh Street station, which was the last stop.

From here, weary riders would disperse before finally reaching their homes. Any leftover enjoyment from a day spent on Hart Island was soon overshadowed by fatigue and empty pockets. Many soldiers who occupied the island during wartime died in the line of duty, but many also died from diseases. They were buried on Hart Island.

In 1868, the City of New York, under the auspices of the Department of Public Charities and Correction, purchased Hart Island from the John Hunter family for $75,000. Since then, Hart island has been used, besides the aforementioned Union Civil War prison camp, as a psychiatric institution, tuberculosis sanitorium, homeless shelter, boys reformatory, a jail, drug rehabilitation center, and incredibly, during the Cold Way, as a Nike missile base.

In 1869, forty-five acres at the northern end of the island were designated as a cemetery for the poor and the unclaimed. A 24-year old woman named Louisa Van Slyke, who died in Charity Hospital, was the first person interred in what would become known as New York City's"Potters Field".

150 Years Later

In April 2018, an official from the Department of Corrections alerted a well-known Hart Island activist to skeletal remains that had been seen scattered on the beach—some even protruding from the shoreline! After arranging a boat, the activist and a Newsday reporter set out that very day to see for themselves. They photographed and confirmed the sighting.

The following day, a forensic anthropologist from the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner conducted an investigation that resulted in the recovery of 174 human bones, including six skulls.

The remains discovered that day unearthed a secret kept hidden for more than 150 years. Lying beneath the ground of this almost forgotten tiny island were the remains of nearly one million people, buried in wide, deep pits dug by convicts from nearby Rikers Island.

The dead included stillborn babies, unclaimed paupers, Union and Confederate soldiers, the insane, the addicted and the unidentified. The bones would reveal tales of war, abuse, fraud, epidemic, and mental illness, which would tell stories of NewYork’s most forgotten people.

After nearly a century and a half, as the result of recent advances in DNA and fingerprint technology, forensic anthropology, and access to previously withheld burial records, we now have identified some of these anonymous lost souls and are able to finally reveal the hidden history of Hart Island—America’s largest mass graveyard.

Introduction to: New York City's Hart Island: A Cemetery of Strangers, by Michael T Keene, The History Press, 2019. ISBN:9781467144049

About the author: Michael is the author of eight books. He is also the producer of the documentary film Visions: True Stories of Spiritualism, Secret Societies, and Murder, as well as eight audiobooks.

Although employed for more than twenty-five years as a financial advisor, Michael has combined his interest in local history, writing, music, and filmmaking to explore unique and fascinating chapters of nineteenth-century New York folklore and stranger-than-life legends.

His books and videos can be found at

Monday, March 30, 2020

Thunder from the North:
Carmen Basilio and the Fight Game

Carmen Basilio
Copyright ©2020 All rights reserved by the author.

In a stellar career which lasted thirteen years (1948-1961), Canastota boxing champion Carmen Basilio established himself as a multiple world title holder in two different weight classes, and he competed against some of the greatest fighters ever to step inside of a boxing ring: Kid Gavilan, Tony De Marco, and Sugar Ray Robinson to name just a few…Basilio endured truly humble beginnings (his family was poor onion farmers who lived in upstate New York) and long work hours to establish himself as a top-notch athlete.  

After serving a stint and boxing in the U. S. Marines during World War II, Basilio decided to skip the family agricultural business and he instead became a professional fighter. His professional debut came on November 24th 1948, when Basilio knocked out opponent Jimmy Evans in 3 rounds.  Basilio quickly established his relentlessly brawling, slugging style that was to become his signature, while fighting his adversaries.  Never a stylish dancer or a deliberate tactician like fellow rivals Sugar Ray Robinson and Johnny Saxton, Carmen was a seemingly indestructible close-quarters puncher, who was impossible to intimidate and very nearly impossible to hurt. Basilio was not a tremendous puncher like Utah-born world middleweight champion (and also rival) Gene Fullmer…but Carmen’s perpetual attack of crowding out his opponents on the inside of exchanges made Basilio very successful in the boxing ring.  Basilio’s enemies were never given time to rest from Carmen’s wicked, non-stop rushes.  Basilio’s punches were solid and crisp, although they were not typically combustible.  He wore his opponents down through both the cumulative effects of his endless punching and his superlative durability.  

Basilio’s early career was a very curious admixture of wins and losses…yet by 1953 he established victories over top-rated welterweights Ike Williams, Lew Jenkins (both boxing icons, but somewhat faded at this point) and classy fellow New York fighter Billy Graham.  Graham was a rugged and quick-witted boxer of considerable talent and his rivalry with Basilio was a memorable one.  They fought three times with Graham winning the first bout by unanimous decision and Basilio winning the 2nd encounter by unanimous decision.  The third Graham-Basilio fight ended in a draw result for both.  When his trilogy with Graham was completed, Basilio was now a top-ranked American boxer contending for legendary Cuban Kid Gavilan’s world welterweight title.

The Kid Gavilan-Carmen Basilio match took place on September 18th, 1953.  In a faced-paced 15-round thriller, Basilio knocked the champion down with a hard left hook (Basilio’s best punch) that caused flashy and clever Gavilan to crash canvas-ward in round 2. The gutsy Gavilan beat the referee’s count and resumed heavy fighting with his young challenger. Both combatants went the scheduled distance; with Gavilan the victor by split decision. 

This loss hardened Basilio’s resolve and it bolstered his confidence. Carmen had proved to his Syracuse and Canastota fight fans that he indeed was a world-class boxer.  Between the end of 1953 and early 1954 Basilio twice clashed with game Frenchman Pierre Langlois, earning a draw in their first fight and then scoring a unanimous decision over his top-ranked opponent in their last meeting.   
This victory propelled the self-proclaimed Upstate Onion Farmer to a second welterweight world championship fight against the new titlist and New Englander Tony De Marco.  The five-foot-six, and ½ inch Basilio was duly prepared, and on June sixth, 1955, he met the fierce and feisty Bostonian at Syracuse’s War Memorial Auditorium.  In front of his beloved hometown audience the spirited Basilio and indomitable De Marco waged a vicious war, which vacillated back and forth, until Carmen took control and scored a brutal technical knockout against Tony in round number twelve. Basilio was now the undisputed 147-pound kingpin of the world welterweight division and his dreams were fulfilled.  But Carmen knew very well that in order to keep his throne he would have to defend it against all comers, and he would soon again do battle with De Marco…this time in Boston.

In another volatile encounter, Basilio withstood heavy fire from the former champ.  Basilio would not be discouraged and by round 12 (as in their first fight) Basilio had stopped De Marco by knockout.  In 1956, Basilio would lose his crown to Johnny Saxton, via controversial 15-round decision.  Before year’s end, Basilio would kayo the newly crowned champion, to reclaim his world welterweight belt and scepter, in round nine.  In February, 1957, Johnny Saxton would again challenge the tough, slugging Basilio, with Carmen the impressive winner of their rubber match, by halting Saxton in round two. 

Having firmly established his reputation as one of boxing’s most elite members, Basilio now eyeballed world middleweight champion Sugar Ray Robinson’s title belt.  Robinson was long regarded as boxing’s best pound-for-pound fighter in the world.  Despite being considered a hardened pugilistic veteran, Basilio was thought of as an underdog against Sugar Ray.  The two world champions collided at Yankee Stadium on the 23rd of September, in 1957.  Both New Yorkers shook the Bronx to its core, as Robinson’s stinging combinations from long-range landed against the determined welterweight king.  Basilio outhustled Robinson in most of their fight’s epic exchanges, landing more punches and walking through Sugar Ray’s barrages, stunned, but undaunted.  Basilio was properly awarded a hard-fought decision victory by way of split verdict over Robinson and Carmen was now the 160-pound world boxing champion.

Basilio had arrived at the summit of his powers with this huge victory…but Robinson (reputed by many boxing pundits as the greatest-ever fighter in the sport’s history) would not be denied his revenge.  At Chicago Stadium on March 25th, 1958, it was Sugar Ray Robinson who outhustled and outpunched a resilient and a relentless Basilio, to recapture the world middleweight title by way of split-decision victory.  Sugar Ray avoided many of Carmen’s haymakers and he effectively countered the Italian-American’s punches from long-range.  Basilio’s left eye had been badly bruised by the four (and soon to be five-time world middleweight boxing champion).  But Carmen fought on courageously and he refused to give up, while sitting on his stool.  Basilio kept his second and last meeting with Robinson very close, loosing narrowly by a points deficit.   

Basilio was now slowly fading from his prime. From 1959-1960 he lost two bouts to former middleweight champion Gene Fullmer, each by way of stoppage.  Fullmer, unlike Carmen, was a natural middleweight, and the Utah bull…being much larger and stronger than Carmen, wore him down in both brutal slugfests.  Carmen gave the steely Fullmer plenty of heat on both occasions, but Fullmer was simply too tough for a mainly welterweight dynamo like Carmen Basilio.  

Carmen’s last fight came on April 22nd, 1961, when he dropped a unanimous decision to the new world middleweight champion Paul Pender, at the Boston Garden, in Massachusetts.  Pender was a very savvy and indefatigable boxer, who was at his best, and Carmen, who suffered a knockdown during their 15-round battle, was but an apparition of his glory days. 

Yet Basilio, whose unusually brilliant and animated eyes were always illuminated with determination and faith, had very much life left in him.  He lived to eighty-five years old, when he died on November 12th, 2012 in Rochester, NY.  Carmen Basilio built up a very esteemed ring record, consisting of 56 victories, 16 defeats, 7 draws and 27 knockouts.  But it is not for his career statistics that Basilio will be remembered…it will be for his singularly brazen spirit and integrity.  For Basilio fought in an era in which the underworld dominated boxing and corrupted it. Standout fighters such as Jake La Motta, Sonny Liston, and Charley Burley were all reputedly to be negatively influenced by Mob interference…but not Carmen Basilio. Carmen refused to be bullied or manipulated by any criminals of the day, and he fought on terms exclusively honest and unbiased. Talent, diligence, and luck would dictate the outcomes of Basilio’s bouts, not crooks.

Basilio has a nephew, Billy Backus, also of Canastota, New York, who became a world welterweight boxing champion. Backus was also a very spiritually rigorous and physically tenacious fighter.  Carmen said when Billy won the world welterweight title from Jose Napoles in 1970, “It was the proudest moment in my life.”  Certainly, America and New York State had great honor in having Basilio reside here, for all of his life.  Basilio truly loved boxing, and the State of New York loves Carmen, for the dignity, decency, and bravery that he displayed through his long and productive life.  

It was Carmen Basilio’s spectacular spirit and career that helped motivate the proprietors of the International Boxing Hall of Fame to put their shrine in Canastota, NY.  There, Basilio is immortalized along with the likes of all-time boxing greats Benny Leonard, Muhammad Ali and Thomas Hearns.

About the Author: Michael Mauro DeBonis is a poet and a historian from Long Island, N. Y. Mr. DeBonis graduated from both Suffolk County Community College and SUNY Stony Brook (B. A. English). Michael’s work first appeared in the Village Beacon Record and the Brookhaven Times newspapers. His latest work (poetry and prose) may be found in The New York History Review.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

A branch of the Ku Klux Klan is in operation near West Colesville

By Richard White

“While our brave [soldiers]…are writhing in hospitals or exposed to bullet or shell, or giving up property and lives for the cause of the Union, these pitiful demagogues would weaken them by attacking the National cause in the rear” based upon their insidious disloyalty. This was The New-York Times’ observation on October 23, 1863, concerning the fact that in the North during the Civil War, there were numerous supporters of Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy. However, no estimates have been found to quantify this point. For many New Yorkers, the war was that of northern aggression, which prompted them to weaken the Union by following protocols such as encouraging” Boys in Blue” to desert, or to resist the draft, and even to denigrate enlistments.

This was a Northern movement on behalf of Southern interests.

Some New Yorkers were influenced and affected by movement leaders such as Ohio Congressman Clement Vallandigham. The North Country’s Ogdensburgh St. Lawrence Republican briefly detailed one way how this demagogue spread his message. On March 3, 1863, it reported that “several hundred copies of Vallandigham’s recent speech have been procured by Northern traitors” for distribution. Research has discovered one place in New York where the Southern cause was a dominant force. That place was the Town of Colesville in Broome County in the Southern Tier.

On October 15, 1862, the Broome Republican discussed the recent activities of “Northern traitors” who in this case lived in the hamlet of West Coleville where for the second year in a row they hoped to repeat their challenge to the “National cause in the rear” at the annual town fair in nearby Harpersville in early October. Two events on opening day at the fair in 1861 worked in their favor. First, they did not allow Old Glory to be raised on the flagpole at the fairgrounds—unfortunately, the Republican neglected to explain how. Second, the clergyman who at least had sympathies with these Northern Traitors refused to say a prayer for President Lincoln until the Bishop ordered him to do so. No other tactics are described. Even after the War’s end in 1865, a remnant of Confederate supporters functioned in West Coleville, although there is no evidence that they were enamored with the dream that the “South Shall Rise Again.” This remnant belonged to the semi-secret Knights of the Golden Circle, although some Democrats mistakenly called the group the Ku Klux Klan.

On September 19, 1868, the Albany Express reprinted a section from the Republican’s report a few days earlier on the other anti-Union organization in West Colesville. They “meet in an old store-house, of which the windows have been boarded up, and the conclaves are held with closed and locked doors….The men composing the organization belonged to the Knights of the Golden Circle…They are a desperate gang, and nothing but the fact of inconvenient distance from the rebel lines prevented their active participation in the rebellion.” Nothing like this last phrase was used to describe the traitors in West Colesville in 1862. Yet the Republican provided no insight into the KGC’s pro-Confederate activities except for one involving a textbook dispute in their school. Without naming the purchaser of multiple copies of Youth’s History of the Rebellion, this textbook “caused so much indignation that the books [were] withdrawn.” They were not going to proselytize the enemy’s perspective on the war. In contrast, on April 20, 1864, the Republican lavished praise on the book when it was first published, stating clearly that “we advise our young readers to get a copy at once.”

The Republican offered no follow-up on “Northern traitors,” or KGC, nor did any other local newspaper. In 1868, The Republican was furnished anonymously with the names of its leaders but chose not to print them. In the 1860s, anti-Americanism was a focus of residents in a rural town in Broome County. They would not desire to sing, or hear, “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

About the author: Richard White's articles have appeared in Civil War HistoryThe Journal of Negro History, and other publications.