Historic Green-Wood Cemetery vandalized

Shattered headstone of McNeil graveBrooklyn’s historic Green-Wood Cemetery was brutally vandalized the night of Monday, August 20th. Grounds workers discovered during the course of their duties Tuesday morning that at least 43 memorials, monuments and gravestones had been intentionally damaged. Some of the damage was minor, disrespectful but fixable with a cleaning. Much of it was considerably more severe, ranging from a trampled 19th-century American flag to shattered headstones. The total estimated cost of repair is more than $100,000.

Urns were cracked and pushed off their bases. Four marble crosses were toppled; three of them broke into pieces.

Two memorial porcelain photographs of the deceased were scratched repeatedly; another was smashed with a rock. Three gravestones were smeared with mud. And, this: a trash receptacle rolled down a hill, two stop signs were folded in half, and a Toro Workman cart was pushed up an embankment in an apparent effort to turn it over.

Vandalized Law family plotsThree headstones in the Law family plot were knocked over. The mausoleum of the Bourne family, designed by Beaux-Arts architect Ernest Flagg, had one of a pair of classical stone vases framing it toppled and broken in two. The cemetery is in the process of contacting family members of all the vandalized graves, but it’s taking some time to reach the families of people who died in the mid-19th century. Their contact information is not current, needless to say.

Decapitated angel from the tomb of Dwight Abbey, died at 5 years oldAlthough Green-Wood, like most cemeteries, has dealt with vandalism before, it has excellent security. The 478-acre grounds are surrounded by a high cast iron fence; there are video cameras all over the park and a car patrol that operates 24 hours a day. A possible suspect was captured on video. The recording has been handed over to the NYPD Hate Crime Task Force which is investigating the case.

The cemetery has already begun making repairs and will foot the bill, but they are asking for donations to help defray the cost. Click here if you would like to contribute.

Bronze angel on Matarazzo grave knocked down and cross toppled on top of it Angel and cross restored

Established in 1838, Green-Wood was one of the first garden cemeteries in the country. Spacious burial grounds set in a landscaped park-like environment on the outskirts of a city were a reaction to the increasingly crowded urban churchyards which were often putrid, poorly guarded and vermin-infested. Old remains in such places had to be regularly disinterred to make room for new ones since there was little room for expansion.

Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris was the first garden cemetery established in 1804. The first one in the United States was Mount Auburn Cemetery outside Boston in 1831. Its pastoral vista of rolling hills with classical monuments, bodies of water and groves of trees had the appeal of an English garden, then a popular landscaping trend. It was also non-sectarian, unlike the churchyards which determined who could be buried in them based on their religious affiliation.

Gothic revival entrance to Green-WoodSo beautiful and peaceful were the new garden cemeteries that they become popular tourist attractions. People would make a day of it and picnic on the grounds. These wide-open pastoral spaces for the dead inspired the creation of wide-open pastoral spaces for the people still living in the city, hence the construction of Central Park in New York City.

In the late 19th century, Green-Wood was the premiere burial ground for the rich and famous of New York. It also provided eternal rest to Civil War veterans, including ones who couldn’t pay, and to the victims of tragedies like the Brooklyn Theater Fire of December 5th, 1876.

Some of Green-Wood’s 560,000 permanent residents include composer Leonard Bernstein, several Roosevelts, newspaper publisher Horace Greeley, Lola Montez (the dancer and courtesan whose charms brought down King Ludwig I of Bavaria), pioneering journalist Nellie Bly who famously beat Jules Verne’s fictional Phileas Fogg to go around the world in a record 72 days, Louis Comfort Tiffany and Boss Tweed.

There are some lovely pictures of the cemetery today and in years past on Green-Wood’s Flickr photostream. Even today it’s a tourist destination, known not just for interesting themed tours of its permanent residents, but also for its excellent bird-watching and as a Revolutionary War battlefield (the Battle of Long Island was fought there).

Experts dig under parking lot for Richard III’s grave

King Richard III, painter unknown, ca. 1590-1610King Richard III, last Plantagenet king of England and the last king of England to die in battle, was buried exactly 527 years ago on August 25th, 1485. Today, on the anniversary of his burial, archaeologists from the University of Leicester will try to dig him up again. It’s the first archaeological excavation ever to search for the lost grave of a British sovereign.

It’s all the Tudors’ fault, of course. Henry Tudor’s Lancastrian troops defeated Richard’s Yorkist army at the Battle of Bosworth Field on August 22, 1485. Richard died on that field, felled by blows to the head from a poleaxe. With Richard’s death, Henry Tudor became King Henry VII. One of his first acts as monarch the day after the battle was to bring Richard’s body to nearby Leicester where it would be exposed, naked, and then hanged for all to see so there would be no question that the old king was dead.

Richard III falls at Bosworth; Shakespeare Window in Southwark Cathedral, designed by Christopher Webb, 1954After two days of being subjected to public ignominy, Richard’s body was buried at Leicester’s Church of the Franciscans, aka the Greyfriars. After years of dynastic dispute, the new king certainly wasn’t going to have the one he considered a usurper buried in kingly pomp with his ancestors in London, so instead the friars buried him unceremoniously in their abbey. Ten years later, Henry’s guilty conscience gnawed at him enough that he would spend £50 to have an alabaster memorial monument built over Richard’s tomb.

Then came the second Tudor Henry. Henry VIII split with the Catholic Church and the violent dissolution of the monasteries that followed did not spare Greyfriars. In November of 1538, the Greyfriars abbey and church in Leicester was destroyed. There is no record from that time describing what happened to Richard’s tomb and remains. The popular legend is that his tomb was smashed to bits and Richard’s body was taken by a mob and thrown in the River Soar. The earliest source for that story comes from mapmaker and historian John Speede writing seventy years after the purported events, however, and people who certainly would have written about it in the interim had it happened never mention a desecrating mob.

In fact, according to Christopher Wren, father of the famous architect, in 1612 there was a new monument over Richard’s grave. The property where the monastery once stood had been purchased by Leicester’s former mayor Robert Herrick who built an elegant house and gardens on the site. On the spot where the tomb of the king had been, Herrick erected a pillar inscribed, “Here lies the body of Richard III, some time King of England.” Wren worked as a tutor to Herrick’s nephew at that time and saw the monument while walking the grounds with Robert.

Richard III Society plaque on Grey Friars StreetAs the centuries passed, development entirely changed the cityscape and the exact location of Greyfriars church was lost, although the neighborhood was known. (There’s a street in the area conveniently called Grey Friars Street.) The Richard III Society put a plaque on a building to mark one potential spot.

A recent archaeological survey on Grey Friars Street done when a 1950s structure was being demolished to make way for new construction cast a whole new light on the question of where the church had been. It was a case of the dog barking in the night. The dig was in the center of the Greyfriars location, but archaeologists found nothing but a small piece of stone coffin lid. If the church had been there, they would have found much more evidence of its presence. This non-discovery discovery moved the epicenter of the Greyfriars site considerably to the west, an area that has more parking lots than real estate.

John Speede map of Leicester county and city, 1616Another recent discovery that boosted the odds of finding Richard’s burial was made by genealogist and Richard III expert Dr. John Ashdown-Hill. While researching his book The Last Days of Richard III, Ashdown-Hill examined the maps John Speede had made when he searched for Richard’s grave. He found that Speede had been looking at the wrong monastery, Blackfriars instead of Greyfriars.

Armed with this new information, University of Leicester experts used map regression analysis (a systematic comparison of different kinds of maps from different eras) to pinpoint the most likely site of the former Greyfriars church. It’s a parking lot used by the Leicester City Council.

Leicester City Council parking lotThe parking lot was surveyed Friday with ground-penetrating radar, and several archaeological hot spots were identified. Today the excavation begins. Guided by the GPR data, the archaeological team plans to start digging two long trenches.

The trenches will run North-South and should intersect with the church’s East-West walls (helpfully, Christian churches are usually built on the same alignment). The ULAS team shouldn’t have to dig too deep as, although there are hundreds of years of remains to get through, the actual strata are fairly shallow. Previous Leicester excavations have shown that the Roman layer is less than a meter down – and if you reach that, you’ve gone way past 1485.

The excavation will continue for two weeks. No visits to the dig will be allowed because the parking lot is for Council employees only, and it’s not in a publicly accessible area under normal circumstances. The weekend of September 8th, however, the site will be opened to the public. Come Monday the trenches will be filled back in and a week later it will be a parking lot again.

Archaeologists are very cautious in their estimates of what they might find. Fragments of an alabaster tomb would be nice; human remains of a male of proper age bearing evidence of fatal battle wounds would be ideal. Since time is very limited, they won’t be able to excavate any remains that aren’t likely Richard candidates, and given that churches and abbeys were thick with burials inside and outside the buildings, they could well encounter an embarrassment of options.

Michael Ibsen swabs his cheek for his royal DNAIf by some freakish good luck they do find remains that could be Richard’s, DNA experts will attempt to match its mitochondrial DNA to that of a direct descendant down the female line of Richard’s sister, Anne of York. Dr. Ashdown-Hill traced this unbroken matrilineal genealogy to Mrs. Joy Ibsen, an English-born journalist who had emigrated to Canada in her 20s. She was in her 80s when Ashdown-Hill found her and was highly amused to discover she was a 16th generation niece of Richard III. Mrs. Ibsen has since passed away, but her son Michael, a furniture-maker who lives in London, gave a swab of his precious mtDNA to the project. He was also present on Friday when the University of Leicester team explored the parking lot with ground-penetrating radar.

For more about the Greyfriars project and Richard III, see the University of Leicester’s microsite. For a short but thorough overview, see this video featuring University of Leicester archaeologist Richard Buckley, the lead archaeologist on the Greyfriars project.


The last XXIV hours of Pompeii on Twitter today!

Pliny the Elder's first tweet

Today is the 1933rd anniversary* of the eruption of Vesuvius that destroyed the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Starting at 8:00 AM MT, Pliny the Elder will tweet the eruption live just as it all went down.


I felt this was a fitting occasion for my first tweet, which was actually a retweet. It’s a little strange and offputting, but then again, so are tremors in the earth and a Vulcan’s forge inside a mountain belching smoke.

Twitter Pliny is a feature of the Denver Museum of Nature & Science’s A Day in Pompeii exhibit which runs from September 14th, 2012 to January 13th, 2013. They have some neat companion events for children and adults, from a toga party to lectures by volcanologists.

Click to follow Pompeii's last XXIV hours!

*According to traditional dating based on a letter Pliny the Younger, nephew of the elder Pliny who was visiting his uncle on that fateful day, wrote to the historian Tacitus describing the events 25 years later. Archaeological evidence suggests the eruption took place later, sometime in November. A second letter from Pliny to Tacitus puts the date at November 23rd.

SPOILER ALERT: Here are Pliny the Younger’s letters to Tacitus. Do not read if you want to be surprised by Twitter Pliny’s live updates.

Jesus Monkey restoration eclipses original

On Monday, August 6th, a group from the Centro de Estudios Borjanos (CESBOR), an institution dedicated to research and support of the history and culture of the small town of Borja, outside Zaragoza in the autonomous region of Aragon, northeastern Spain, visited a local church to examine the condition of a certain fresco. The painting on the wall of the church of the Sanctuary of Mercy was the only work in town done by turn of the century artist Elías García Martínez and one of his granddaughters had just donated money to restore it.

The fresco, a 20-by-15-inch portrait of Christ wearing the crown of thorns called Ecce Homo, was in poor condition. Water leaks and salt damage left the paint flaking off so that in the past 10 years it had gone from looking like this:

'Ecce Homo" by Elias Garcia Martinez as it was 10 years ago

To looking like this two months ago:

'Ecce Homo' by Elias Garcia Martinez, July 2012

When they arrived at the church, however, they were horrified to find it looking like this:

'Ecce Homo' August 7, 2012

In a plaintive blog entry about the discovery, the CESBOR folks deplored the mutilation of the work of art. They had no idea who had perpetrated the vile act, but the initial assumption was that it was a work of vandalism done in secret which they denounced in no uncertain terms. The blog entry noted that the Martínez family had met with the mayor to lodge a complaint and that the possibility of legal action was not excluded.

This week the story made the Spanish press (the El Pais article has an entertaining dragable before and after graphic), then it made the Internet and news outlets all over the world.

As “Ecce Mono” (“Behold the Monkey”) went viral, the culprit stepped forward. It was no malicious vandal, but rather an 81-year-old church volunteer named Cecilia Giménez, an amateur artist who had done touch-ups on the painting several times over the years. In an interview with Spanish television (clips from that story are in this BBC video translated into English), she claimed there was no secret about it at all. She did it with the advanced knowledge and permission of the priest and in full view of anybody who walked into the church as she worked. The church has no money so volunteers are always fixing things and this was no different.

She’s an accomplished artist, she insisted, who once had a four-room exhibition of her work from which she sold 40 paintings. Something just went wrong this time. She doesn’t know why, but it just got out of hand. When she realized she was in way over her head, she reported her work to the town councilor for culture, Juan Maria de Ojeda. She loved the painting and just wanted to help.

The city council is still considering taking some kind of legal action against her because her good intentions notwithstanding, her unsolicited intervention was “an assault on artistic patrimony.” I seriously doubt they’ll take it to the law. She’s an elderly church booster who is the sole caretaker of her disabled 60-year-old son. The diocese also thinks the reaction has been exaggerated since little old ladies are always doing stuff like this in churches out of devotion and nobody gets too wound up about the quality of their work.

City officials are bringing in professional restorers Monday to see if Cecilia Giménez’s “restoration” can be undone. Prospects are grim. The original work is a hundred years old and it was done directly on the unprepped wall with oil paints. There’s a reason frescoes are made with pigment applied to wet plaster; oil on wall tends to flake right off.

Tourists get their picture taken with the Jesus Monkey, photo by Gorka LejacegiIf it can’t be re-restored, that might be a boon for the city. “The world’s worst restoration” has a growing fan club now. It has become a major tourist attraction and subject of a Change.org petition to keep the new version rather than allow restorers to revert it back to the original. As the petition puts it:

The daring work of the spontaneous artist in the Ecce Homo of the Sanctuary of Mercy of Borja is an endearing and a loving act, a clever reflection of political and social situation of our time. It reveals a subtle critique of creationist theories of the Church, as well as questioning the emergence of new idols. The result of the intervention cleverly combines primitive expressionism Francisco de Goya, with figures such as Ensor, Munch, Modigliani or Die Brücke group of German Expressionism.

Also the Monchichi school of Sekiguchi Corporation and Hanna-Barbera.

Anyway it’s not like the original is a masterpiece, despite what some of the more sensationalistic headlines said when the story first broke. It has more sentimental value than artistic or historical significance. Elias Garcia Martinez was a fairly well-known local painter of traditional-style popular works in the late 19th and early 20th century. He was a professor at the Fine Arts School of Zaragoza from 1894 until his retirement in 1929, and he and his family used to vacation in Borja during the summer break. One of those summers he spent two hours painting Christ with a crown of thorns on a church wall in honor of the Virgin of Mercy.

It wasn’t even a work born from the fires of his imagination. He copied it from a mass-production print, etching, maybe a porcelain plate or one of those prayer cards with cheesy pictures of saints. The true original was Baroque master Guido Reni who around 1630 made an oil on copper panel painting called Head of Christ Crowned with Thorns, now in the Detroit Institute of Arts. He made several other similar pieces (here’s one in the Louvre), and by the time Martinez was painting, versions of Reni’s roll-eyed Christ — now modestly attired in bulky tunics — were ubiquitous.

Martinez’s version isn’t even all that great of a copy, in my opinion. The chromolithograph and porcelain plate below are much better. Their illustrators probably took longer than two hours to make them.

'Ecce Homo' after Reni, chromolithograph published in Dresden ca. 1890 Porcelain plate made in Germany ca. 1900

And now for my own composition. I call it The Devolution of Christ.


Unknown MLK recording found in Nashville attic

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.A previously unknown interview given by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1960 has been discovered in the attic of a Nashville home. Stephon Tull was looking through old boxes of his father’s when he came across a reel labeled “Dr. King interview, Dec. 21, 1960.” He borrowed an old reel-to-reel player from a friend and listened to the recording. It was of his father interviewing Martin Luther King, Jr. about the civil rights movement, the philosophy of non-violence, the political impact of that year’s sit-ins and his certainty that the child his wife Coretta was carrying would be a boy. (He was right; Dexter Scott King, Dr. King’s second son, was born just over a month later.)

Tull had no idea that his father, an insurance salesman, had recorded an interview with King as part of a book he planned to write. The book would have been a first person exploration of his father’s childhood in segregated Chattanooga and his adult life in Nashville under Jim Crow and during the civil rights era. The book was never completed, and Tull’s father stored the recording in the attic. Stephon doesn’t know if anyone other than his father heard the recording before he stashed it away. His father is in his 80s now. He’s ill and is currently under hospice care, so he’s not able to fill in the blanks on this remarkable find.

Here’s the only clip I’ve been able to find from the recording:


Mr. Tull is asking Dr. King about the effect of the sit-ins that were held at segregated lunch counters all over the South in 1960. The sit-ins in Nashville had taken place earlier that year, from February 13th to May 10th, at the whites-only lunch counters of Woolworth’s, Walgreens and other major downtown retailers. Congressman John Lewis, then a student at Nashville’s Fisk University and of the philosophy of non-violent protest, was one of the notable participants.

Sit-in at the Nashville Woolworths lunch counter, February 19, 1960The earliest sit-ins passed without incident, but as they continued they engendered increasing wrath among the business owners and segregationist crowds. By the end of February, sit-in protesters were getting arrested for disorderly conduct. The pro-segregation protesters harassing and attacking them were not. To support the sit-ins, religious leaders from Nashville’s black churches encouraged a boycott of businesses with segregated counters. An estimated 98% of Nashville’s black population participated in the boycott. Retailers promptly felt the financial sting.

On April 19th, the home of Z. Alexander Looby, a lawyer who was defending many of the demonstrators arrested at sit-ins, was bombed. He and his wife were unharmed, but the incident spurred a major protest in which 4,000 people marched on City Hall. The protest leaders met with Mayor Ben West on the courthouse steps, and he agreed publicly that segregation was immoral but said that store managers had to decide on their own whether to serve customers regardless of the color of their skin. On May 10th, a half-dozen Nashville retailers opened their lunch counters to black customers, making Nashville the first major city in the South to begin to desegregate its facilities.

It wasn’t smooth sailing from there on out, needless to say. Desegregation would remain an arduous struggle over the next four years until the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibited segregation in public places in the entire country.

Martin Luther King’s thoughts on non-violent protest and the sit-ins are well-known. He released many interviews and wrote about the topics extensively. Another subject addressed in Tull’s recording is of particular interest to historians: King’s recent trip to Africa and how the civil rights movement in the United States had an impact on the independence movements taking root on that continent.

In another part of Tull’s recording, King describes a recent trip to Africa. He explains to Tull’s father the importance of the civil rights movement both in the United States and abroad.

“There is quite a bit of interest and concern in Africa for the situation in the United States. African leaders in general, and African people in particular are greatly concerned about the struggle here and familiar with what has taken place,” he said, “We must solve this problem of racial injustice if expect to maintain our leadership in the world, and if we expect to maintain a moral voice in a world that is two thirds color.”

According to Clayborne Carson, founding director of Stanford University’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, King is talking about a trip to Nigeria he took in November of 1960, just a month before the Tull interview. King was personally invited to Lagos by Nnamdi Azikiwe, Nigeria’s first governor-general of African descent, to attend his inauguration on November 16th, 1960. In 1963, Azikiwe would become the first president of the independent Republic of Nigeria.

Carson notes that there isn’t very much information out there about the Nigeria trip. King didn’t do any interviews or press conferences while he was there, nor does he talk about the Nigerian trip in any extant letters or documents. The Tull interview is a rare gem on that score.

Stephon Tull is planning to sell the recording through collector and broker Keya Morgan in New York City. Will it fall into the private abyss or will a museum, the King Center or another institution get to preserve it for posterity?