Situated in the New Dorp neighbourhood of Staten Island, New York, the vast Moravian Cemetery sprawls across an impressive 113 acres. First opened in 1740, the cemetery was located within an exclusive farming community. It was hoped that this free public cemetery might discourage local families from establishing burial plots on their own farmland instead.
With the Staten greenbelt area of High Rock Park to the southwest, the cemetery has a picturesque location. It is owned by the Moravian Church; but despite being a Protestant cemetery, at one stage it became a popular burial place for many Italian American Catholics. In the early 1900s, Father Ettore Barletta from the Italian Mission at the Moravian Church encouraged several Catholic mafia families, who had been refused a Catholic burial, to seek plots there.
Over centuries, the Moravian Cemetery has become the burial place for many famous Staten islanders. There is a monument to Robert Gould Shaw, a soldier who led the first all-black regiment in the American Civil War. Even film director Martin Scorsese has his own pre-arranged burial plot there.
The Vanderbilt Mausoleum
The most famous landmark in the Moravian Cemetery is a tomb dedicated to the Vanderbilt family. Across generations, several members of this prominent family were buried in this striking, rather imposing tomb.
Over the course of the 19th century, business tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt made his initial fortune in the shipping and railroad industries. Later, the Vanderbilt family expanded their interests into other areas of philanthropy and industry.
Cornelius gave eight and a half acres of land to the Moravian Church, to be used by the cemetery. Later his son William Henry gave a further four acres and built a residence for a cemetery superintendent.
In 1886, the Vanderbilt mausoleum was constructed. It was designed by Richard Morris Hunt, intended as a replica of a Romanesque church in Arles, France. Built into a hill and three storeys high, this highly decorative tomb became a New York City designated landmark in 2016.
The landscaped grounds surrounding the tomb were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. To this day, this whole area remains the Vanderbilt family’s exclusive private section, closed to the public except for arranged tours. The land is separated from the rest of the cemetery by barbed wire and a wrought iron gate.
The Hauntings of the Moravian Cemetery
These days, the notoriety of the Moravian Cemetery continues, but for quite different reasons. According to popular belief, the Vanderbilt Mausoleum is haunted. There is thought to be plentiful evidence of this: anyone having a photograph taken in front of the tomb reports seeing either an additional ghostly figure in the photo – or no one there at all.
There are other stories of ghostly occurrences at the cemetery. Many years ago, the Vanderbilt mausoleum’s tall iron gate, which is kept permanently locked, was believed to have caused the death of a young woman. She tried opening the gate, but it fell on her, killing her instantly. Since then, there have been alleged sightings of a glowing light that resembles a girl with long, flowing hair.
The Vanderbilt tomb has been the site of accidents and even deaths over the years, many of which are unexplained. After several cases of trespassing, the cemetery eventually increased its security measures. But despite fewer reports of vandalism since then, alleged sinister incidents at the cemetery have continued.
Some visitors have reported the sound of a baby crying near-certain tombs; others have reported the sudden appearance of a man in a suit, who then quickly vanishes.
Every four years, Vanderbilt descendants gather at the family tomb, which is opened specially for the occasion. But according to rumours, the deceased family members inside are not in fact buried at all; rather, they are propped up like statues all around the mausoleum.
Mysterious sightings, noises and experiences are commonly reported by those visiting the Moravian Cemetery. People say they have witnessed ghostly orbs, as well as bright lights and lines. Others claim to have seen blurred faces and disembodied heads. At least some of these claims are supposedly backed up by photographic records.
One popular story is that anyone bringing flowers will be chased away by a ghostly form of a man in a grey suit. This apparition is believed to be the ghost of Cornelius Vanderbilt himself.