Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by the Shapell Roster Project research team.
Cemeteries are interesting places that attract all sorts of people: family and friends of those interred; dog owners, runners, and others who enjoy a quiet, usually beautiful oasis in the middle of a bustling city or suburbs; volunteers; vandals… wait, what?
That’s right, vandalism—and not just tagging or petty theft. I mean opened crypts, bodies left lying in plain view—serious stuff. Serious enough incidents for a lawsuit and a whirlwind of press coverage, but not enough to encourage those responsible for the care and upkeep of an old cemetery to do the right thing. But, I’ve gotten ahead of my story. This story began last year for the Shapell Roster Project team when I sent a series of emails out into the ether about a soldier who was supposedly buried in a Jewish cemetery called Bayside, located in Ozone Park, Queens, New York. We knew the soldier was Jewish, but we couldn’t (and still haven’t) determined in what regiment he served. Sometimes that information is available in cemeteries. A few days later I received an email from an Anthony Pisciotta.
I try really hard not to name profile, but I did not expect a guy with an Italian sounding name to get back to me about a Jewish cemetery. Anthony is not Jewish, yet he probably knows more about Bayside Cemetery than anyone. The story he told me about his connection to Bayside was fascinating. Back when he was a kid, he heard tales about cemetery desecration that, like a good campfire ghost story, stayed with him into adulthood. Today, Pisciotta works for the city driving a truck and his route goes right by Bayside Cemetery. One day, he noticed a tomb, wide-open with two damaged coffins with the skeletal remains exposed—just like the stories from his youth! Since then, he’s become one of Bayside’s most dedicated advocates and volunteers.
Pisciotta researches genealogy to find descendants to let them know about the condition of their ancestors’ final resting place and helps descendants who contact him find their relatives. In one case, he sealed the mausoleum of Marcus Witmark to prevent any future vandalism, after securing Witmark’s descendants’ permission. There are many more mausoleums he’d like to similarly protect, but some are too dangerous to even fix, and he’s not a rich man.
Recently, Pisciotta launched a crowdsourcing fundraiser for a permanent flagpole to honor the many Veterans interred at Bayside.
Pisciotta doesn’t shy away from talking to the press, but he has a simple agenda: the dead deserve better. And Pisciotta isn’t just talking about the problem, he and his children frequently pick up trash that accumulates in the cemetery and just this week he escorted a Boy Scout troop through Bayside, placing flags on Veterans’ graves for Memorial Day.
We at the Shapell Roster Project are extremely grateful to Pisciotta and other volunteers at Bayside Cemetery for helping us find Civil War soldiers not included in Simon Wolf’s 1895 roster and for confirming that some soldiers listed in Wolf’s roster are, in fact, Jewish (because many are not, but that’s a topic for another post).
Thanks to the National Museum of American Jewish Military History, we discovered the name (but not the regiment) of George Samuels in the Minutes Book of the Hebrew Union Veterans Association.
Unfortunately, with so many soldiers named George Samuels serving in the Civil War, we had no idea which one he was!
When Anthony sent me a photograph of a tombstone for a George Samuels buried at Bayside,
the death date lead us to a soldier who served in the 9th PA Cavalry.
This led us to Norm Gasbarro’s blog post, “Who is George Samuels?”
After a flurry of emails in which Gasbarro, Pisciotta and I excitedly exchanged the pieces of the puzzle we each had, Gasbarro posted an update entitled, “New Information on George Samuels.”
We found out about Lob Turk (alias Lewis Blake) from his descendant, who contacted us via the Shapell Roster website’s contact form. She wanted to make sure that her ancestor was included in our roster so his patriotism was not forgotten. As it turned out, we were able to help Turk’s descendant gain access to his Pension Record (which she had previously been told by the National Archives was lost or destroyed). She, in turn, told us that Turk was buried in the Mokom Sholom part of Bayside Cemetery, and put us in touch with long-time volunteer, Florence Marmor.
The history of Bayside Cemetery and the adjoining Acacia and Mokom Sholom cemeteries on IAJGS’ International Jewish Cemetery Project website for Ozone Park was written by Marmor. In most cases, references to Bayside include the other two cemeteries and vice versa. Collectively, the remains of more than 35,000 Jews are interred in the Bayside, Acacia, and Mokom Sholom cemeteries. Lob Turk and George Samuels are just a few.
No matter how I try, I just can’t understand how (or why) a cemetery in the middle of Queens could be subject to such a long history of misfortune and neglect. Bayside was the cemetery of choice for hundreds of Congregations and Burial Associations since 1865, including the Hebrew Benevolent Society, who buried poor deceased Jews like Lob Turk for free.
“A Good Idea.” Commercial Advertiser. November 22, 1869. p. 4. via GenealogyBank.com.
Perhaps it was the wealth of some of the residents of Bayside Cemetery relative to that of the surrounding neighborhood that attracted criminals:
Or perhaps it was anti-Semitism?
“Cemeteries Damaged.” The Kingston Daily Freeman. February 19, 1951. p. 12. via newspapers.com
Regardless of the reasons, the crimes against the cemetery became more horrific over time. In 1983, a woman’s body was removed from her coffin and in 1997, the coffin of Joseph Geismer was set on fire. Geismer’s niece relies upon Anthony Pisciotta to keep an eye on her family’s plot because she herself can’t bear to visit the cemetery.
The original owner of Bayside Cemetery, Congregation Shaare Zedek, is accused of negligence and fraud. A lawsuit filed in 2007 by John Lucker, a man whose grandparents purchased a perpetual care lot in Bayside, was dismissed in 2011 on a technicality. Lucker continues his crusade against Congregation Shaare Zedek via Bayside Cemetery Litigation while groups like Olive Branch Cemetery Restoration and the Community Alliance for Jewish-Affiliated Cemeteries, and individuals like Marmor and Pisciotta do what they believe is the best for the cemetery and its inhabitants.
The Shapell Roster Project honors the Jews in the service of the Union and Confederate Armies and Navies during the American Civil War period of 1861-1865. We, the researchers behind the Roster Project are grateful to all of the volunteers at Bayside Cemetery and any place where these men were laid to rest. Without your help, our job is just that much harder!
Interested in staying updated with the latest research news and discoveries? You can follow the research team’s progress as it’s made at the Shapell Manuscript Foundation Facebook Page and Roster Project Album, or by following @ShapellManu on Twitter, #ShapellRoster, or check back at our blog for more interviews and news from the archives.