East Hampton has a bit of a mystery on its hands, according to Russ Calemmo.
The town’s lamp doctor and East Hampton Town Nature Preserve Committee member said this week that he is getting closer to finding out the identity of “Ned,” an unknown man whose grave site on Morris Park Lane is making town officials, historians and committee members scratch their heads. No one seems to know anything about him, except what may have been on his tombstone, which has gone missing.
“Ned, faithful negro manservant to Capt. Jeremiah Osborn,” the stone read, according to notes kept by committee vice-chairman Richard Whalen. Ned died on August 8, 1817, according to the tombstone.
Does the supposed inscription really belong to the man within the grave? Who was he? Did he once own the property on which he is buried? Is his burial there significant to East Hampton’s history?
While Mr. Calemmo searches for these answers in Suffolk County records, there has been a push to exhume Ned’s body and relocate it to a more prominent place. But as Mr. Calemmo gets closer and closer to identifying Ned, the Nature Preserve Committee is less apt to push for reinterment. Now they would like to preserve the grave site itself.
“As Russ made inquiries around the county, it seems for numerous reasons, the best thing to do is let Ned rest where he is,” said Zachary Cohen, the chair of the Nature Preserve Committee.
Mr. Cohen said there is nothing certain about what they have learned about Ned, but he said it is likely that he was a property owner at the end of his life, and likely that he was buried on his homestead.
Whether he was a freed slave is at issue as well, Mr. Cohen said.
“I tend to believe he probably was a freed black man and probably was a slave before that,” he said. “He may have actually come to Jeremiah Osborn’s employ through that person’s marriage to a member of the Gardiner family. The Gardiners were known to have slaves and own a lot of that land in that area.”
He may have still been a slave at his death, however, unless he was freed by his owner.
The New York State emancipation law of 1799 would not have taken effect yet on Ned unless he died very young, Mr. Cohen said.
“Ned was likely already alive at that time and older than 18 at his death, especially given the adjective ‘faithful’ on the headstone,” Mr. Cohen continued. “Only children of current slaves born after 1799 would no longer be slaves and those who continued in slavery tended to be called indentured servants.”
He said the word “manservant” on the headstone matches that information.
The area where Ned was buried was also known as Freetown.
If Ned was a slave or indeed a freed black man, the site would be valuable to the history of the East End, according to Brenda Simmons, the director of the African American Museum of the East End.
“This [would be] confirmation for me, complete confirmation,” she said on Friday. “I always felt in my gut there is history here that needs to be revealed. I used to take my children to New York City to expose them to culture, but I always felt there was something here—that we had contributed to the Eastern End of Long Island, besides the whole world.”
But the mystery continues.
Mr. Calemmo said that Ned could be somebody’s initials or Ned could’ve been a Native American, even.
But after spending hours and hours in the records vault at the Suffolk County records office, Mr. Calemmo found a deed under Captain Jeremiah Osborn from 1863 that said a property was given to one of his workers, but it doesn’t say “Ned.”
“I’m getting closer and I’m on the trail,” Mr. Calemmo said, explaining that county records workers put him in white gloves to search the archives. “My next agenda will be to go through wills. You always follow the path based on surveys. You see in those who owned properties, and in wills you see what properties they leave to so and so.”
Ned’s missing tombstone was listed as one of more than 30 grave sites in a 2007 cemetery report created by the Nature Preserve Committee, which was tasked with cataloging the state of cemeteries across the town. But Ned grabbed the attention of the committee again in 2013 after members decided to update the list.
The grave site had been maintained by the town at least once a year, but about 10 years ago the stone went missing, according to Mr. Cohen.
Mr. Whalen had seen the tombstone himself and had notes about what he believed was on the stone.
“That was why we knew something was supposed to be there,” Mr. Cohen said. “We want to come back and reconstruct a little fence around the grave site and come back occasionally to maintain it.”
Unfortunately, the site is located near a private homeowner’s property and so the town may try to get permission first.
Mr. Calemmo said a homeowner in 1961 couldn’t sell his home so he decided to remove the fence around the grave site, but a survey clearly stakes out the site.
He said the grave was desecrated and a barbecue pit had been put on top of it.
But according to Town Attorney Elizabeth Vail, permission may not be required since there is an existing easement to the site that was recorded at Suffolk County.
The town has yet to speak with the homeowner of its plans.
If the Nature Preserve Committee gets its way, a new fence will be built around the grave and a new stone will be put in place. Volunteer organizations like the Boy or Girl Scouts may be asked to participate in its clean up and maintenance, along with other cemeteries across the town.
Before the committee asks the town for help, however, Mr. Calemmo wants to have the “ammunition” he needs to present a compelling case.
“To them its like a mystery—they’re biting their fingernails. ‘Where is the end of the story?'” he said. “It’s a story and there’s an end to this. It’s like fishing. We’ve baited you and the fish is circling. We’ll get it.”