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Communipaw (James McCune Smith) to Frederick Douglass, July 16, 1852


Heads of the Colored People. - No. 4.


Years ago, when the idea of turning church and churchyard into houses and lots, would have brought down a volley of oaths in low Dutch, French and English, all along S[illegible] street, there lived and flourished the most remarkable of New York sextons—All the sextons in those days were colored men, John Mace and thousand other funerals were [illegible]. Our hero was of gigantic height, with broad double jointed shoulders, [illegible] legs and a head to match: he seemed to have grown up under the church, part of its support, one of its under-ground pillars, so much a part of it, that whenever he crept out of the vaults into the open air, it seemed clear that he must have braced up a huge stone pillar, to take his place 'until his return,' else that side of the edifice must have caved in. His mother must have brooded in charnel houses, fascinated with vampire fancies, or he never would have come into the world with that huge, misshapen head! His eyes were large, prominent and staring, with the whites visible all round, and seemed to have been placed at different times and assymmetrical places in his head; they were no more a pair than if they had belonged to different persons. His hair, on week days, lay close to his head, carefully done up in [live,] closely plaited pig-tails which lay close to the scalp, from the natural disposition to 'grow in again,' manifested by 'each particular hair.' But on Sundays, his whole scalp passed from the grub to the butterfly state - the pig-tails expanded into whirls, elaborately combed out, into prow, alae, nariculum, in short, decidedly papilionaceous; thus affording a tempting subject for urchin's laughter, and for the minister's illustration of the doctrine of euthanasia. Such was

"The sexton he, whose strenuous arm
Dug all the graves, and tolled the bell,"
All else appeared [illegible],
Awaiting but the shroud and pall,
It seemed that to himself he said,
I soon shall dig the graves of all."

He held a plurality of offices; sexton to the French Church, and grave digger to St. Phillips. On Sundays, he assisted the French minister in robing, and about mid-sermon, walked softly up the aisle to whisper a word to Dr. P—, one of the church wardens: the Doctor would hasten out, hat in hand, under the earnest gaze of half the congregation, then in a little while would return, with a peculiar beam of satisfaction in his face, that allayed all anxiety about the 'danger of the case.' He happened so regularly, that inquiry was set on foot, when it was discovered that the patient was in the doctor's own stomach first, there in the sexton's, for they both had visited Niblo's coffee house, then located just over the way.


But it was in the old Chrystic street graveyard that our sexton most did flourish. There he had buried all the colored population for quarter of a century; at first with the aid of two assistants, but latterly, as the ground grew full, alone. People enough were buried there every six months, to fill any ground of the same area, but our sexton's sharp spade, and skill in packing, made room for more.—With a huge wall, or pestle, and a convenient corner in the vault, skulls and other bones not quite dry, were hastened in the process of turning it to dust. His labors extended far into the night, and there are persons living who attest that they have seen him crawl out of the old Chrystie street yard, at crow of cock, licking his chops, and with suspicious bits of flesh adhering to his frowsy garments; and one lady bought a bureau the veneering of which she was sure was the exact grain of the lid of her husbands coffin! When they built the tallow melting establishment next door to the graveyard, coffins were found shoved under the old foundations like drawers in a druggists store. And most strange to say, when this establishment went into operation, the graveyard grew more roomy, whilst the odor from the bone boiling-factory grew horridly human.

Fierce rumors grew apace, and even reached the dull ears of the vestry of St. Philips, in the shape of threats; but that stolid body quietly looked at the account-book, found that the grave-yard yielded them plenty of money, which being all they wanted from live niggers, was all they could expect from dead ones. "Was not the liturgy read?—Was not the minister paid? What further had the vestry to do with the matter?"—"This grumbling must be the doing of envious outsiders who wished to disturb the peace of the church." Such were the replies of the vestry.

Our sexton was a public man of some note. He helped to organize the New York African Society for mutual relief in 1809: on the occurrence of the first death in that body, he, along with a leading sweep-master, kept watch over the corpse the first night.—As these two compared notes and reckoned profits in business, towards midnight, they heard a series of raps! One went to the door, called, but no one answered nor appeared. They resumed talking when the raps came again! Again going to the door, and finding no one, the sweep-master locked the door and laid the key on the table.

The raps occurred again and again, as horror crept through the bones of the two setters up! Finding one of the eyes of the sexton resting on the sheet-covered corpse, saw the linen rise and fall as the raps came; with a shriek and howl he pointed to the spot, when the sweep-master also caught sight, and both made for the chimney, the sweep-master up first and the other clenching to his heels. Their uproar stirred the nighbors, who, finding the door locked, burst it open, sure (from his reputation that way) to find the sexton feasting on the corpse! Some one snatched the sheet from the body and found—the deceased mans favorite spaniel—the cause of the rappings sadly crouched near his dead masters remains.


The rumors against our sexton at length reached the ears of the corporation of the city of New York. He was notified that on a certain day, the city Inspector would visit the grave-yard in Chrystie street; on the morning of that day at daylight, the sexton's wife missed him from her side, (he always came home at cock crowing,) and he has never been heard of since. Rewards were offered, the city and the vaults ransacked, and although everybody knew him, no one had witnessed his exit. About twenty years after, in 1850, a man came to my house, hardly over the fright, for he declared that he had seen and spoken to this very sexton in Detroit, in a barber's shop. But the sexton's wife, yet living, did not believe him, the vestry of St. Philips did believe him, and it that is regarded as proof that the man must have been mistaken.

Poor Ethiop! His last authentic drawing of himself, sitting with his feet in hot water, did bring to mind the slave of election times in 1848.

Poor old Jimmy Polk, poor old Jimmy Polk,
You'd better go to Tennessee, and put your head [to soak]!

I knew it would turn out so. I was sure if Ethiop kept fooling with "die child" he would fall into the doctor's hands. Ethiop had better go to school, and try and learn a little of reasoning; he cannot for the life of him reason on any topic in any but the weakest form of analogy; he can only suppose a case, accidental to the topic concerned, he cannot take up that topic and reason upon its essential nature; hence, to his long paragraph, beginning with "suppose a case," it is ample reply to say "suppose not." The argument of imputed consequences will not answer the question whether our people shall make the getting of money theirgreat aim.

Professor Allen seems very ignorant about the Jews, when he asserts that they have produced nothing in our times in arts or aims, or policy. Neander, the greatest biblical critic of the age, was born a Jew; Mendelssohn, the unrivalled composer, ditto; Rothschild's, the literal kings of Europe, are Jews. D'Israeli, at this moment the leading man in Great Britain, the intellectual superior of Sir Robert Peel, Lord John Russel at id genus omne, was born a Jew. How does this tally with your single race theory, Professor?

Our friend Greeley, since he has adopted the "bayonet platform," seems to find it hard sitting or standing or lying on the bristling points, confirming the view of the Austrian diplomat. The man is perfectly wild; he seems the ajax, the switch-bearer of the universal Whig party, and lays it on the Democrats, who shed tears on the death of Henry Clay. "Clear out! clear out!" he exclaims. "you shan't play crocodile at this funeral." He first spits upon the Baltimore platform, but it is only as the anaconda does, and then bolts Scott, platform and all, at one swallow.

Well! It is a "very pretty quarrel as it stands." What black man, owner of himself and his limbs, would be white during the next four months, panting, hallooing, lying, inventing lies, varnishing lies, all in the hope of getting for himself or friend, some petty office in the gift of the people? But ho!

"The liberty bell is ringing!"

Let us pile up a vote for liberty, there is nothing else left worth voting for.

Yours lengthily,



Smith, James McCune (1813–1865)




Communipaw (James McCune Smith) to Frederick Douglass. PLSr: Frederick Douglass' Paper, 16 July 1852. Describes black sexton in New York City; debates other correspondents.


This document was calendared in the published volume and has not been published in full before.


Frederick Douglass' Paper



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Frederick Douglass' Paper