Walkabout: Green-Wood’s Tragic Guardian

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    (Illustration: The Keeper’s Lodge, Green-Wood, from Green-Wood Illustrated, 1847)

    Green-Wood Cemetery is one of Brooklyn’s historical treasures. The land for Green-Wood was acquired in 1838, and by the turn of the 20th century, the cemetery had grown in size and popularity to be one of New York State’s most popular tourist attractions, as well as THE place to have your mortal remains spend eternity. The cemetery takes up 478 acres of hills, valleys and plains, with thousands of monuments, headstones and mausoleums, connected by an interconnected series of roads and byways. It was, and is, a park of enormous proportions. By the end of the 1800’s, it was necessary for this park to have its own police force, dedicated to keeping order, and preventing crime. In 1899, you might think that patrolling the land of the dead would be an easy job, but it would prove fatal to Captain Peter D. Lark, the head of the Cemetery Police Force.

    Peter D. Lark was captain of “The Little Police Force,” the private patrol that guarded and protected Green-Wood Cemetery from petty crime, vandals and other malfeasance. He had been a sergeant in the Union Army and a Civil War veteran, having served throughout the entire war. After the war, he retired from the service, collecting $43 a month in pension payments. In 1893, he got a job as a stableman at Green-Wood, where he did well, and rose through the ranks of jobs, joining the cemetery police force, and eventually rising to command the twelve member force.

    The job paid $70 a month, and came with a small Swiss-style cottage at 23rd St. and 7th Avenue, within the grounds of the cemetery. He lived rent free, and received free gas and coal along with the house. Lark lived here with his second wife, and his seventeen year old son. He also had three adult daughters, who also lived with their brother and father in the cottage. His first wife had died some years before. By 1898, two of the daughters had married and all had moved away, and that same year, in June, Lark married his second wife. She was the daughter of James Snell, a stablemen at the cemetery, and was 36 years old to his 56 years.

    But the union was not a happy one, as Peter Lark was not a happy man. He was known to have a violent temper, which he had admirably kept in check while working, a characteristic that enabled him to advance in his career. But his co-workers knew he was quick to go off, and that he often drank heavily to drown the inner demons in his mind. A week after his second marriage, he beat his new wife so badly that she left him, and returned home to her mother until she thought it was safe to come home. He did this several times between June of ’98 and March of 1899. Her brother, also named Peter, who lived nearby, was ready to come to her aid, but Mrs. Lark persuaded him not to hurt her new husband, or to interfere. Every time her husband abused her, she would leave for a few days and stay with a relative, usually her mother, and then go back.

    But in February of 1899, Mrs. Lark’s mother died. Instead of comforting her, Peter Lark, who had been drinking even more heavily lately, beat her again, and once more she fled, this time to her brother’s house, at 6th Avenue and 21st Street. Peter Snell was livid, but once again took her in. When she ran, Mrs. Lark left her husband and his son alone in the house. Charlie Lark was used to his father’s ways, and was the usual family member to fix breakfast, and generally take care of his father, a task he had performed since childhood. He was probably the only person able to calm his father down, and who knows, may have been abused himself.

    Captain Peter Lark had a daily routine at Green-Wood. Among his duties, especially since he lived on the grounds, was a nightly ride around the cemetery to make sure everything was alright. This was a duty he had performed since getting the promotion to captain and it was his habit to report his findings to the cemetery authorities, He usually reported to them in the morning.

    But on the morning of March 5, 1899, he hadn’t gone to headquarters to make his report. In fact, he didn’t go on his usual patrol the night before. That morning, at 6 a.m., Charlie Lark was in the kitchen making breakfast, and he heard his father call down to him from the upstairs bedroom, “Are you ready, Charlie?” he called. “Yes, father”, Charlie replied, “Shall I cook the ham?”

    The only answer he got was a single gunshot. Charlie panicked and ran to his step-uncle’s house, Peter Snell, and begged him to come back to the house, fearing that his father had injured himself with his gun, or worse. Peter Snell refused to go. Charlie then ran to another relative, John Tuohey, of 19th Street, who came back to the cottage with him. There they found Peter Lark, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, right behind his right ear.

    No one was able to explain the reason for the suicide. Perhaps his Civil War experiences wouldn’t leave him alone. He was in the war from almost the beginning to the end, and must have seen horrors we can’t imagine unless we’ve been in combat ourselves. We only now are beginning to understand the effects of war on the psyche. Perhaps Peter Lark was just an angry man. Perhaps his heavy drinking was his way of self-medicating away the pain of the war, the pain of losing his first wife, the mother of his children. Children, except for young Charlie, who had left him alone, and like his wife, had gone away.

    Why had he married the daughter of one of his former co-workers, a girl twenty years his junior? Was he in love, or just lonely? She was 38, herself, an old maid and a spinster in the popular feeling of the time. What was their relationship like? Beating one’s wife was not illegal back then, although it was seen as a low-class and reprehensible thing to do by most of society. She was certainly miserable in the relationship. And what about Charlie, what was the effect on him, seeing his father as a drunk, angry wife-beater by night, who put on a uniform and was a respectable captain of police by day? We’ll never know.

    Guarding Green-Wood must have been a relatively easy job. It’s not like many of the inhabitants are going to be complaining about anything. Relatives, tourists, and day trippers enjoyed the rolling hills and miles of roads in the cemetery, and spent a day there visiting loved ones, or taking a picnic lunch to enjoy by the lakes, or under a flowering tree. The cemetery is a peaceful and beautiful place. The Victorians were a pretty sedate and law abiding bunch, especially when promenading in public. Some of New York City’s richest and most famous people have been buried there since the beginning. Who knows who you could be hobnobbing with?

    The cemetery police force, along with the many groundskeepers and workers, kept order in the park. It’s a job for life, and beyond. Captain Peter Lark was an unhappy man who took his life within the borders of the cemetery he loved. One can only hope his troubled soul found peace there amongst the monuments, and with the beauty of nature. The little Swiss cottage is gone, but Peter Lark never left, he’s buried here: lot 29624, Section 197A.

    Approximate site of the "Swiss Cottage", Photo: Googlemaps

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