That Big Man in Hamilton’s Graveyard Isn’t Hamilton

Who is the most remembered lawyer buried in the graveyard at Trinity Church in New York City? Photo credit: Lori Tripoli
Who is the most remembered lawyer buried in the graveyard at Trinity Church in New York City? Photo credit: Lori Tripoli

Who Was the Bewigged, Berobed John Watts?

Visit New York City’s Trinity Church graveyard looking for famous lawyers of eras past, and you will likely first see a greening statue of an authoritative figure looming large over the headstones. Yes, you will find the gravestone marking the final resting place of U.S. Treasury Secretary and lawyer and duelist Alexander Hamilton, but his name is not the one on the statue.

The bronze statue instead depicts John Watts, Congressional Representative, judge in Westchester County, and the founder of the Leake and Watts Orphan House, which still exists under a slightly different name. Born in New York in 1749, Watts managed to build a fairly impressive résumé, much of which is published on his gravestone, and to work for the British government when the American Colonies were under British rule, and for the federal, state, and county governments after independence had been declared.

The imposing figure in the graveyard at Trinity Church in New York City is not Alexander Hamilton. Photo credit: Lori Tripoli

The imposing figure in the graveyard at Trinity Church in New York City is not Alexander Hamilton. Photo credit: Lori Tripoli

After serving as a recorder for the city of New York from 1774 to 1777, Watts became New York State Assembly Speaker from 1791 through 1794, a member of Congress from 1793 to 1795, and the first judge of Westchester County in 1806—at least according to his gravestone. A New York Times article announcing the placement of the statue in the graveyard reported that he served as judge in Westchester from 1802 to 1808.  A Statue for Trinity Churchyard, N.Y. Times, July 22, 1892, at 8.

A Congressional biography gives slightly different dates of service: member of the New York State Assembly from 1791 through 1793 and its speaker in 1792 and 1793; a member of the commission to build Newgate Prison in New York City from 1796 through 1799, and a judge in Westchester from 1802 to 1807. 108th Cong., 2d Sess., Biographical Directory of the United States Congress 1774—2005, H. Doc. No. 108–222 (2005), at 2127.

Watt’s father, also named John Watts, was a Tory who left New York City in 1775 and later died in London, leaving one to wonder whether and how family members supporting different sides in the Revolutionary War reconciled afterward.  According to Richard M. Ketchum in Divided Loyalties: How the American Revolution Came to New York (2002) at 385, the New York real estate belonging to John Watts the elder was confiscated because of his loyalty to the Crown but was bought back by his sons, John Watts Jr. and Robert Watts in 1789.

John Watts Jr. died in New York City in 1836. “He had the reputation of great physical comeliness as well as that of a man of uncommon philanthropy,” the Times reported when covering the placement of his statue almost 60 years later. The statue was commissioned by Watts’s grandson, Maj. Gen. John Watts de Peyster.

There is no statue of Alexander Hamilton at the graveyard, and yet Hamilton, who died in 1804 following a duel with Vice President Aaron Burr, is arguably the one who is better remembered.

—Lori Tripoli

Alexander Hamilton's grave at Trinity Church in New York City. Photo credit: Lori Tripoli

Alexander Hamilton’s grave at Trinity Church in New York City. Photo credit: Lori Tripoli

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