The Johnston Mausoleum at Calvary Cemetery in Queens is bigger than many houses. It is so large that it would appear to have functioned not just as a crypt but as a full chapel. Conspicuously visible to drivers on the nearby Kosckiuszko Bridge, this great tomb even makes an appearance in “The Godfather” (See my then-and-now analysis of the funeral scene of that movie here).
The story behind this structure is interesting. The tomb is occupied by prince and pauper alike.
John Johnston, the head of the dry goods firm of J. & C. Johnston, Broadway and Twenty-second-street, and one of the best known merchants of this city, died of heart disease Sunday evening at his residence, 7 West Fifty-third-street. He was born on the banks of Lake Erne, County Fermanagh, Ireland, in 1834, and came to America in 1847. Settling in New-York, he obtained a situation with Ubsdell & Pierson, engaged in the dry goods trade on Canal-street, remained with them for 17 years, during which time his sterling qualities secured him rapid promotion, and in 1864 left their employ and, with capital saved during his term of service, started the present house of J. & C. Johnston, on the corner of Ninth-street and Broadway. The depreciation of values following the close of the war caused widespread mercantile disaster during the earlier years of the firm’s existence, but Mr. Johnston’s able management and rare financial ability carried it safely through this very critical period, which saw the downfall of many old-established houses.
The firm, which included Charles Johnston up to 1880, when he died, was uniformly successful, as was also the branch house of Johnston & Reillys, which was established in Albany, and this success was mainly due to the business ability, consummate tact, and unbending integrity of the gentleman who has just passed away.
Personally Mr. Johnston was a public-spirited, open-handed gentleman, greatly beloved by his employes, some of who have been with him since the firm began business, 23 years ago, and have watched its growth from its humble beginnings. He was noted for his public spirit, his generous, though unobtrusive gifts to deserving charities, and his friendship for his employes in his large business. He was entirely self-educated, but was a diligent and discriminating student. History, literature, and mathematics were the favorite pursuits of his leisure hours, and of the last two he had attained a knowledge seldom possessed by those outside the ranks of professional scholarship. The affection which he bore to his brother Charles was remarkable, and for some years after the latter’s death he could not divert his mind from his loss, and as a consequence much of the responsibility of the business has been borne by Robert A. Johnston, the youngest brother, who has been connected with the house since 1864. The business will be continued on the same principles upon which its now deceased projector founded it.
The funeral will take place to-morrow morning at 8 o’clock, when solemn requiem high mass will be celebrated at St. Patrick’s Cathedral by Mgr. Farley. Mr. Johnston was a Trustee of St. Patrick’s Parish for many years past, and were it not that Archbishop Corrigan will have to sing the requiem mass at the funeral of Vicar-General Quinn later Wednesday morning he would have been pleased to take part at Mr. Johnston’s funeral. The interment will be in the family chapel in Calvary Cemetery.
John Johnston died May 17, 1887, seven years after brother Charles and seventeen years before his other brother Robert A. Johnston. John Johnston’s full obituary from the New York Times (which I transcribed) appears to the right, and summarizes the life and fortunes of a man much loved and respected by his peers.
John Johnston led the J. & C. Johnston company, and the J. & C. Johnston department store at Broadway and Twenty-Second Street was a popular source for dress silks and other fabrics. The store was among the most successful of its time, prospering during an era when similar companies frequently went bankrupt.
The fortunes of J. & C. Johnston took a drastic turn for the worse after John Johnston’s passing. Responsibility for the company passed to Robert A. Johnston, at whose helm the business failed. The bleak account of Robert A. Johnston’s demise, also transcribed from a New York Times obituary, recounts a spectacular fall from grace:
“Mr. Johnston possessed millions when the business came to him through the death of his brothers, but he lost all in a few years, and in 1888 the house went out of existence. He retired to his palatial home at Mount St. Vincent, on the Hudson. Later the place was sold at foreclosure and the house burned, the owner having a narrow escape. Since then he had lived alone in a barn on the property, refusing charity. He was found sick with pneumonia and insane ten days ago.”
This obituary makes tantalizing reference to the mighty structure that has fascinated me for years: “[Robert Johnston's] body … will be immured in the magnificent family mausoleum built many years ago at a cost of $300,000 in Calvary Cemetery.”
The dismal circumstances of Robert Johnston’s death did not cost him a space in the family mausoleum. The mausoleum’s presence today echoes the success and personal fortunes of the Johnston name while housing the man who wasted it.
No mention of survivors is made in any of the Times obits for the Johnston brothers. The obit for John Johnston says he died of “heart disease” while the write-up of the funeral service says that he “died suddenly.” The latter words, I know from experience, are often code for saying that a death was a suicide.
That is just some gawky speculation, though. I am good at gawky speculation. I expect to fill in more and better facts for this story.
This story may interest me far more than anyone else, but it is nice to share for anyone else interested in the story behind the great Johnston Mausoleum at Calvary. I have several photos of the structure at the Johnston Mausoleum section of my Cemeteries and Graveyards photo series.