The Mysterious Case of Esther Ennis

Earlier this week I wrote an article about Calvary Cemetery in Queens. In the article I made a brief mention of a young woman who was the “first burial in Calvary,” in 1848. Her name was Esther Ennis.

She was only 29 years old when she died, and according to “legend” she died of a “broken heart.” Esther was only 4 years older than I am now when she died…of a “broken heart”…that’s a rather terrifying thought for today’s modern romances. (#ForeverAlone #HappySinglesAwarenessDay)

But there’s something out of place with this legend. The medical condition is “Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy,” otherwise known as “Broken Heart Syndrome,” an actual and very REAL cause of several deaths. The thing is…it wasn’t discovered as a plausible cause of death until the 1990’s.


So how, 142 years earlier, could they have officially diagnosed her with dying of “a broken heart?”

Her tombstone reads:

“Esther Ennis. Buried Aug. 4th 1848- 29 years old. Born Ireland. Died 139 Clinton St. N.Y., N.Y. First burial in Calvary Cemetery. Grave dug by J. McCann.”

As seen here:

Esther Ennis tombstone from Calvary Cemetery in Queens New York

(Photo from

Now…this all brings about so many questions. First is the state of her headstone. It has clearly been updated since 1848. It is rumored that originally she had no headstone, and the location of her grave went unknown for decades. Thus, explaining the updated look.

But there are a few other peculiar aspects to her tombstone. Such as including the exact ADDRESS of where she died. While including the name of who dug the grave may seem odd to us now a days, back then it was a common practice. But the location of death?! It’s odd to me as well that they didn’t know her date of birth, but they knew her age.

There seems to be no real recorded evidence that the cause of death was in fact of a “broken heart,” it’s purely from the legend, but seeing as she died over 166 years ago, the legends could have twisted several times over.

I’m not the only one fascinated by Esther’s story. The surf-rock band Senators have written a song about Miss Ennis (which can be heard here).

As for the address, upon searching it on Google Maps, I see that it’s basically nowhere. There are parking lots, and the backs of a building. I’m supposing that in 1848, there were residences of some sort at 139 Clinton. But I must add a little goose-bump worthy moment I realized as I was searching the address.

Last night I went to see my friend performing at a bar. I had never been to that bar before and I’m still relatively new to New York City, so I put in the address into my phone’s GPS upon getting off the train. My GPS for some reason malfunctioned, and sent me in the opposite direction. Filled with frustration, I turned off my GPS and figured out my way there au natural. I had forgotten about that incident, until I looked up this 139 Clinton address today. And I realized that last night my GPS had taken me to this exact location.

I had no idea. I didn’t look up her tombstone, or even her story until this afternoon. Was that pure coincidence? Or was that Esther tugging on my coat, asking for some spotlight?

Lastly, the name “J. McCann” who was apparently the self-proclaimed grave digger for Esther Ennis, is nearly impossible to trace online. There is no historical record of a grave digger named J. McCann, other than on Esther’s headstone. (There is a school in Woodside, Queens, close to Calvary, that is named after a “Thom J. McCann”, but it’s not certain if this is the same “J. McCann”) I know that it was common in that era for the loved ones of the deceased to dig their own graves. So, was J. McCann Esther’s lover, who broke her heart, to death? Or a secret admirer mourning his never-love? Perhaps he was a family member, or close friend? Or maybe he just some poor sap who found her dead body at 139 Clinton St. and took her up the hill to dispose of her? The truth, we may never know.

2 comments on “The Mysterious Case of Esther Ennis

  1. His real name may not be recorded…. he could very well have changed his name to J. McNabb when he came to the United States, a practice that happened all the time. He could have shortened up his name. The cemetery head would mist likely have a lot of this information as they as you stated must have remarked her grave, most likely due to a broken or “melted” limestone marker… maybe investigate some more

  2. Hi Jessi,
    Great piece about one of my favorite subjects! The monument in the photo is very modern, having been placed there by an Irish association a few years ago. That’s why it carries the familiar screed – its literally all that is known about Esther, and comes from church records. The only reason that the record exists is because of Archbishop Hughes officiating the service, and consecrating the entire cemetery at the same time. McCann was a famous character in 19th century catholic circles, literally the one person every social class interacted with- the gravedigger. St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral is where the trail leads to next, as they officate over Calvary. – Mitch

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