It’s sometimes difficult to remember the gruesome history of New York when it was still new and the United States was young. Most people don’t visit the state wondering, “Are there bodies buried under New York City?” But the answer to that question is yes.
Acres of land purchased in 1797 were used as a potter’s field – a cemetery for the poor or unidentified dead of the city – before Mayor Philip Hone decided the space should instead be a public park in 1827. It became Washington Square Park, and disturbances to the land have led to the discovery of human remains from more than 200 hundred years ago. Most recently, updates to the park have unearthed vaults, bodies, and headstones, and renewed public outcry for the lack of recognition for those buried there. WINNERS & LOSERS
#1. Alexander the Great moved up on Historical Leaders Called ‘The Great,’ Ranked By GreatnessTens Of Thousands Of Bodies Are Believed To Be Under The Park
Washington Square Park was a potter’s field for nearly 30 years before it was turned into a public park. In addition, there were several church cemeteries near the mass burial site where the park was placed in 1827.
The yellow fever that plagued New York in 1797, 1798, 1801, and 1803 resulted in enough bodies to take the potter’s field from full to well over capacity. Prior to that, a public gallows located in the center of the land provided corpses for its shallow graves. The Hangman’s Elm, rumored to have taken more than one life, still sits in the northwestern corner of the park. Historians estimated that over 20,000 people were laid to rest in the ground beneath the park. Bodies Are Buried In Graves As Shallow As Three Feet Deep
Plans were announced in 2008 for improvements to Washington Square Park. City representatives claimed that none of the projects required digging more than three feet into the ground. Even with careful plans in place, workers still found shallow graves containing multiple sets of human remains.
The skeletal pieces were estimated to belong to eight different people, buried in the location during its time as a potter’s field from 1797 until 1826. Officials assured residents that they would be re-buried and the park’s plans changed to avoid the graves.A Gravestone From 1799 Was Uncovered In 2009
On October 23, 2009, workers updating Washington Square Park unearthed a tombstone from 1799. The three-foot-tall sandstone grave marker was inscribed:
Here lies the body of James Jackson who departed this life the 22nd day of September 1799 aged 28 years native of the county of Kildare Ireland.
This was the first such headstone uncovered in the park. New York records listed Jackson as a night watchmen and/or grocer; archaeology professor Diane de Zerega Wall believed he may have fallen victim to yellow fever.Two Burial Vaults Were Discovered In 2015
In November 2015, the Department of Design and Construction in New York City had a crew digging out a century-old water main in Washington Square Park. During the dig, the workers stumbled upon two burial vaults containing an estimated total of 30 bodies. It was determined that the vaults belonged to two churches that shared burial ground with the potter’s field. Unable to enter the tombs, Chrysalis Archeological Consultants used cameras in an attempt to read nameplates on the 20 or more coffins.
As with some previous uncovered remains, bones in one of the vaults had been moved prior to their latest discovery. Skulls and other skeletal remains were piled in the corner of the crypt.The Graveyard Was Filled Past Capacity Due To Yellow Fever Outbreaks
Yellow fever outbreaks were common during the late 18th and 19th centuries. Mosquitos carrying the illness bit people to infect them. A vaccination was not discovered until the 1900s, so many people fell victim to the disease in New York City during 1797, 1798, 1801, and 1803.
So many poor people and criminals died of the disease that the potter’s field was pushed over capacity. Mayor Philip Hone was able to convince a court to turn the land into a public park in 1827, but apparently few of the bodies were appropriately disinterred. Remains Were Allegedly Disturbed By Cannon Fire In 1827
Digs at Washington Square Park have uncovered human remains that had clearly been moved several times before. In 2008, multiple sets of skeletal remains were found during a soil test; they had apparently been relocated more than once. Two burial vaults belonging to nearby churches were found in 2015; in one crypt, remains were clearly moved from their coffins.
The earliest alleged disturbance of the land’s deceased occupants came during an 1827 military parade for the park’s opening year. Smithsonian Magazine reported that cannon fire “overturned stones and revealed yellow shrouds covering the remains of people who died during yellow fever outbreaks.”People Were Hung Where The Park Fountain Now Sits
The original fountain was placed in the center of Washington Square Park, though renovations started in 2009 moved it slightly to better align with the arch at Fifth Avenue.
Prior to the installation of the water feature, a more sinister tool of public entertainment resided in that spot. A gallows was erected during the area’s time as a potter’s field from 1797 until 1826. Criminals were hanged for crowds and then buried in the ground they stood on. The Hangman’s Elm Resides In The Park’s Northwest Corner
Most of Washington Square Park’s history has been sanitized or omitted from public historical markers, but one large reminder of its past remains. The Hangman’s Elm, thought to be one of the oldest trees in New York City, stands in the northwest corner of the park. It earned its ominous nickname by supposedly taking the lives of inmates and traitors during the Revolutionary War. Legend claimed it also served as a gallows for slaves. However, no such hangings are mentioned in public records.Park Historical Markers Gloss Over The Mass Grave
The New York Department of Parks and Recreation placed historical signs in Washington Square Park in April 2015. The signs recounted some of the land’s history as a potter’s field, but never stated outright that visitors were walking over the final resting place of more than 20,000 people:
The land was once a marsh fed by Minetta Brook located near an Indian village known as Sapokanikan. In 1797 the City’s Common Council acquired the land for use as a “Potter’s Field” and for public executions, giving rise to the legend of the “Hangman’s Elm” in the park’s northwest corner.
Used first as the Washington Military Parade Ground in 1826, the site became a public park in 1827. Following this designation, prominent families, wanting to escape the disease and congestion of downtown Manhattan, moved into the area and built the distinguished Greek Revival mansions that still line the square’s north side.
The Park Was Constructed To Raise Property Values Around It
After Philip Hone was elected Mayor of New York in 1826, he convinced courts to make the land public park space as a way to increase the property values of the area around the potter’s field. New York University was one such property that went from being in debt to seeing a 240% increase in value over the course of five years. Several Burial Grounds Were Located On The Site
In 1797, the state of New York purchased acres of farmland to be used as a potter’s field. People who died in the state without the means to pay for a burial, unidentified individuals, and slaves were all buried in shallow graves throughout the shabby cemetery. Two-thirds of Washington Square Park covered the shallow graves of an estimated 20,000 people. In addition to the potter’s field, several church cemeteries ended up on the property that is now the park.
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