There Are Thousands of Bodies Buried Under Washington Square Park
It’s no real surprise that a city as old and large as New York has some skeletons in its closet, but did you ever expect it’d be so literal? Washington Square Park, located in Manhattan, holds secrets that construction crews keep digging up.
From mass graves to spooky burial chambers, the unseen world beneath the park is enough to spark creepy thoughts in even the most uninspired imaginations. The stories of the 20,000 skeletons beneath the park lend a peek into the city’s fascinating past.
Scratching the Surface
In January of 2008, construction crews working on the Phase I redesign of Washington Square Park stumbled upon some unexpected items while digging. Over the course of a few weeks, crews unearthed at least four intact skeletons and around 80 individual human bones.
A year later, during Phase II of the park’s redesign, workers uncovered a headstone. According to passers-by, the site was cordoned off with chain-link fence, and the workers within were distinctly tight-lipped about what was going on. This high-profile reveal sparked renewed interest in the area’s history.
Fast-forward to 2015. More construction work led people, once again, into the depths of Washington Square Park’s soil — this time to work on water mains. While tearing up the dirt, diggers uncovered more than just bones. Underneath the park, we now know there are at least two burial vaults.
Why are there so many bodies under the park? Better yet, why did we build a park over a mass grave, and does that mean that the park is haunted? It turns out, a lot can happen in 400 years.
All of these remains likely came as a surprise to the people who found them, but their discoveries weren’t entirely unexpected. Historians knew that the area had been used as a burial ground in earlier centuries. The surprise lay in the sheer magnitude of the burial site.
From 1797 until 1825, the area that is now Washington Square Park was used as a mass gravesite or potter’s field. These types of burial sites were not uncommon hundreds of years ago, though records on this particular set of graves are rather sparse.
Gone, but Not Forgotten
Potter’s fields are mass burial sites, typically (though not always) reserved for people of low social status at the time, of relative anonymity or whose personal funds and family could not cover burial costs. They were fairly common around battle sites during times when sending bodies home was difficult or impossible.
The term is biblical in origin, stemming from Judas’ purchase of a clay-rich field that had been used by potters and later repurposed for burying the dead. Although the concept is seemingly antiquated, potter’s fields aren’t a bygone practice.
The Other Underground
Although little is known about those laid to rest under Washington Square Park, New York City is home to more than one mass gravesite. Just east of the Bronx, out on Long Island Sound, sits Hart Island. Roughly a mile long and a third of a mile at its widest point, Hart Island is one of the few remaining active potter’s fields in the United States.
Hart Island currently holds around 1 million people. Though the number of new residents has dropped off sharply in recent years, its history remains the subject of scrutiny.
A Past Life
Originally, the island was used as a Civil War training ground for Union troops, then later as a prison camp. The island held a sanatorium and a psychiatric institution, and later, a jail, a homeless shelter and, during the Cold War, missiles. At one point, an amusement park had been considered but was ultimately decided against.
Today, all of the buildings on the island are vacant, and many are in varying states of disrepair. The only regular living visitors to the island are the Rikers Island prisoners who serve as the pallbearers for the countless unclaimed dead.
Before the European colonization of the area, Hart Island was inhabited by the Siwanoy people. In 1654, the island was purchased from the native people and passed through several generations of Englishmen until the island was established as a training ground for the 31st Infantry Regiment of the United States Colored Troops in 1864.
That same year, a prisoner of war camp was constructed on the island, and it ran for four months. Three years later, the island was sold off with plans for it to be converted into a municipal cemetery.
The First Burials
Before Hart Island became a cemetery, it was used by the military. During the Civil War, 20 Union soldiers were buried on the island. Their gravesites were later turned into a special cemetery within the greater potter’s field.
When the island was purchased and repurposed in 1869, its first new burial was that of 24-year-old Louisa Van Slyke, who died in Charity Hospital. At the time, the 45-acre public graveyard was simply known as the City Cemetery. It was one of several other municipal cemeteries active at the time.
By 1880, the potter’s field on Hart Island had become a bustling metropolis for the dead. The island, whose most prominent purpose was now to hold the pine coffins of the impoverished deceased, grew at an incredible rate.
Hart Island became the primary burial ground by the end of the 19th century. It replaced two of New York’s other potter’s fields, located beneath the New York Public Library Main Branch and what is now Washington Square Park. Death was such a regular part of life that many other activities took place in close proximity.
During the 1870s, Hart Island was used as a quarantine station for yellow fever victims. In 1885, the island gained two new buildings: a women’s psychiatric hospital called The Pavilion and a tuberculosis hospital. Also during the late 1800s, an industrial school and boys’ workhouse were established.
By the early 20th century, the island’s living inhabitants numbered around 3,500 people between the infirmary and the delinquent population. In 1924, the owner of the island sold a four-acre tract of the western side of the island to an investor who sought to turn it into an amusement park.
Dead and Alive
By the 1950s, the number of dead buried on Hart Island exceeded 500,000. Meanwhile, during and after World War II, the inmates formerly housed on Hart Island were moved to nearby Rikers Island, and the buildings were once again repurposed.
For three years, the island served as the location for a homeless shelter for alcoholics. Later, a corrections facility opened up to rehabilitate the residents of the shelter. From 1956 to 1961, the United States stored missiles on the island in the event of action during the Cold War.
Dust to Dust
Until the 1980s, Hart Island alternated from inmate housing to rehabilitation services to homeless shelters. When the AIDS epidemic began claiming its first victims, the city opted to bury them on Hart Island, away from the other bodies. The single grave on the island belongs to a pediatric AIDS victim.
The disease was poorly understood at the time, and people thought that there was a chance the victims’ bodies could pass on the disease to the other bodies in the area. As a result, AIDS victims were buried several feet deeper than the other residents of the cemetery.
Unidentified and Unclaimed
As with most bodies interred in mass graves such as potter’s fields, the residents of Hart Island are unidentified. In the 1990s, an independent journalist and photographer began an ongoing project to put names and faces to the deceased on Hart Island.
Obtaining the ledgers of who was buried in each of the plots was a difficult process that involved several official requests to the city to release redacted information. Ultimately, in 2014, the project culminated in the launching of an interactive website that lets friends and family locate their loved ones and enter obituaries.
Today and Onward
As of 2019, at the behest of family members and city officials, the jurisdiction of Hart Island has been passed over to the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. The ferries, which were previously only used by the inmates and the bodies that they buried, are now operated by the New York State Department of Transportation.
The hope is that, with increased accessibility, the potter’s field can be turned into a park, and the families of the deceased can come to visit their loved ones. Currently, no concrete plans exist for renovations.
The Existing Park
Over at Washington Square Park, the rights and identities of the deceased are a bit more muddled. Hart Island is a largely undeveloped patch of land completely isolated from the rest of the city by the waters of Long Island Sound. Washington Square Park, in contrast, is in the middle of Manhattan.
Additionally, the bodies buried in the mass graves beneath the park are much older than the majority of the ones buried on Hart Island. The difference in age and lack of social notability would make identifying the interred far more difficult.
Rest for the Dead
As of early 2020, there are no publicly available plans for the bodies under Washington Square Park. Requests have been made to leave them undisturbed by not digging below three or four feet, but so far, those requests have been ignored — intentionally or otherwise.
Some citizens have requested additional signage around the park to educate visitors of the area’s history. Some have been added, though none explicitly mention the potter’s field under their feet. Although we may not have names or faces for the residents of the park, we do know some things.
Who They Were
Based on the approximate time range during which we know the potter’s field under Washington Square Park operated, we can make some assumptions about who might be buried there. Mass graves were typically reserved for people of lower social status due to race or financial standing.
Beneath the park likely lie victims of yellow fever, destitute individuals, former slaves and Native Americans. Some scholars have proposed expanding the genetic profiling project that has been used to identify other mass graves like the ones in California. Thus far, no commitment to such a project has been publicly made.
Requests for Signage
Members of the community have asked for new signs to be added to the park, explaining the cultural history of the area that would apply to the people likely contained in the mass graves beneath park-goers’ feet. The signs would add an educational element to the walking paths in the park.
If nothing else, this would remind people that they are walking over a cemetery and they should be respectful. For now, the general consensus seems to be leaving the remains as undisturbed as possible. Current historical signage in the area does not mention the cemetery.
Mass graves were often used as a method of interment when there were many bodies to be buried in a limited amount of time or space. During the 1800s and early 1900s, mortality rates were fairly high, while the overall population was still rather small, so large community burial sites were commonplace.
Other big cities across the country made use of city cemeteries, which were far more efficient in areas with little space to spare than cemeteries with individual plots. Despite occasional tombstones, many of the occupants of these graves remain unknown.
Busy City, Quiet Resting Place
So far, only one headstone has been unearthed at Washington Square Park. Its inscription dates the stone back to the late 18th century. The tombstone reads: “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.”
According to city records, Jackson was a local grocer and night watchman. An archaeologist working with the city on unraveling the mysteries of the cemetery underneath the park believes that Jackson’s cause of death may have been yellow fever.
As mentioned earlier, yellow fever is believed to have been the cause of death for many of the individuals buried in the potter’s field under Washington Square Park. New York, being such a large city, was no stranger to epidemics, which had a tendency to spread quickly in densely populated and poorly maintained areas.
While the potter’s field on the premises of Washington Square Park was operational, the city was in the middle of an epidemic. Yellow fever had spread north from Philadelphia along the waterways and had taken hold in New York.
The humid climate of the island city made an ideal breeding ground for the source of the problem. Mosquitoes carried over from Africa transmitted the virus from person to person with every bite. In a city where the population density has always been remarkably high, the disease spread like wildfire.
As if one summer of an epidemic wasn’t enough, New York’s yellow fever problem spiked three times before finally subsiding. In 1795, 1799 and 1803, the city’s infection rates skyrocketed to epidemic proportions. As more people fell ill, more bodies found their way into the ground.
The body-destroying disease was met with surprising apathy from the city’s governing body. Victims took ill with a headache and fever, followed by a brief period of remission before the onset of delirium. After that, the sufferers grew weaker as their skin and eyes took on the characteristic yellow hue of jaundice and their bodies emptied themselves as organs shut down.
Most of the victims lived in overcrowded parts of town where the disease swept through entire neighborhoods, claiming countless lives. Those bodies ultimately ended up back together, in a grave that would eventually become a park.
Just as city officials said nothing about the yellow fever epidemics back then — for fear of inciting panic among the citizens — nothing more was said about the potter’s field where the bodies were buried. When it was full, the ground was covered with dirt and corpses were hauled out to Hart Island or elsewhere.
In time, people forgot about the epidemics and the lives they claimed, and a park was built over their final resting place. It’s a pattern that has been repeated for millennia in Europe and one that endures even now with the reclamation of Hart Island.
When the park was opened, a new chapter began for that plot of land in the middle of Manhattan. Parades and ceremonies disturbed the remains below the surface. Out of sight and out of mind, nobody considered what lay beneath the soil.
The discovery of Jackson’s headstone and the subsequent unearthing of a set of burial crypts beneath the park forced the old potter’s field into the spotlight. Naturally, spooky findings in the middle of a popular public gathering place sparked the circulation of rumors and stories in a place that already had its supposed hauntings.
Legend Has It
According to a popular urban legend, a large elm tree in Washington Square Park was once the site of gruesome executions by hanging. In truth, though there were gallows in the park at one time, they were located closer to the site of the grand fountain.
The hangman’s tree, as appealing as the story is, remains nothing more than a story. Even the fountain’s predecessor only saw a small handful of hangings. Once the potter’s field had been covered, the land’s chapter in history as a place for the dead came to a close.
As the land became more and more detached from its previous purpose, it took on a new life in a multitude of ways. When Washington Square Park first opened, a military parade was held in celebration and dedication. According to the Smithsonian, cannon fire from the parade caused a bit of an upset.
The soil, which was still fairly freshly laid in 1827 when the parade was held, shifted under the tumult to reveal some of the burial shrouds used to cover the yellow fever victims below. The attendees, if they were aware, were likely unfazed.
At the time of the park’s creation, life after death in terms of physical repurposing was far less taboo than it is today in America. Over time, views on how people ought to conduct themselves on hallowed land — and how cemeteries are to be treated and maintained — have gotten far more conservative.
Once the potter’s field had been filled to the brim with fever victims, no one voiced enough loud opposition to the repurposing of the land. Washington Square Park was built with the primary intent of raising surrounding property values.
Unseen and Forgotten
As it was then, so it continues: Washington Square Park remains a popular place to stroll and relax in — a place where visitors can get away from the bustle of the city. The parks department of New York City doesn’t simply gloss over all that happened in the hundreds of years leading up to the present.
All around the park, there are signs detailing areas of historical interest. Sculpted works, places of interest and local history all have their moments in the spotlight. Despite the educational efforts, no mention is made anywhere about the potter’s field.
Local activists hope that the city will finally put up some signage in memoriam of those who lie in rest beneath the park’s neatly manicured lawns. Some of the city’s reluctance may be in the interest of keeping grave robbers from digging on park property to sate their curiosity.
Other reasons for saying nothing about the park’s darker history may simply stem from not wanting to frighten or offend anyone. Whatever the case may be, many vocal citizens seem to be in favor of a more educational park experience.