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.
Tens 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
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.