Washington Square is one of New York’s liveliest parks, with NYU students, dog walkers, street performers, tourists and drug dealers crowding its nearly 10 acres of lush sidewalks and meeting spots. But just below all this bustling humanity lurks a shocking secret: 20,000 dead bodies.
“What lies beneath that splendid, recently re-landscaped and renovated outdoor sanctuary is a bit more morbid,” research librarian Carmen Nigro wrote in a blog post for the New York Public Library.
From 1797 to roughly 1820, the eastern two-thirds of Washington Square Park was a potter’s field, where the bodies of poor and unidentified New Yorkers were unceremoniously dumped in mass graves. For just $4,500, New York City purchased the plot so impoverished locals could afford a decent spot to rest in peace.
Two hundred years later, the organization NYC Ghosts gathers a tour group every night below the park’s iconic arch to tell the spooky stories of the neighborhood. On one recent foggy evening, a lanky tour guide holding a lantern said park-goers “feel sudden cold chills on hot summer nights as they walk over the mass burials. Others have seen shadowy figures in the trees that vanish when approached.” “This is nothing but death all around here,” another ghost hunter affiliated with NYC Ghosts told a YouTube show. “Is it haunted? Absolutely. I mean there has got to be those spirits and energy that’s still here.”
Certainly, Washington Square Park’s history is teeming with stories that would send a shiver down anyone’s spine.
Although the city planned to bury just 5,000 bodies in the park, they were forced to quadruple capacity when four yellow fever epidemics ravaged New York in the summers of 1797, 1798, 1801 and 1803. Yellow fever must have made the city look like real-life zombies had taken over the streets. At first, sufferers experienced fevers, chills, vomiting and body aches. A few days later, the serious symptoms kicked in: yellowed skin, jaundiced eyeballs, vomiting of black bile and ultimately organ failure. The disease claimed the lives of up to 60% of those infected. While exact death tolls are lacking, thousands of locals are known to have succumbed to this horrific fate. The city wanted to keep infected bodies as far away from the bustle of daily life as possible. So, in 1799, a mandate was passed, requiring all plague victims — no matter what their means — be buried out of sight in the potter’s field, which at the time was nothing but farmland.
New York Post founder Alexander Hamilton was less than pleased when he heard a potter’s field was being set up near his country home in the area. He and several dozen neighbors flooded the local council with petitions, complaints and counterproposals against the move. They even offered to buy another plot of land for the potter’s field and gift it to the city. But their efforts proved fruitless. Overworked grave diggers stacked bodies on top of one another. And some claim they didn’t bury them deep enough.
“The earth would give way, and before you know it, you would bump into somebody’s coffin or grave or skeleton and smash the bones,” said another ghost enthusiast on YouTube. “People began to notice after a while. The ghosts were out at night looking for their missing body parts.” But even after the park was filled way beyond its subterranean capacity, it continued to be a hellscape. The city wasn’t just hauling in dead New Yorkers to be buried there — they also brought them there to die.
Some believe the so-called hangman’s elm — a 350-year-old tree near the northwestern entrance to the park — was once used to execute criminals. It’s rumored that Marquis de Lafayette, the Revolutionary War commander, hung 20 horseback robbers from its branches.
Locals claim the Marquis de Lafayette can be seen to this day, dressed in 18th century garb, watching his victims swing from the elm, satisfied that justice was served. “The hangman’s tree has always been a legend in the park,” New York City urban archeologist Joan Geismar told The Post. “These sorts of stories come out all the time, but we don’t know if there’s a basis for them.”
One hanging that did happen in the park was at a gallows constructed near where the fountain sits today. In 1818, 19-year-old slave Rose Butler was executed for reportedly attempting to burn down her master’s home while the family was sleeping. Nobody was killed, and damage was done to just a few stairs in the kitchen. Nonetheless, Butler was still hanged for the crime and buried in the field. To this day, some claim to see her in the park as well. “She is the last person to be hung in Washington Square, and she’s been seen swinging in the breeze on stormy night,” according to a local ghost watcher. “They say that the reason ghosts exist and why they haunt people is because they died under very tragic, very awful situations, and this is the perfect place for that.”
Although a vaccination for yellow fever, which was found to be transmitted through mosquitoes rather than person-to-person, wasn’t invented until the 1930s, the wave that spread through New York at the turn of the 19th century eventually fizzled out.
In 1825, New York Mayor Philip Hone declared the former potter’s field a public park. The following year, it was rechristened Washington Square Park during a boisterous party celebrating the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Eventually, the bodies below the surface were largely forgotten.
Then, in 1965, Con Edison maintenance workers sinking a shaft into the ground got a shock when they penetrated the roof of an underground chamber filled with around two dozen skeletons.
At the time, Con Ed contractor Abraham Marcus told the New York Times he was surprised by the bones. He also took a jab at the hippies who frequented the park, saying: “I have seen some skeletons walking around that part with sandals on.”
Eventually the city called in archaeologists to dig up the full truth of what lay underground.
“The question was were there any graves left. And the answer was yes there were,” Geismar told The Post.
In 2013, she excavated a tiny fraction of the park and found more than a hundred bone fragments from at least eight different people — two women, one male and a 7-year-old child, likely all of European ancestry. The other genders could not be identified.
“Even though we weren’t digging where I wanted to dig based on my research, we found so much,” Geismar said. “That’s the interesting thing about archaeology in New York City. We only really dig where there’s going to be disturbance. We don’t choose our sites, and yet we find so much. The act of discovery is just so exciting.”
Another archaeologist was on site in 2015, when workers laying down water pipes found two massive underground rooms in the northeast portion of the park, where churchyards once stood. Although both rooms were sealed by locked wooden doors, scientists slipped camera probes inside to find a bunch of coffins tossed about, some child-size. On one adult coffin, an inscription was etched onto a metal name plate identifying its owner as William.
The people laid to rest in these catacomb-like crypts died around 1800 and were not necessarily yellow fever victims, but likely congregants of the nearby Cedar or Pearl Street Presbyterian churches, according to archaeologist Alyssa Loorya.
Centuries of digging, disruptions and construction under the park have left many skeletons in shambles. Just last March, the Parks Department reburied unidentified fragmentary human remains at a new resting spot five feet below a flower bed near the corner of Sullivan Street and Washington Square South. A small memorial acknowledgement is inscribed on the nearby sidewalk.
In 2009, Joan Geismar’s team also made a discovery that changed how historians look at the park: a tombstone belonging to James Jackson, a 28-year-old Irish-born New Yorker who died in 1799.
It might not seem much to us now, but back in Jackson’s day, you had to be of reasonable means to afford the luxury of a gravestone. A potter’s field burial was an unlikely outcome for him. But Jackson died of yellow fever just weeks after the city’s mandate that all plague victims be buried in the potter’s field, so that’s where he ended up.
“The tombstone of James Jackson changed the entire concept of the potter’s field,” said Geismar. “Obviously he was a man who wasn’t meant to be buried there. It wasn’t just a potter’s field. That was unbelievably shocking.”
Plans are now underway to restore Jackson’s headstone and move it to the park’s field house, where it will be on display in the window, according to the Landmarks Preservations Commission.
Geismar said that what (and who) lurks beneath our feet is worth remembering.