It was late on a Friday this time of year in 2009 and I received a blog comment from someone named Matt Kovary who wrote, “Do you have any information on a tombstone that was uncovered today in WSP at the corner of Sullivan and West 4th Street? I saw the back of it with my own eyes being dusted and photographed inside the chain-link fence. The small crew were very tight lipped.” Of course, this got my attention. I was en route to meet a friend, and, although I was concerned the tip might not be legitimate, I decided that I needed to investigate it further, spoke to Mr. Kovary, and reported the information.
Well, as we now know, turns out the tip was accurate and a headstone dating back to 1799 of one James Jackson was indeed discovered in “pristine condition” at Washington Square Park on October 23rd three years ago.
The next week, the City’s Parks Department released a photo and further information to the New York Times. The accompanying story noted:
“Here lies the body of James Jackson,” the inscription declares, “who departed this life the 22nd day of September 1799 aged 28 years native of the county of Kildare Ireland.”
The three-foot-tall sandstone marker is believed to be the first found in the area, which served as a burial ground for the indigent — a potter’s field — long before the land was developed into a park known for its dramatic archway and its central place in Greenwich Village.
Several times during the restoration of the park workers have encountered loose bones and intact skeletons. Because most of the dead were buried in shrouds or in unmarked wooden coffins, the headstone was an unexpected find.
“It’s very unusual,” said Joan H. Geismar, the archaeological consultant for the parks department who made the discovery. “In fact, I’m stunned.”
The headstone, which is in pristine condition, was uncovered about two and a half feet below ground near the southwest corner of the park during preparation work for the next phase of redevelopment of the park. (Passers-by have stopped to peer into the hole and ask workers about the find, one of whom called in news of the discovery to the Washington Square Park blog.)
After the discovery, workers dug seven feet below the gravestone but found no body, which could have been moved when the area was covered over and developed into parade grounds.
This finding happened shortly after Phase II redesign construction began in early Fall 2009.
The discovered headstone is ultimately supposed to end up somewhere within the Park – this topic is supposed to come before Community Board 2 I’d imagine before Phase III, currently under way, is completed.
Meanwhile, some think Washington Square feels haunted; we do know for certain, there are definitely skeletons (perhaps up to 20,000) underneath this very public park.
Photo: New York City Department of Parks and Recreation