The Skeletons of Washington Square Park

Tombstone from 1799 discovered 2009

Washington Square Park Once a “Potters Field” – Skeletons, Bones, Burial Vaults, Tombstones Unearthed Repeatedly During Construction Over Last 10 Years

Well, it is All Souls’ Day, isn’t it?

This time of year seems to rile up and unearth the dead bodies beneath Washington Square Park. It is believed up to 20,000 bodies lie beneath this Greenwich Village park, dating back to when the space was a “Potter’s Field.”

Days before Halloween in 2009, a tombstone from 1799 of James Jackson was discovered during the park’s Phase II redesign construction, the story first reported here at this blog. In 2015 around All Souls’ Day, two intact burial vaults and skeletal remains were discovered underneath the park during water main construction along Washington Square East.

Will anything be discovered this year? Are the spirits crying out for attention?

Washington Square first came into being as a park in the 1850s tho’ designated one in 1827. It was a Potter’s field – a “common” burial ground – from 1797-1825. It is believed that up to 20,000 people were buried at the now 10-acre stretch and remain there underground — except, of course, for the bones, skeletons and tombstones dug up during the controversial seven year-plus redesign of the downtown park.

In January of 2008, soon after Phase I work began for the redesign, construction workers found at least 4 intact skeletons and 70-80 human bones. During Phase II construction in Fall of 2009, an intact tombstone from 1799 was dug up.

To address concerns about precisely this issue – the burial ground history well known, Manhattan Borough Parks Commissioner Bill Castro had assured the community at meetings addressing its then-proposed and very much disputed redesign that the Parks Department would not be digging more than 1-3 feet deep at Washington Square Park. It was later revealed that the city proceeded to dig from 7 to 11 feet below grade.

The City told the Associated Press in 2008 that the bones uncovered would be “analyzed” and “reburied respectfully.” It is unclear where this reburial took place. And in 2009, the Parks Department said that the unearthed tombstone of James Jackson would later be displayed in the park. That has not happened (one theory is that park re-designer George Vellonakis got word of this and used his unwavering and untoward level of influence within the agency to stop it) although in 2010 it was on display at the Parks Department Gallery.

Last year, reader Mike Dedrick commented, “Hello: Are there any markers that tell visitors that they are walking over an estimated 20,000 graves?,” continuing:

These were poor people, slaves, indians and victims of yellow fever. I have been to Washington Square many times and this history is not really public knowledge.

Any sign should include the basic facts-that the park was built over the bodies of poor people, slaves, and what few Indians were left after the Dutch and English settlers colonized New York. This is hallowed ground, and while the park department is obviously not going to dig up the park to locate the graves, the city should at least acknowledge that this in fact is a cemetery. It is a matter of respect and history. Expanded signage would make the park a more interesting place, and give it a highlighted place in the NY story.

“Historical” signs placed with an abbreviated (debatable) version of the park’s history went up on outside fences in a few locations in 2015 and do not make mention of its history as a burial ground.

Digging up skeletons can have many meanings. Skeletons ‘of our past’ means interfering with the historical and emotional center of our beings — which is what New York City may have done with their complete excavation of Washington Square Park.

Some believe the park feels haunted, perhaps this is why.

* * *
This is an updated and expanded version of a post first published in 2008.

Previously at Washington Square Park Blog:

Should Washington Square Park Identify 20,000 Dead Bodies Beneath it? October 31, 2016

Con Ed Unearthed Washington Square Burial Vault 50 Years Ago, Covered It Over & Everyone Forgot About it November 9, 2015

19th Century Burial Vault With Skeletal Remains Found Under Washington Square Park During Water Main Construction November 5, 2015

Second 19th Century Burial Vault, Coffins & Bones Discovered Under Washington Square Park November 6, 2015

More on Tombstone Discovery At Washington Square Park Which Could Date Back to 18th Century — Update: Confirmed! October 26, 2009

Photo: NYC Parks Department

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