The Skeletons of Washington Square Park

Well, it is All Souls’ Day, isn’t it?

Tombstone from 1799 discovered 2009 park construction
Tombstone from 1799 discovered, 2009 park re-construction

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 seven year-plus redesign of the Greenwich Village park.

In January of 2008, soon after Phase I work had begun for the controversial 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 asserted to the community 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. (Manhattan Parks Commissioner Castro has been known to stretch the truth on more than one occasion.)

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.

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.

If some believe the park feels haunted, perhaps this is why.

Photo: NYC Parks Department

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