“Human Remains” Unearthed During Washington Square Construction Will be Returned, Reinterred in Park

James Jackson Headstone discovered Washington Square Park 2009
James Jackson Headstone 1799

Remember those skeletons and bones they dug up in the park?

The city has decided to acknowledge the bodies that lie beneath Washington Square Park and reinter “human remains” dug up during park construction over the last eleven years. At a recent Community Board meeting, Park Administrator George Vellonakis, who works for the New York City Parks Department (also the park redesigner), revealed, “There will be a reinterment of remains in Washington Square Park. We are working with the Landmarks Preservation Commission on those human remains.” He noted that the remains were dug up “during the parks construction process,” and said “we are working with the Landmarks Preservation Commission on relocation and how to properly address.”

In public statements over the years, the Parks Department has said that bodies and skeletons dug up – from the park’s time as a potter’s field and cemetery – during construction would not be “disturbed”; they were also on record stating some uncovered bones would be removed and “reburied respectfully.”

What exactly will be reinterred and relocated?

Washington Square Park Blog reached out to the Parks Department for additional information shortly after the comment was made but did not receive a response. When contacted recently, a Landmarks Preservation Commission spokesperson said: “We do not have a proposal before us for the reinterment.” This was not the stated subject of the June Community Board meeting where Mr. Vellonakis brought the topic up.

[WSP Blog Ed. note: Check back for additional, new information on this story Friday, 8/31.]

Bones, Skeletons, Burial Vaults, Tombstone Dug Up in Last 11 Years

Before becoming a public park, Washington Square Park was a potter’s field from 1797-1826 and also contained at least one cemetery from a nearby church. It is believed that 20,000 bodies reside within (underneath) the park’s grounds.

In early 2008, shortly after Washington Square Park’s controversial redesign construction began, “mostly intact skeletal remains from at least four people” as well as 70 to 80 bones were dug up by workers. The Parks Department told the New York Times that “the skeletons would be left in the ground out of respect and that some of the plans for renovating the site would be adjusted so as not to disturb the burial site.” The City told the Associated Press that the bones would be “analyzed” and “reburied respectfully.” Prior to this, the community had been told by Manhattan Parks Commissioner Bill Castro that work would not entail digging beyond 3 feet (people were concerned for exactly this reason) but the construction went much deeper.

In 2009, a headstone dating back to 1799 of James Jackson was discovered in “pristine condition” during Phase II construction in October. Washington Square Park Blog broke the story of the discovery. Then-Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe told The New York Times that the unearthed tombstone would be placed in the park. However, more recently, previous park administrator Sarah Neilson told the public at a Community Board meeting that there was discussion as to whether a park was a proper place for a tombstone.

In 2015, during water main construction bordering the park by Con Edison, two intact 19th Century burial vaults were uncovered (for the second time) containing coffins and bones. At that time also, the archeologists stated that the burial vaults would not be disturbed and work would continue around it.

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

A lot of these underground discoveries seem to happen around Halloween/All Souls’ Day. There is no signage at Washington Square Park indicating any of this history beyond a cursory mention. I’ve wondered… Are the spirits crying out for attention?

See: Should Washington Square Park Identify 20,000 Dead Bodies Beneath it?

There are others who also believe this history should get some attention at the park. I noticed on a visit this past weekend this sticker affixed on a bench around the fountain. It is not fully readable but I believe it said “What Should We Do About The 20,000 Bodies Under Washington Sq Park” (Has anyone noticed these elsewhere?)

In 2016, 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.

Signs That Went Up in 2015 Stating History of the Park Leave This History Out


Washington Square Park history Parks Department signage
The land was once a marsh fed by Minetta Brook located near an Indian village known as Sapokanikan. In 1797 the City’s Common Council acquired the land for use as a “Potter’s Field” and for public executions, giving rise to the legend of the “Hangman’s Elm” in the park’s northwest corner.

Signs that went up in a few places on the fences around Washington Square Park, including by the Arch, contain a history of the park. These signs, like most things related to the redesign of the park, have a murky background. The signs were discussed at length over the years and were supposed to be vetted by the Parks Committee of local Community Board 2. The signs were up by April 2015; the text never run by the Community Board. (More about that here.)

You can read the full text of the signs here.

Reinterment of Human Remains at the Park

Perhaps when George Vellonakis spoke of working with the Landmarks Preservation Commission on this reinterment, he meant in the future despite speaking of it in the present tense. It remains unclear what will be reinterred, where and how. This seems like something that should also be discussed with community and park users. Stay tuned… It’s almost Halloween!

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Previously at Washington Square Park Blog:

Should Washington Square Park Identify 20,000 Dead Bodies Beneath it?
(More on the signs here too)

The Skeletons of Washington Square Park November 2, 2015

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

Top Photo: NYC Parks
Other photos: Cathryn

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