The Skeletons of Washington Square

It’s That Time of Year Again

Sticker on a park bench: “What should we do about…”

20,000 Bodies are Buried Underneath this Park

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 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 still crying out for attention?

James Jackson headstone discovered 2009

Washington Square Park Was Once a Potter’s Field

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 under the close to 10-acre stretch and remain there — except, of course, for the bones, skeletons and tombstones dug up during the controversial years-long redesign of this downtown park.

In January of 2008, soon after Phase I work began, 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. (Now, it seems this did not take place until early 2021.) In 2009, the Parks Department said that the unearthed tombstone of James Jackson would later be displayed in the park. That never happened (one theory was that park re-designer George Vellonakis got word of this and used his influence within the agency to stop it) although in 2010 it was on display at the Parks Department Gallery.

In 2015, during construction along the eastern edge of the park, Con Ed unearthed burial vaults previously uncovered 50 years ago and soon after forgotten about.

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.

The forgotten history of the park

“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.

The fact that the city was planning to reinter “human remains” dug up during the park’s construction was first revealed at Washington Square Park Blog in August 2018.

Paver noting the reinterment of bodies dug up during construction, photo from 2021

In early 2021, at last, the “fragments” were reinterred back into the park, on the southern end, with an obscured paver on the ground noting this history. For some unknown reason, the city’s Parks Department has continually chosen to hide this record of the park.

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.

* * *

Previously at Washington Square Park Blog:

“Human Remains” Unearthed During Washington Square Construction Will be Returned, Reinterred in Park August 28, 2018

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

ICYMI: Eyewitness News Report – Public Hearing on Reburial of Human Remains Back into Washington Square Park June 12, 2019

Where Will the Bones go? Reburial of Human Remains Dug up During Washington Square Park Redesign Work, (Some) Plans Revealed May 8, 2019

Spring Washington Square: A Snapshot of the Latest at the Park May 20, 2021

Top and Bottom Photo: Cathryn

Middle Photo: NYC Parks Department


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