All Souls Day: 20,000 Bodies Buried Underneath the Park
Updated – 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 the park dating back to when the space was a potter’s field.
1799 Tombstone Discovered in 2009 Set to be Displayed in the Park
The New York Post recently reported, “Plans are now underway to restore [James] Jackson’s headstone and move it to the park’s field house, where it will be on display in the window, according to the Landmarks Preservations Commission.” The “field house” is the building that houses administrative offices and the rest rooms. It’s previously always been referred to as the Park House.
In 2015 around All Souls’ Day, two intact burial vaults and skeletal remains were discovered underneath the park during Con Ed’s water main construction along Washington Square East.
Have the spirits been crying out for attention?
Washington Square Park Once a Potter’s Field
Washington Square first came into being as a park around 1850. Prior to this, the space was a military parade ground. Before that, it was a potter’s field – a “common” burial ground – from 1797-1825.
It is believed that up to 20,000 people are buried under the close to 10-acre stretch and remain — except, of course, for the bones, skeletons and tombstones dug up during the years-long redesign of the downtown park.
Skeletons and Human Bones Unearthed in Last 15 Years
In January 2008, soon after Phase I construction began, 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 this issue, then Manhattan Borough Parks Commissioner Bill Castro (Castro recently quietly departed, more to come on this) assured the community that the Parks Department would dig deeper than 1-3 feet deep. It was later revealed that the city proceeded to dig 7 to 11 feet below grade.
In 2008, the City told the Associated Press that bones uncovered would be “analyzed” and “reburied respectfully.” (It seems this reburial 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 although it seems that will soon be happening according to The Post article.
During 2015 construction along the eastern edge of the park, Con Ed unearthed burial vaults previously discovered 50 years ago.
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.
In 2021, Re-interment Took Place with Obscured Paver Denoting Park’s History
In early 2021, the “fragments” were re-interred back into the park, on the southern end not far from the NY Dosas food cart, with an obscured paver on the ground noting this history. The city 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 — the City may have done this with their complete excavation of Washington Square Park.
Some believe the park feels haunted, perhaps this is why.
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This is an updated version of a previously published post.
Top and Bottom Photo: Cathryn
Middle Photo: NYC Parks Department
Secrets of the 20,000 dead bodies buried under Washington Square Park New York Post, October 29, 2022