Chronicles: NYC’s Hidden Burial Ground
Beginning as a marshy valley which the Minetta Creek ran through on its way to the Hudson River, the area now know as Washington Square Park was home to the Native American village of Sapokanikan. In the mid-1600s, the Dutch invaded the land, running out the Native Americans, and turning it onto farms. Through 1797, the land remained in the hands of farmers until the city purchased it for a potter’s field, or burial ground for those without a family, convicts, or those driven out of the church, but in the early 1800s, the city had a rampant epidemic of yellow fear and many of its victims were also buried in the field. It is legend as well that in this field, at the Hangman’s Elm, public hangings were held.
In October of 2009, a tombstone for a late James Jackson, “Here lies the body of James Jackson, who departed this life the 22nd day of September 1799 aged 28 years native of the county of Kildare Ireland,” was found which bared the question, why would a tombstone be in a potter’s field, which normally would have none? Over the 200-year history of Washington Square Park, more than one cemetery occupied the land. The tombstone of Mr. Jackson, a watchman and grocer living at 19 East George Street (the former name of Market Street), was originally part of The Scotch Presbyterian Church, which owned the largest cemetery in the area and was the neighbor of the potter’s field. An excavation in 1890 unearthed headstones as well, with those bearing inscriptions in German and dating to 1803, the residents of a private German graveyard at the north end of the park.
In 1825, the cemetery closed for good but to this day, over 20,000 bodies call Washington Square park their final resting place and it is common for gardeners in the park to unearth bones from old New Yorkers who have worked their way to the surface. In January of 2008, excavations of the park led city workers to uncover four full skeletons and nearly 80 human remains and a century ago, New Yorkers would tell tales of a strange blue mist that hovered over the park during hot summer days, calling it the “vapors” from the bodies (Emily Kies Folpe’s book It Happened on Washington Square).