'Nothing But Death': 20,000 Bodies Buried Under One of New York City's Busiest Parks


New York City’s Washington Square Park has always been known for drawing crowds.

In the 1820s, the area was a parade ground, according to the city’s parks department. After it became a public park in 1827, wealthy families flocked there to build homes nearby as they fled the disease and congestion of downtown Manhattan.

In the decades that followed, the Greenwich Village green space attracted a steady stream of protesters and performers in addition to the day-to-day pedestrians.

But few of the people congregating beneath tall trees on Washington Square Park’s green lawns and broad, paved walks realize they’re frolicking at the gravesite of some 20,000 men, women and children.

The site was designated a potter’s field, or cemetery for the impoverished, around 1797, according to the New York Post.

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Officials originally designated a capacity of about 5,000 graves for the site, but several yellow fever epidemics forced them to cram in four times that number of bodies.

This macabre detail has made the park a popular gathering place for the city’s “ghost hunter” tour guides.

“This is nothing but death all around here,” one local expert said in a YouTube video.

Did you know there are thousands of bodies buried under Washington Square Park in New York?

It has created some memorable moments for maintenance crews who have unexpectedly stumbled upon human remains while digging in the area, the Post reported.

“In 1965, Con Edison maintenance workers sinking a shaft into the ground got a shock when they penetrated the roof of an underground chamber filled with around two dozen skeletons,” according to the outlet.

Surprisingly, Washington Square Park is not the only public place in New York that served as a burial ground.

“It turns out, some of the city’s most popular places to read books, sunbathe, host birthday parties, and let your dog roam off leash started out as potter’s fields,” Jordan Galloway wrote on the website

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“Union Square, Madison Square, Sara D. Roosevelt and Bryant Parks … were originally purchased by the city to serve as burial grounds for New Yorkers unable to afford final resting places.”

Even a handful of the city’s playgrounds were constructed on old burial grounds, according to Untapped New York.

In the 1930s, it said, a park was under construction at Martin’s Field in Flushing. “When they dug the wading pool, workers reported finding ‘bones galore,’ as well as pennies that had been used to cover the eyes of the dead,” the website said. That site had been the former Colored Cemetery of Flushing.

One playground in Greenwich Village was built over the former burying ground of St. John’s Chapel of Trinity Church, where, according to Untapped New York, Edgar Allen Poe was fond of wandering among the graves.

New York City urban archeologist Joan Geismar has been called in to investigate when human remains have been found, according to the Post. Geismar’s work has unearthed artifacts that bring to life some details about the city’s long-forgotten inhabitants.

“It should give us perspective,” she told the Post.

“We blindly go walking down the sidewalks of New York, but what we see now isn’t what it used to be. People were here before, and the archeological record is there if you take the trouble to read it.”

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Lorri Wickenhauser has worked at news organizations in California and Arizona. She joined The Western Journal in 2021.
Lorri Wickenhauser has worked at news organizations in California and Arizona. She joined The Western Journal in 2021.