Washington Square Park is a magnet for performers, artists, dogs, and NYU students. But did you know about the bodies buried beneath the green? Besides the iconic arch and fountain, there’s much to discover about this small park tucked away in lower Manhattan. The park's forgotten past includes public executions, mob ties, and the city's first labor protest.
Dead Men Tell No Tales
In 1797, the land was purchased by the city and converted from farmland into a burial ground. It was a potter's field for those who couldn’t afford graves on private land, or had no one to claim them. This included criminals, the poor, and sex-workers, among other groups. Additionally, many churches circled the surrounding area with their own graveyards. Basically, there were a lot of dead people all over the place.
In the center of the square, where the fountain now sits or near it (the sources aren't clear), stood the gallows. Public executions of criminals happened often and then they were laid to rest in the field. This gave rise to the myth of Hangman’s Elm. Research has since disproven there was ever such a tree where hangings happened regularly. Records show only one hanging taking place in the field. Executions happened at the gallows and not anywhere else.
The potter's field held over 20,000 bodies. Its capacity was quickly met thanks to the yellow fever epidemics of 1798, 1799, 1801, and 1803, where bodies were buried en masse. The burial site was popular because it was outside New York City limits at the time, making it a safe, hygienic spot to bury the corpses. Unable to hold any more bodies, the city created a new potter’s field at what is now Bryant Park.
But don’t worry, Bryant Park isn’t here to steal Washington’s thunder. The bodies under Bryant Park were moved to a new site, whereas most of the corpses under Washington Square Park are still there. The cemetery closed in 1825 or 1826.
Guns and Money
With the graveyard full, the land needed a new use. Mayor Philip Hone allowed the Seventh Regiment to turn the ground into a practice square and drill field. Militias needed space to train so there were ready when called upon. More land was purchased by the city in the surrounding area to increase the field size.
In a grim turn events, hauling artillery across the field caused skulls and other body parts to be unearthed. To prevent more boney visitors, the top layer of bodies was exhumed and reburied somewhere else.
Despite this disturbing fact, as the 1830s went on, more and more houses were built surrounding the land. Mansions sprung up and wealth began to collect in the area. As a result, property values went up. The dominant architecture was in the Greek Revival style–consisting of towering white columns. You can view these iconic homes on the north side of the park today, one of the few enduring pieces of the park's history.
Don't forget by the time this was happening, the land was still shedding its reputation as a potter's field and execution spot. Apparently this didn't bother that many people. Thousands of bodies still lay beneath the park, immune to the barking dogs, squealing kiddos in the fountain, and any number of musicians who make the park home.
Transformation to Park
As a military parade ground, the land was already designated a public space. Mayor Hone wanted to go further and convert it fully into a park. By 1827, the militia moved out, and the land officially became a park. Roads were paved, helping to keep the dead from rising up.
By 1871, the New York City Department of Parks was formed. The park passed into their care. But this didn't mean now it was suddenly Washington Square Park and looked exactly like we know it today. The park has undergone many renovations over the years; the paths, fountain, and arch we know do not all date as far back as the 1870s.
The park finally got its first arch in 1889. The arch was made of wood and erected to honor the hundred year anniversary of Washington’s inauguration. The wood arch became so popular that in 1892, a permanent Tuckahoe marble arch was built.
The new arch was modeled after Paris's stunning Arc de Triomphe. During the excavations for the arch's construction, human remains, a coffin, and a gravestone dated to 1803 were discovered. You can change your name, but your skeletons will always chase up with you.
Ghosts to Mob Queens to First Ladies
Washington Square Park is famous for many reasons. Some of the famous faces that have lined its residences might surprise you.
The macabre Edgar Allen Poe lived at 85 West 3rd from 1844-1845. By this time, the land wasn’t a potter’s field, but it still wasn’t as developed as we know it to be today. Mark Twain also lived nearby from 1900-1901 at 14 West 10th. Because of the death-filled history of the park, people have frequently claimed to have seen the ghosts of both Poe and Twain in their old homes.
NYU Almost Went Broke
In the early 1830s, when the Greek Revival homes were being built and the park was undergoing its transformation, New York University began buying up land surrounding the park. They wanted to get in early before prices went up astronomically. The school paid around the equivalent of one million dollars by today's standards. After the transaction cleared, NYU had a pittance left.
Sixty bucks was not enough money to run a school, even back then. The university didn’t pay its teachers, mortgaged its book collections, and did everything they could to stave off falling into insurmountable debt. But in a few years, their investment paid off as the neighborhood flourished.
Today, NYU’s dominance around the park cannot be overlooked. If you’ve ever soaked up the sun during May, you’ve definitely seen flocks of purple graduation gowns as students from NYU’s many colleges gather with friends and family to snap photos at the iconic fountain and arch.
A Rich History of Social and Political Movements
Washington Square Park is a center for gatherings, rallies, and protests. Famous political leaders who have held events and spoken at the park include President Obama and presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren. But the history goes much farther back.
The first labor march in the city camped in Washington Square Park for four days. Stonemasons were protesting NYU using prison labor to dress the stone for its new buildings. Prison labor was cheaper than contracting stonemasons. NYU’s abhorrent decision to use cheap labor was probably partially influenced by the massive debt they were in from splurging on all those buildings. However, stonemasons needed the money to support themselves and their families. Unfortunately, the march did not achieve its goals.
NYU continued with their development plans using prison labor. Even though the protest didn't succeed, the protest was still monumental.
Another notable movement that rocked Washington Square Park was Labor Day 1912. 20,000 laborers marched to the park in honor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory the year before. 5,000 of those marchers were estimated to be women. In 1915, a women’s suffrage march launched from the park up Fifth Avenue.
In the 1940s and 50s, the Beat generation of artists gathered at the park, including Jack Kerouac, Jackson Pollock, and Allen Ginsberg. The park remains a safe place for artists and political gatherings to this day.
Washington Square Park's transformation from potter's field into an epicenter of cultural movements, protests, and artistic expression is a sharp contrast from those dark days of epidemic in the late 1700s and early 1800s.
More To Be Discovered
The next time you’re picnicking on the green, watching skateboarders pop tricks, enjoying the smooth saxophone stylings carrying on the breeze, try to imagine the gallows towering where the fountain sits.
This is just some of the rich, ghostly history of Washington Square Park. There’s more to be unpacked like the history of Jane Jacobs and Shirley Hayes, who fought tirelessly to keep the park free of vehicular traffic in the 1950s.
There is more to say about the band of artists who stormed the arch, lit lanterns and fired pistols from the top, resulting in the arch’s doors being sealed shut.
There is more to say about the Native American land and village of Sapokanican that was taken from them—presumably by the Dutch in the 1600s—and how it became the farmland that ultimately became the potter’s field that dominates so much of the park’s history and lore.