Beware of Zombies: The Grim Origins of Washington Square Park

By Carmen Nigro, Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building
March 10, 2011
Stephen A. Schwarzman Building

Washington Arch. Image ID: G91F189_031F

Centered on Washington Square Park, Greenwich Village is a neighborhood made legendary by the world famous artists, musicians, and writers that have flourished and created within steps of its arch. However, what lies beneath that splendid, recently re-landscaped and renovated outdoor sanctuary is a bit more morbid.

In his 2003 book Around Washington Square, Luther S. Harris posed the question, “What had made Greenwich Village such an important seedbed for the growth and flowering of culture in New York City, the United States, and indeed the world?” Could it perhaps have been the fertilizing effects of the 20,000 or so human corpses that still lie beneath the park?

In its 2005 Archaeological Assessment of Washington Square Park [PDF download], the New York City Parks and Recreation Department confirms that corpses “possibly numbered as many as 20,000 and it appears these burials remain under varying depths of fill.” In the popular guidebook Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City by Michelle Nevius and James Nevius, the authors detail, “While estimates vary, it seems likely that over 20,000 people were buried in the land.... The bulk of the bodies were never disinterred, which means that they remain to this day under the grass and pavement of Washington Square.”

So, how did those bodies get there? In 1797, the quickly expanding New York City government purchased a portion of an old farm for $4,500 to create a potter’s field—a burial ground for the indigent, poor, criminals, and victims of epidemic. The potter’s field operated for almost thirty years and occupied what is now the eastern two-thirds of Washington Square Park. It also happened to be adjacent to several established church cemeteries, adding to the area’s body count. In Around Washington Square, Harris commented that this area was a “natural choice for such bleak facilities because it was a rural northern suburb of the city and already the site of cemeteries owned by downtown churches.”

Hundreds of people who could not afford to be buried privately were laid to rest in the field. Soon, the city sheriff erected a public gallows, near the current location of the Square’s fountain. Three-quarters of a mile away was a prison on the Hudson, which Harris describes as “another source of supply for field and noose.” What ultimately put the burial ground over capacity were the series of epidemics of yellow fever which struck in the years 1797, 1798, 1801, and 1803. This caused the city to seek and create a new, larger potter’s field at the current site of Bryant Park. (The bodies in Bryant Park were however relocated to Ward’s Island, and may still be there...)

Soon after the ground reached its capacity for human burials, mayor Philip Hone initiated his strategy for transforming the potter’s field into a public square. His intent was to raise the property values adjacent to the square, and it was related to a scheme to raise funding for a charity called Sailor’s Snug Harbor—but that is a story for another time. Hone’s models were prestigious London squares such as Belgrave Square. But instead of a private space like London’s squares, the mayor wanted to create a free public space. In 1827, courts agreed with him and Washington Square was legally declared a “public space.”

Initially called the Washington Military Parade Ground and used to celebrate the 50-year anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the square’s moniker was soon shortened by the press to “Washington Square.” Naming public facilities after George Washington was extremely popular at the time, especially in conjunction with an Independence Day celebration. Landscaping, street work, and construction of fine houses soon followed. Some skeletons were even unearthed during this process, although there were no wide-scale efforts to completely disinter the crowded burial site.

The square did achieve Mayor Hone’s goal of raising the property values around it. Properties purchased by New York University (NYU), then known as the University of the City of New York, provide a striking example. In 1832, before the square was even completely finished, the school purchased the lots on the entire eastern block facing the square between Waverly and Washington Places. The price of the land had already risen steeply, and the university paid $40,000 for lots that had been evaluated at one-tenth that price only six years earlier, an act that completely wiped out their accounts. Harris says that after purchase NYU had only $66.46 in capital funds, while Nevius and Nevius say $6.40. Nonetheless, it was not enough money to run a university or fund the construction of the buildings. The school sank into debt, professors were not paid, and even the university’s book collection was mortgaged.

The real estate investment paid off very quickly. Within five years there was a 240% increase in property value and Washington Square was transformed from a Golgotha to a tranquil public space that continues to lend prestige and value to the surrounding neighborhood.

Regardless, in the event of zombie apocalypse, you now know one area to especially avoid.