In the early 1730s, the growing city of New York—then about 9,000 people clustered at the south end of Manhattan—was grappling with the problem of poverty. The “Number and Continual Increase of the Poor within this City is very great and Exceeding burthensome to the Inhabitants thereof,” the Common Council reported in 1734, necessitating construction of a municipal poorhouse, or almshouse. The Almshouse opened in 1736 on the Commons, a triangular piece of communal pastureland at what was then the northern edge of the city. The Almshouse served as a shelter for the poor who were unable to work due to old age or illness and a workhouse/house of corrections for impoverished people considered able to work but “living Idly and unimployed,” as well as “all disorderly persons, parents of Bastard Children, Beggars, Servants running away or otherwise misbehaving themselves, Trespassers, Rogues, [and] Vagabonds.”
Along with housing the sick, impoverished widows, and orphans, the Almshouse put the idle back to work and incarcerated criminals. Inmates (the term used to refer to residents of all public institutions during this time period) received clothing and followed strict daily schedules consisting of meals, prayer, and work (carding wool, making buttons, shredding old rope for reuse, or raising garden crops). In 1785, the Almshouse had 301 inmates—63 men, 133 women, 50 boys, 49 girls, and “2 Black Men & 4 Black Women.” Stays ranged from a day up to the death of an inmate.
Over the course of the 18th century, the Commons became the site of a number of other public buildings including the Gaol, or Jail, completed in 1759, east of the Almshouse; the Bridewell, a prison built in 1775 west of the Almshouse; and the Barracks, four structures constructed at the north end of the Commons beginning in 1757 to house soldiers. Areas surrounding these buildings were used as institutional burial grounds. A fenced burial place for deceased Almshouse inmates was established in 1757 “to the Eastward of and adjoining to the fence of the said Work House, of the Length of two Boards.” Apparently this graveyard was filled by 1785, when the Keeper of the Almshouse requested new grounds for this purpose and the city ordered that vacant ground “in the rear of the Barracks” be used for interment of those dying in the Almshouse and the Bridewell.
In 1797, the city built a new almshouse just north of the first almshouse, which was demolished at that time. In 1803, City Hall was erected on the site the first Almshouse, and the Commons began to transform into today’s City Hall Park, located just south of Chambers Street, between Broadway and Centre streets. In 1816, the poor were relocated to a complex at Bellevue and the second Almshouse building was used a cultural center until it was demolished in 1857; it is now the site of Tweed Courthouse. As the Commons changed from an area of social welfare, penal institutions, and military housing to the seat of local government, the Almshouse burial grounds vanished beneath City Hall Park. Long thought to have been obliterated by two centuries of construction activity, the forgotten burial grounds reappeared during archaeological work connected with recent renovation projects.
More than 50 graves, and disturbed human remains representing at least 200 more individuals, have been found in the north section of City Hall Park since the late 1990s and are believed to be associated with the first Almshouse and the Commons’ other 18th-century institutions. Intact burials were left in place during the excavations, protected to prevent disturbance and covered over again; they rest under the lawns and paved areas near City Hall and Tweed Courthouse. Disturbed burials and fragmentary human remains were collected, analyzed, and eventually reburied in the northeastern corner of the park near Chambers and Centre streets.
Analysis of the skeletal remains suggests people consistent with the Almshouse population—most appear to be of European ancestry; males and females, young and old adults, infants and children are all represented; and many show the traces of lives spent in hard work, poorly healed fractures, and pathologies caused by illness or poor nutrition. These discoveries provide a view of an overlooked segment of society—those unfortunate and unruly early New Yorkers laid to rest in the Almshouse burial grounds, souls no longer forgotten.
Sources: Maerschalck’s 1755 Plan of the City of New York from an Actual Survey; Minutes of the Common Council of the City of New York, 1675-1776 (City of New York 1905), 4:240-241, 308-309; 6:85-86; Minutes of the Common Council of the City of New York, 1784-1831 (City of New York 1917), 1:151, 158, 184-185; Tweed Courthouse Archeological Survey and Data Retrieval Investigations (Hartgen 2003); The History and Archaeology of City Hall Park (Bankoff & Loorya 2008); “Colonial-Era Human Remains Are Unearthed Near City Hall,” New York Times, Oct 25, 1998; “Ghosts From a Long-Ago Poorhouse in City Hall Park,” New York Times, Jun 11, 1999; “Under City Hall Park,” Archaeology Magazine, Feb 25, 2000; “The City Hall Park Project, Archaeology Magazine, Feb 12, 2007; Touring Gotham’s Archaeological Past (Wall & Cantwell 2004), 46-49; “Bones From Historic Downtown Burial Grounds Reinterred in City Hall Park,” DNA Info, Nov 12, 2013; History of Poverty & Homelessness in NYC; Historical Marker Database.