Category Archives: Manhattan

Public Burial Ground, East 50th Street

An 1836 map showing the public burial ground at 50th St and Fourth Ave

When New York City authorities decided to close the public burial ground at Washington Square in 1825, they selected a property “situate between the Third and Fourth Avenues, and between the 48th & 50th Streets” as the location for the new potter’s field. The site was considered well-suited for a public burial ground, since it was outside the populated city but only about a mile-and-a-half from both the state prison on the Hudson River and the almshouse at Bellevue. The grounds had recently been improved by the Commissioners of the Almshouse (who may have already been using it as burial ground), were enclosed by a “strong stone wall,” and required “no preparation for its immediate occupancy than that of a small tenement as a residence for the Keeper.” The site was quickly put into operation—the following year, 1,659 of the 4,973 people who died in the city were interred in the new potter’s field.

Located between today’s 50th and 48th streets and extending from Park to Lexington avenues, the remains of more than 60,000 people were laid to rest in the potter’s field over the next two decades, including approximately 600 cholera victims interred there during an outbreak in the summer of 1832. By the 1840s, the city was regularly receiving complaints about conditions at the 50th Street potter’s field. The New York Mirror called the site “disgraceful to the city of New-York—revolting to every proper feeling of the human heart, and unworthy of a Christian country.” In an 1845 report to the Board of Aldermen, the City Health Inspector described the situation at the site, where “bodies have not been regularly or decently interred in graves, but great pits have been dug in which a large number of bodies have been deposited; and when filled, have been covered over slightly with earth, allowing the most offensive and pernicious exhalations to fill the atmosphere, to such an extent as to endanger the health of the whole neighborhood.” Though a site on Randall’s Island was selected for a new potter’s field in 1843, many of the city’s indigent and unknown continued to be buried at the 50th Street site until the late 1840s.

Excerpt from a New York Times report on the extension of 49th street through the cemetery in 1853

During the 1850s, the defunct public burial ground at 50th Street was continually disturbed by the city’s northward expansion. A section of the grounds at Fourth Avenue (today’s Park Avenue) and 48th Street transferred to a private owner, necessitating the removal of some 2,000 bodies to another part of the field. Property owners in the vicinity petitioned the city to convert the site into a public park, as it had done with the previous public burial ground at Washington Square, but the request was refused by the city council, who voted to open 49th Street through the site. The city cut the street through in 1853, leaving “the bones of its unfortunate citizens” scattered about, according to the Evening Post.

A view of the “desecrated” burial ground in April 1857, from Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper

Thousands of bodies were again disinterred and moved to another area of the grounds in 1857, when Fourth Avenue and 50th Street were graded along the site’s western and northern boundaries. This work left the old potter’s field in shambles—the Herald described stacks of coffins lining the sidewalks and a rough fence erected on the southwest corner of Fourth Avenue and 50th Street to “prevent the pile of coffins tumbling from their somewhat higher position to the level of the newly made sidewalk.”  Exposed coffins were visible in the soil banks along the graded streets, “with the hairless skulls of the poor pauper occupants staring the passerby full in the face.”

Another sketch from Leslie’s Illustrated, depicting conditions at the site in April 1857

In April 1857, the City Health Inspector recommended removal of remains from the 50th Street Potter’s Field, noting that the “general appearance of the ground was disgusting,” with hundreds of human bones exposed and “many people gathered there on Sundays and amused themselves by poking out the skulls and bones.” In 1858-59, the remains were disinterred and transferred to the potter’s field then in operation on Ward’s Island. The 50th Street potter’s field is notable as the last potter’s field  established on Manhattan Island; much of the site is occupied today by the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, built in 1929-31.

The Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and other buildings are shown on the site of the former burial ground in this 1955 map
A 2016 aerial view; red lines indicate approximate boundaries of the 50th Street public burial ground site

Sources: Colton’s 1836 Map Of The City and County Of New-York; Bromley’s 1955 Manhattan Land Book of the City of New York, Pl 78; Minutes of the Common Council of the City of New York, 1784-1831 (City of New York 1917), 14:306-308; “Proceedings of the Common Council,” New York Spectator, Mar 6, 1827; [City Inspector’s Report of Deaths], New York Evening Post Jul 17, 1832; “Board of Health,” New York Spectator, Jul 26, 1832; “Potter’s Field,” New York Mirror May 30 1840; Documents of the Board of Aldermen of the City of New York Vol 11, 1845, 681-682; “Burials in Cities,” New York Daily Tribune May 30, 1848; “Twelfth Ward Street Opening,” New York Herald, Mar 26, 1850; “Old Potter’s Field,” New York Evening Post, May 30, 1853; “The Old Potter’s Field,” New York Times, May 31, 1853; “The Old Potter’s Field,” New York Herald, Mar 15, 1857; “Public Health—Potter’s Field Again,” New York Daily Tribune, Apr 7, 1857; “Exhumation of Bodies at the Potter’s Field,” New York Evening Post, Jun 8, 1858; “Potter’s Field,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, Jun 19, 1858; “The News,” New York Herald, Jun 7, 1859

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Public Burial Ground, Bryant Park

An 1828 map showing the public cemetery site

On March 31, 1823, New York City’s Common Council passed the first of a series of laws banning interments in lower Manhattan, an action that was part of a movement in American cities that sought to promote public health by prohibiting burial of the dead in dense population centers. Though the ban was supported by those who regarded the numerous churchyards scattered throughout lower Manhattan as foul-smelling, unattractive eyesores that spread diseases, it was opposed by congregations and by families who had invested in purchasing lots and vaults in their churchyards. The opposition, who viewed the ban as an attack on private property and the rights of churches, was so strong that the Common Council reconsidered the measure twice over the next two years, both times reaffirming its original prohibition. However, the controversy demonstrated that the city needed to offer an alternative to those that had been deprived of a burial place as a result of the new interment law.

The Evening Post reports the laying of the cornerstone of the wall that would enclose the new burial ground, Oct 1823

At the same March 1823 meeting where they passed the interment law, the Common Council appointed a special committee to select a “Suitable Site for a public Burial Place to be called the City Burying ground.” This committee soon presented reports on the development of the new city burial ground, which would accommodate the “different religious congregations of the City,” as well as individuals “who may choose to select particular Spots for their families;” ground in the cemetery would also be reserved for the interment needs of the city’s “numerous poor.” The site selected for the municipal burial ground was part of common lands belonging to the city, located a little over three miles from City Hall, about 10 acres bounded by Fifth and Sixth avenues and 40th and 42nd streets. The city spent approximately $10,000 preparing the new cemetery, building 10 public burial vaults in the grounds, planting rows of weeping willows and elms, and enclosing the site with a four-foot-high stone wall that was topped with a “strong mortised fence, five feet high, made of Locust posts and the best Georgia pine.”

An 1825 call for proposals to construct vaults in the new burial ground

Despite the city’s efforts to provide a handsome municipal burial ground that could be used by all its citizens, the project never attracted middle- or upper-class New Yorkers and there is no evidence that congregations or families ever acquired lots or vaults in the city cemetery. The project was abandoned by the late 1820s; although the land is said to have been used as a potter’s field, reports from the 1850s state that the ground had been found to be too wet to be used for burials and remained wasteland until 1837, when it was appropriated for reservoir purposes. The city subsequently constructed the Croton Distributing Reservoir on the eastern portion of the site, while the western side became a public park known as Reservoir Square. In 1884 Reservoir Square was renamed Bryant Park; in 1899 the city demolished the reservoir and replaced it with the New York Public Library.

The 1823 public cemetery site is now the location of Bryant Park and the New York Public Library (NYCityMap)

Sources: Goodrich’s 1828 Plan of the City of New York and of the Island; Minutes of the Common Council of the City of New York, 1784-1831 (City of New York 1917), 12:811-812; 13:116-118; 14:209-212; 15:245; The Iconography of Manhattan Island: 1498-1909 (Stokes 1915-1928), 3:715, 968, 975; The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History (Sloane 1991), 34-40; “Proceedings of the Common Council,” New York Spectator, Apr 4, 1823; “Proceedings of the Common Council,” New York Spectator, Jun 13, 1823; “New Burying Ground,” New York Evening Post, Oct 15, 1823; “New Burying Ground,” New York Spectator, Oct 15, 1823; “Corporation Proceedings,” New York Evening Post, Dec 22, 1824; “Proceedings of the Common Council,” New York Evening Post, Dec 27, 1824; “To Masons,” New York Evening Post, Jul 2, 1825; “The New York Crystal Palace,” New York Herald, Jun 3, 1856; “The Removal of the Crystal Palace,” New York Herald, Nov 29, 1856

Public Burial Ground, Washington Square Park

Detail of Bridges 1811 map of the city, showing Greenwich village; approximate boundaries of the potter’s field are indicated in red

In April 1797, New York City authorities decided to purchase a piece of property “bounded on the Road leading from the Bowery Lane at the two Mile Stone to Greenwich” to replace the public burial ground then in use at Madison Square Park. The property was seen by many as a good choice for the new potter’s field—it was in a rural area north of the populated city but a convenient distance to the Almshouse in City Hall Park, to the public hospital at Bellevue on the East River, and to the new state prison just west on the Hudson River. One group, however, was incensed by the plan—affluent New Yorkers who had country retreats in Greenwich village. The burial ground would not only abut the suburban homes of many of the city’s elite, but it was contiguous to the only road leading westward from the Bowery turnpike to Greenwich, so they and their fashionable visitors would have to suffer the slow-moving wagons carrying bodies to the site.

Fifty-seven owners of residences in the vicinity, including Alexander Hamilton, immediately sent a letter of protest to the Common Council, stating that the burial ground would “lie in the neighborhood of a number of Citizens who have at great expense erected dwellings on the adjacent lots for the health and accommodation of their families during the summer season, and who, if the above design be carried into execution, must either abandon their seats or submit to the disagreeable sensations arising from an unavoidable view of and close situation to a burial place of this description destined for the victims of contagion.” The petitioners offered to buy another piece of land in exchange for the planned site, but their proposal was denied. The city proceeded with preparing the new burial ground, bounded by Greenwich Lane on the north, Fourth street on the south, Wooster Street on the east, and Minetta Creek (which ran southwest from the foot of Fifth Avenue to the corner of MacDougal and Fourth streets) on the west. This property forms approximately the eastern two-thirds of today’s Washington Square Park.

An 1817 survey of the potter’s field, showing the Scotch Presbyterian burial grounds at the northeast corner (Geismar 2005)

By November 1797, the new burial public burial ground was ready—fenced with “good posts and rails” and planted with trees—and the city ordered the keeper to commence interments there instead of at the old Potter’s Field at Madison Square Park. The keeper, who lived in a house in the northeast corner of the seven-acre site, dug graves, maintained the grounds, and performed another important function—protecting the cemetery from grave robbers. During the 18th and 19th centuries, medical students and physicians were in desperate need of cadavers for their training and research; with no mechanism in place to supply them with fresh corpses, they resorted to body snatching—a crime so common that almost every prominent physician in the city confessed to having taken part. They often pilfered remains from the city’s most vulnerable graveyards—the African burial grounds and potter’s fields, where their raids were less likely to arouse public outrage.

Excerpt from the New York Evening Post report of an 1824 attempt to steal bodies from potter’s field

John McKenzie, Keeper of the Potters Field in 1808, was dismissed from the position when he confessed to “conniving at the disinterment and taking away of dead bodies” from the burial ground. One of his successors in the position, William Schureman, was a more faithful servant to the dead—at about 3 o’clock on an April morning in 1824, Schureman “suspected that some person had entered the field for the purpose of removing the dead, and after sending for two watchmen, and calling his faithful dog, he went to ascertain the fact.” His suspicions were confirmed when he arrived at a burial pit containing about 10 coffins that had been uncovered; when the person concealed in the grave refused to show himself, Schureman sent his dog into the pit. Instantly, “a tall, stout fellow made his appearance, and took to his heels across the field.” The grave robber was eventually secured by the watchmen and sentenced to six months in prison. Reporting the story, the New York Evening Post cautioned, “the young gentlemen attending the medical school of this city, will take warning by this man’s fate. They may rest assured that the keeper of Pottersfield will do his duty and public justice will be executed upon any man, whatever may be his condition in life, who is found violating the law and the decency of Christian burial.”

Headstone of James Jackson, a 1799 victim of yellow fever; the headstone was found in Washington Sq Park in 2009 (New York Times)

The potter’s field was a burial place not only of “strangers and paupers,” but citizens, rich and poor alike, who died of yellow fever. In the summer of 1798, the disease returned to the city in such proportions it became known as the Great Epidemic; of the 2,000 New Yorkers who perished, about 660 were buried in the potter’s field. The following year, and in subsequent outbreaks, churches were forbidden from burying yellow fever victims in their burial grounds; all those succumbing to it were interred in the potter’s field. In an address delivered to the New-York Historical Society in 1857, John W. Francis describes the potter’s field at Washington Square as “our Golgotha during the dreadful visitations of the Yellow Fever in 1797, 1798, 1801, and 1803…many a victim of the pestilence, of prominent celebrity, was consigned to that final resting-place on earth, regardless of his massive gains, or his public services.”

In addition to serving as burial ground for the indigent, the unknown, and those dying of contagious diseases, the potter’s field was the location of a number of church plots, which lined the burial ground’s eastern edge. Among these church plots were several at the northeastern corner of the potter’s field belonging to congregations of the Scotch Presbyterian Church, and two 50-foot-square plots set aside for the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and Asbury African Church.

By the 1820s, some 20,000 bodies had been laid to rest in the potter’s field and the area surrounding the burial ground—once farm fields and country estates—had transformed into a thriving suburb of the city. Houses and shops lined the blocks immediately south of the burial ground; wells were dug, pumps installed, and streets regulated. “The present Pottersfield is nearly filled, and by Spring it will be necessary to remove it to some other place,” the city council reported in December 1824; a month later, they announced, “the time has arrived when interments should be interdicted in a part of Our City so rapidly improving as that in the vicinity of the present Pottersfield.” In 1825, the burial ground was closed and ordered filled and leveled. The city acquired additional land on the west side of the potter’s field to give the property a uniform shape, and in 1828 the site was described as “a beautiful public square, called Washington Square, which is also used as a military parade ground.” By 1878 it was a public park.

Map showing location of burial vault found at the northeastern corner of the park in 1965; believed to be part of the Scotch Presbyterian burial grounds

When the city was in the process of creating a public square from the burial ground, the Common Council declared “it is not the intention of this Board to disturb any of the graves within these grounds nor will there be any absolute necessity for such a measure.” They acknowledged that among those buried there were “many connected with our most respectable families” and said they would not think of  “disturbing the numerous remains deposited there.” Despite these noble intentions, remains of those resting under Washington Square Park have been disturbed a number of times over the years.

Workmen digging the foundation for the park’s iconic Washington Memorial Arch at the Fifth Avenue entrance in 1890 unearthed coffins, skeletons, and headstones, two bearing the date 1803. In 1941, the New York Times reported more “grim human relics of the eighteenth and nineteenth century” were encountered by WPA laborers who found human remains during excavations for a sewer on the north side of the park. During utility excavations at the northeastern corner of the park in 1965, Con Edison workmen broke through the domed roof of an underground burial vault containing several coffins and “at least 25 skeletons;” this likely was part of the burial grounds of the Scotch Presbyterian Church.

An intact burial uncovered in the park in 2008 (Geismar 2009)

And remains representing at least 31 individuals, including 16 intact graves, were discovered during archaeological work connected with renovations at the park between 2009 and 2013. Also discovered during these excavations was a beautifully-engraved brownstone marker found in the southwest quadrant of the park. “Here lies the body of James Jackson,” the inscription on the three-foot-tall headstone says, “who departed this life the 22nd day of September 1799 aged 28 years native of the county of Kildare Ireland.” Though no human remains were found associated with the headstone, research confirmed that Jackson was a victim of yellow fever and that’s how he—and his finely-made headstone—came to rest in the potter’s field.

A 2016 aerial view of Washington Square Park (NYCityMap)

Sources: Bridges 1811 Map of the city of New York and island of Manhattan, as laid out by the commissioners appointed by the legislature, April 3d, 1807; Minutes of the Common Council of the City of New York, 1784-1831 (City of New York 1917), 2:336, 339, 348, 351, 403-404, 512; 4:525; 5:59, 383, 390; 11:575; 14:22, 306-308;15:160, 234, 748; 16:48-50; The Iconography of Manhattan Island: 1498-1909 (Stokes 1915-1928), 5:1340, 1673; An Account of the Malignant Fever, Lately Prevalent in New York (Hardie 1799); Old New York; or Reminiscences of the Past Sixty Years (Francis 1858), 24-25; Historic New York (Goodwin et al 1899), 232, 316; It Happened on Washington Square (Folpe 2002), 55-69; Around Washington Square (Harris 2003), 5-11; Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital (Oshinsky 2016), 29-32; “Resurrectionists,” New York Evening Post, May 20, 1824; “Skeletons in the Way” New York Times, May 13, 1890; “Unearth a Potter’s Field,” New York Times, Mar 13, 1941; “Skeletons Found in Washington Sq.,” New York Times, Aug 2 1965, “Bones to be Left in Washington Sq.” New York Times, Aug 3 1965; “Gravestone from 1799 is Found in Washington Square Park,” New York Times, Oct 28, 2009; Washington Square Park: Phase 1A Archaeological Assessment (Geismar 2005); Washington Square Park: Phase 1 Construction Field Testing Report (Geismar 2009); Washington Square Park: Phase 2 Construction Field Testing Report (Geismar 2012); Washington Square Park: Phase 3 Construction Field Testing Report (Geismar 2013)

Public Burial Ground, Madison Square Park

The public burial ground, or potters field, at the junction of Post and Bloomingdale roads, now Madison Square Park (Randel 1820)

New York City’s municipal Almshouse was under siege in the 1790s. The city was in a growth spurt that would double its population to 60,000 by the end of the decade; at the same time, it was ravaged by annual outbreaks of yellow fever. Though yellow fever endangered all New Yorkers (750 fell to it in 1795), the city’s poor were most susceptible to the disease. The rising number of indigent residents and ailing poor placed a strain on the crumbling, sixty-year-old Almshouse, which housed close to 800 people by 1795.

In response to this situation, the city opened a new, larger almshouse just north of the first Almshouse in City Hall Park and established a yellow fever hospital at Bellevue, along the East River north of the settled city. The city also found a new burial place for the poor, interred in grounds adjacent to the Almshouse since the 1750s. In August 1794, the Common Council ordered that the “Triangular Piece of Ground at the junction of the Post & Bloomingdale Roads be appropriated to the use of the Alms House for a Burying Ground.” A month later, the council directed that the hospital at Bellevue be permitted to bury their dead at this same site. The site became a graveyard for interment of paupers, the unknown, and those dying of contagious diseases.

Randel’s 1820 map shows the potter’s field located at the triangular piece of ground formed by the junction of Bloomingdale and Post Roads.

The public burial ground at Post and Bloomingdale roads—the vicinity of present-day 26th Street between Fifth and Madison avenues—was used for just three years. Opposition to transporting the dead on the busy roads leading to the potter’s field compelled the city to discontinue its use in May 1797 and open a new public burial ground at what is now Washington Square Park. The abandoned potter’s field at Post and Bloomingdale roads transferred to the United States government for an arsenal in 1806; later it was the location of the House of Refuge for juvenile delinquents. In 1847, the site was leveled, sodded, and enclosed to create Madison Square Park.

The site’s history as a potters field was recognized even after it was converted into an arsenal, as evidenced in this 1809 notice of a deserted soldier.

Though the burial ground was used only for a short period, hundreds of people likely were interred there during this calamitous time. Some burials were disinterred when the U.S. government built a powder-and-shot magazine at the site; in 1808, L’Oracle (one of the city’s early 19th century newspapers) reported that “persons employed in digging the foundation of the Magazine in the Old Potter’s Field daily dig up coffins and dead bodies which are disposed of in the most indecent and disrespectful manner.” On several occasions in the early 20th century, construction workers uncovered human remains at the north end of the park during excavations for sewer lines and water pipes. Burials may still be present beneath the park.

Excerpt of 1930 New York Times article reporting discovery of remains of the potter’s field in Madison Square Park.
Map of Madison Square Park (NYCityMap)

Sources: Randel’s 1820 Farm Maps, No. 14; Minutes of the Common Council of the City of New York, 1784-1831 (City of New York 1917), 2:92, 102, 351, 365; Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York (Valentine 1856), 465; The Iconography of Manhattan Island: 1498-1909 (Stokes 1915-1928), 5:1313, 1474, 1494; Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital (Oshinsky 2016), 11-28; “Twenty Dollars Reward” [Notice], New York Evening Post, Apr 8 1809; “Park Once Potter’s Field, New York Times, July 11, 1908; “Unearth Skeleton in Park,” New York Times, Sep 11, 1930.

Almshouse Burial Grounds

A 19th-century depiction of the first Almshouse (1736-1797) now the site of City Hall (NYPL)

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.”

Maerschalck’s 1755 map shows the “Poor House,” or Almshouse, situated in the Commons

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.

The Almshouse and other structures in the Commons, 1776-96 (Bankoff & Loorya 2008)

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.

Map of City Hall Park, including City Hall and Tweed Courthouse (NYCityMap)

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.

Human remains from the Almshouse burial grounds discovered in the northeast corner of City Hall Park, 1999 (Bankoff & Loorya 2008)
Commemorative marker in a lawn at the northeast corner of City Hall Park, where human remains from the Almshouse burial grounds were reinterred (Larry Gertner)

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.

18th Street Methodist Episcopal Churchyard

An 1852 map shows the 18th Street Methodist Episcopal Church, with its grounds extending to 19th Street.

In 1836, members of the Methodist Episcopal Church of the City of New York established a church on property owned by the society on 18th Street, west of 8th Avenue. The church was erected on a site known as the “old Chelsea burying ground,” where, it was said, villagers had long been buried. Shortly after dedicating their new house of worship on 18th Street, the society built a number of burial vaults in the grounds surrounding the church. These were used by church members and residents of the rapidly growing neighborhood of Chelsea, and became a source of considerable income for the church. Approximately 500 bodies were interred in the vaults between 1836 and 1851, when a city ordinance forbade further burials below 86th Street.

A view of 18th Street Methodist Episcopal Church in 1885

The churchyard of the 18th Street Methodist Church consisted of a strip of land, 100 x 50 feet, running from the back of the church to 19th Street, and an additional 50 x 20 foot plot on the southeast corner behind the church parsonage. It contained 64 vaults, including large public vaults used by licenses, and smaller, private vaults acquired by deed. The vaults were “splendidly built of brickwork throughout;” the entrance to some was by a door on the side; to others admittance was gained by lifting a slab on top. In an 1886 article in the Evening Post, a Chelsea resident describes a funeral he attended in the 18th Street churchyard during the summer of 1849, when a neighbor and her and child died during a cholera epidemic of that year. “I do not remember in what vault the young mother, with her babe asleep upon her quiet bosom, was laid away,” he recalled, “but I remember going down some steps that were green and slimy with the breath of decay, and looking with awe-struck curiosity at the contents of some shelves that were already occupied by crumbling tenants.”

The Daily Graphic illustrated the removals from the 18th Street Methodist churchyard in 1886. At left coffins are shown stacked in the vaults; at right the grounds dug up behind the church.

By the 1880s, the members of the 18th Street Methodist Church viewed their defunct vault yard with disfavor, considering it unused land that could be a source of revenue. The trustees of the church, a young, “vigorous and business-like” group with no sentimental attachment to a generation that had long since passed away, in 1882 offered a resolution to remove the dead from the vaults in the strip of land extending from the rear of the church to 19th Street. Although many of the vault owners initially resisted the plan to clear out the vaults and sell the ground, by 1886 the Trustees had obtained consent to proceed with the disinterments and the bodies were removed to plots at Woodlawn and Cypress Hills cemeteries. After the removals, the church sold the section of the property fronting on 19th street for $26,000 and townhouses were built there. It’s not known when or if the bodies from the smaller plot to the rear of the parsonage, or the bodies from the earlier Chelsea Village burial ground, were ever removed from the church grounds.

The 18th Street Church continued as a place of worship for the Methodists in the Chelsea section until 1945, when they merged with the Metropolitan-Duane Methodist Church at 7th Avenue and 13th Street and subsequently sold their property on 18th street. During demolition of the church in 1950, workmen unearthed eleven human skulls and several dozen arm and leg bones when digging belong the surface of the lot. No evidence of the old vaults was reported at that time; the remains, which were found in a large pile in the ground, likely were left behind during the earlier removals. A six-story apartment building sits atop the site today.

A 2016 aerial view of the former site of the 18th Street ME church grounds

Sources: Dripps’ 1852 Map of the City of New-York extending northward to Fiftieth St; The History of the Charter Church of New York Methodism, Eighteenth Street, 1835-1885 (Force 1885); “Their Ancestor’s Bones,” New York Times, Jan 22 1882; “The City’s Old Graveyards,” The Chronicle (Mt Vernon NY), Aug 25 1882; “Opening a Charnel House,” New York Herald, Nov 15 1886; “Emptying a Graveyard,” Daily Graphic, Nov 16 1886; “A Tour Around New York,” Evening Post, Dec 15 1886; “Skulls Unearthed in Old Churchyard,” New York Times Mar 25 1950

Spring Street Presbyterian Church Burial Vaults

An 1852 map showing the Spring Street Presbyterian Church

Many of New York City’s cemeteries have been bulldozed for development over the years, the graves and the stories of the people buried in them lost to collective memory. In the last few decades, though, discovery of historic burial grounds during construction activities has provided opportunities to learn about segments of society that have made important contributions to the city’s history, but generally are overlooked in the historical narrative. The 1991 discovery of remains at the African Burial Ground site in Lower Manhattan revealed a wealth of information about life and death for Africans in colonial New York and became an enormously important site for the modern African American community, underscoring and commemorating their deep historical presence in the city and the nation. Recovery of remains from the site of one the Quarantine cemeteries on Staten Island in 2003 renewed interest in the history of the Quarantine Grounds and the link they provide to New York City’s history as a gateway for millions of immigrants. Another of the city’s “hidden histories” was uncovered with finding the burial vaults of the Spring Street Presbyterian Church, a congregation with a unique history of class and race inclusiveness.

Remains found in one of the burial vaults during excavation in 2006 (Meade 2007)

In December 2006, human bones were found in backhoe fill when a parking lot at the southeast corner of Spring Street and Varick Street in Manhattan was being torn up for construction of a 46-story luxury hotel, Trump SoHo (recently renamed The Dominick). Research determined that the remains were of individuals interred in underground burial vaults associated with the Spring Street Presbyterian Church that stood on the site from 1811 until 1966, when the church was demolished and the parking lot was paved over the location. Archaeological excavations at the site recovered the remains of approximately 200 individuals, as well as artifacts including engraved metal coffin plates, coffin wood and nails, shroud pins, ceramics, coins, fabric, and a few personal items, including ribbons, buttons, hair combs, shoes, a whistle, and a gold wedding band. The human remains and artifacts were sent to Syracuse University where they were studied by anthropologists from 2007 until 2014, when they reinterred at Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

A view of Spring Street Presbyterian Church in 1927 (NYPL)

The burial vaults at the Spring Street Presbyterian Church were four underground rooms, two made of limestone and two of brick, that were built along the southeast side of the church building and used between 1820 and 1846. During the nearly 200 years that had passed since the vaults were used, the wood coffins stacked within them had rotted and collapsed, leaving behind the piles of bones and artifacts that were unearthed during the excavation. Like the long-forgotten vaults, the distinctive history of Spring Street Presbyterian Church and its congregants had been obscured until it came to light again when the vaults were rediscovered. During the time period the burial vaults were in use, the church was a radical abolitionist congregation situated in a working-class neighborhood and its congregants were individuals of multiple classes and races (the church began admitting African Americans into full membership in 1820, seven years before slavery was abolished in New York).

Diagram showing location of the burial vaults within the Spring Street Church property (Mooney et al 2008)
Severe bowing in leg bones of one of the Spring Street children, evidence of rickets (Ellis 2014)

The Spring Street remains—the only large collection of human remains recovered in the city that date to the first half of the 19th century—allowed anthropologists to gain an understanding of what life was like for these people in rapidly urbanizing New York. The remains told of variations in health (for example, 75 of the burials were children, and half of them suffered from rickets) and morphological features of the bone, teeth, and hair indicated significant differences in ancestry, suggesting that people from diverse backgrounds were interred together in the vaults at Spring Street. Equally important as the scientific finds, the discovery established a connection to and chance to commemorate New Yorkers who were in the forefront of early battles against slavery and were vanguards in the fight for civil rights.

Silver coffin plate of Oswald Williams Roe, one of the children interred in the burial vaults (Mooney et al 2008)
A 2016 aerial view showing the Trump SoHo on the former Spring Street Church site (nyc.gov)
Monument marking the reburial site at Greenwood Cemetery (David Pultz)

Sources: Dripps’ 1852 Map of the City of New-York extending northward to Fiftieth St; Spring Street Archaeology Project (Syracuse University); Archaeological Investigations of the Spring Street Presbyterian Church Cemetery (Mooney et al 2008); Topic Intensive Documentary Study: Spring Street Presbyterian Church (Meade 2007); The Children of Spring Street: The Remains of Childhood in a Nineteenth Century Abolitionist Congregation (Ellis 2014, PhD Dissertation); David Pultz, personal communication, June 19 2014; “Trump SoHo Project Is on Hold After Discovery of Human Remains,” New York Sun, Dec 13 2006; “Burial Vaults Inspire a Celebration of a Church Opposed to Slavery,” New York Times, Oct. 8 2014; “Return from Obscurity: NY’s Spring Street Presbyterian Church,” News—Presbyterian Church USA, Nov 10 2014