Tag Archives: Flatiron District

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.

Third Shearith Israel Cemetery

West of the Sixth Avenue is a large open space which testifies silently yet strongly to the time when all this part of the island was quiet country side and the city still was very far away.  It is the Jewish graveyard—the Beth Haim, or Place of Rest . . . the Beth Haim was established here—on a lot which possessed the advantages of lying within one of the blocks of the new City Plan and therefore was safe against the opening of new streets, and which also could be reached by an already opened country road.  Although long since superseded by the Beth Haim on Long Island, this graveyard still is cared for zealously—as may be seen by looking from the back windows of the big dry-goods shop on the Sixth Avenue upon its rows of seemly monuments, whereon legends in Hebrew characters tell of “Rest” and “Peace.”  And, truly, looking out from the bustle and clamor of the shop upon the grassy quiet place, with its ivy-clad deadhouse and its long lines of marble gravestones whereof the whiteness has become gray as the years have gone on and on, there is a most pleasant sense of rest and peacefulness amidst this calm serenity of ancient death. (Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, June 1893).

The third cemetery of Congreation Shearith Israel in 1836, on 21st Street, just west of 6th Avenue (Colton 1836)

When Congregation Shearith Israel was forced to close its graveyard in Greenwich Village in 1829, it established a new cemetery in an area even further away from the city center.  The new burial ground had a frontage of 80.5 feet on the south side of 21st Street, about 75 feet west of 6th Avenue.  It was dedicated as Beth Hayim Shelishi (the Third Cemetery) in August 1829 and the first interment took place in November of that year.  A Metaher house, or chapel, (the “ivy-clad deadhouse” mentioned above) was built near the cemetery’s entrance in 1830, but has long since disappeared.

The 21st Street cemetery served as the congregation’s burial ground until 1851, when the city banned burials below 86th Street.  An exception to this prohibition was made in 1855, when remains removed from Congregation Shearith Israel’s graveyard at Chatham Square were reinterred at the 21st Street cemetery.  Today hemmed in by buildings, the cemetery has survived relatively intact and remains the largest of the three Shearith Israel burial grounds in Manhattan.  The congregation is currently in the process of renovating and preserving the cemetery.

The Third Shearith Israel Cemetery in 1852, identified as “Jews Cemetery” (Dripps 1852)
The Third Shearith Israel Cemetery today (NYCityMap)
View of the Third Shearith Israel Cemetery, West 21st Street, Manhattan (Mary French)
Headstones in the 21st Street cemetery (Mary French)

See more photos of the Third Shearith Israel Cemetery.

See recent renovations at the Third Shearith Israel Cemetery.

Sources: Colton’s 1836

Map Of The City and County Of New-York; Dripps’ 1852 Map of the City of New-York extending northward to Fiftieth St; Portraits Etched in Stone 133-141 (David de Sola Pool 1952); “Down Love Lane,Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, June 1893, p. 586; “Debris Falls on Historic Jewish Cemetery,” New York Times, June 9, 2006; “Continent’s Oldest Congregation Unveils Plan to Preserve Flatiron Cemetery,” DNAinfo

, June 14, 2010 (includes video of cemetery); NYCityMap