Tag Archives: Greenwich Village

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)

Advertisements

St Luke’s Churchyard

An 1831 view of St. Luke’s Church (NYPL)

The Church of St. Luke-in-the-Fields, on Hudson Street between Christopher and Barrow, was founded in 1820 by a group of prominent residents of Greenwich Village who were desirous of an Episcopal church to serve their community.  Construction of their church, on land donated to the congregation by Trinity Church, began in 1821 and was completed the following year.  When the church was constructed, the congregation had about 100 burial vaults built beneath the yard adjacent to the church. Only the flat, inscribed tomb coverings were visible on the surface to indicate the vaults below the ground.  Around 700 of St. Luke’s parishioners were buried in the vaults until interments there were discontinued in 1852.

In 1891, the congregation of St. Luke’s moved to a new church in Harlem and their Greenwich Village church became a chapel of Trinity Church.  As part of the transfer of St. Luke’s to Trinity, the remains were removed from the burial vaults around the church. Some descendants transferred their relatives to family lots at other cemeteries, and many were reinterred at a large plot that St. Luke’s purchased at Mount Hope Cemetery in Westchester County.  Others were moved to plots at Trinity Cemetery in upper Manhattan and at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.  Clement Clarke Moore, author of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” and one of the founders of St. Luke-in-the-Fields, was originally interred in one of the vaults at St. Luke’s; his body was moved to Trinity Cemetery in 1889.

When the last of the removals were made from St. Luke’s in December 1890, the New York Herald described the old vaults:

They are underground rooms, arched and walled with brick.  A slab bearing the epitaph is placed over the head of the stone stairway which leads to the surface . . . The coffins were piled one on top of the other in all the vaults.  The best preserved coffins were those which had been in the ground for the longest period.  Most of them were made of black mahogany.  The more modern coffins, with but few exceptions, had turned into dust, while some of those which have been in the ground for over sixty years are as solid as when they were built.

Dozens of the empty vaults were discovered under the topsoil in 1955, when workmen were in the process of constructing a new school, playground, and gardens on the grounds of St. Luke’s.  Most of the marble tomb covers were in place over the steps leading down into the brick vaults, and their inscriptions could still be read.  They were covered over again when the property was landscaped. In 1976, St. Luke-in-the-Fields again became an independent parish of the Episcopal Church. The old tombs, where hundreds of early residents of Greenwich Village once reposed, are likely still present under its grounds.

St. Luke’s Church, on the west side of Hudson between Christopher and Barrow, 1852 (Dripps 1852)
Beautiful gardens now cover St. Luke’s former burial grounds. (Mary French)
Old vault covers from the churchyard are preserved inside St. Luke’s church today (Ron Peaslee)

Sources: Dripps’ 1852 Map of the City of New-York extending northward to Fiftieth St; The Church of St. Luke in the Fields; Churchyards of Trinity Parish in the City of New York, 1697-1969 (J.V. Butler 1969), 8, 89-90; Meyer Berger’s New York (M. Berger 2004), 158-159; King’s 1893 Handbook of New York City, 512, 519; “St. Luke’s Cemetery Emptied,” New York Herald Dec. 14, 1890; “The Descendants Protest,” New York Times, Oct. 16, 1889; “Destroying Old Memories,” New York Times, Dec. 18, 1888; Ron Peaslee, personal communication, Jan 19 2018.

Updated Jan 22, 2018

Carmine Street Lutheran Cemetery

In 1808, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of St. Matthew purchased six lots of land on the east side of St. John’s Cemetery in Greenwich Village to serve as a Lutheran burial ground. Adjacent to but separate from St. John’s, the Lutheran graveyard was at the junction of Carmine and Clarkson Streets, opposite the northern end of Varick Street.  The property was roughly triangular, having a frontage of about 100 feet on Carmine Street and 44 feet on Leroy Street.

The Carmine Street Lutheran Cemetery in 1852 (Dripps 1852)

The Carmine Street cemetery ceased use as a burial ground in 1846. In September 1869, St. Matthew announced plans to remove the remains from the cemetery so that the property could be sold.  The removals began on October 1, 1869, and progressed over several weeks.  The scene on the first day of the exhumations was described by the New York Herald-Tribune:

By nightfall more than a dozen graves were opened.  Large crowds of people gathered around the inclosure and looked curiously through the picket fence toward the groups of workmen inside.  Old gentlemen dressed in black stood by the graves superintending the laborers who were digging up the bones of those who were with them half a century ago.  Gray-haired men came with coffin-like boxes to receive the remains of their wives and children.  One gentleman, after working for an hour, found that the bones he had did not belong to his family.  In one place there stood a casket half filled with ribs, blackened silver plates, and tresses of hair, skulls, and shin bones were lying among the decayed coffins, awaiting a second burial.

Remains of an estimated 1,500 individuals were removed from the Carmine Street cemetery and reinterred at the new Lutheran Cemetery (now known as All Faiths Cemetery) that was established in Queens in 1850.  The Hudson Park Library and Carmine Street Public Bathhouse (today’s Tony Dapolito Recreation Center) were built on the Carmine Street cemetery site in the early 1900s.

The site of the Carmine Street Lutheran Cemetery in 1911 (Bromley 1911)

Sources: Dripps’ 1852 Map of the City of New-York extending northward to Fiftieth St; Bromley’s 1911 Atlas of the City of New York Pl. 9; “Removal of Remains from the Carmine-street Lutheran Cemetery,” New York Times Sept 29, 1869; “The Carmine-St. Cemetery Exhumations,” New York Tribune, Oct. 2, 1869 p8; “Exhumation of Human Remains at Carmine-street Cemetery,” New York Times, Oct. 30, 1869.

St. John’s Cemetery

A view of St. John’s Cemetery by Alexander Jackson Davis, ca. 1860 (NYC Parks & Recreation).
A view of St. John’s Cemetery by Alexander Jackson Davis, ca. 1860 (NYC Parks & Recreation).

In 1890, the City of New York selected St. John’s Cemetery, located on the east side of Hudson Street between Clarkson and Leroy Streets in Greenwich Village, as a site for a new public park.  The property, which was connected with St. John’s Chapel of Trinity Church, served as a burial ground from 1806 to 1852 and an estimated 10,000 individuals were buried there. Following a five-year legal battle with Trinity, the city secured the property under the Small Parks Act, a law passed by the state legislature in 1887 that allowed the city to acquire property for the creation of small parks in crowded neighborhoods.

St. John’s Cemetery served as a burial ground primarily for the poorer and middle classes, although some prominent individuals and members of well-known families, such as the Schermerhorns, Berrians, Leggetts, and Valentines, were also buried there. The cemetery had been in a dilapidated condition for many years by the time it was taken by the city in 1895, but in the first half of the 19th century it was said to be a pleasant, restful place, and Edgar Allan Poe reportedly roamed the burying ground when he lived nearby in the 1830s.  Helen Jewett, a prostitute whose 1836 murder became a media sensation, was briefly interred at St. John’s Cemetery; four nights after her burial, medical students stole, and subsequently dissected, her body.

When Trinity lost the battle to keep the cemetery property, their attorney stated, “We did not believe the city could take such property for parks, but the courts have decided otherwise, and if the city takes the ground it takes the remains also, and must make its own disposition of them.”  In 1896, the city announced that families wishing to remove relatives interred in the cemetery must do so by the end of that year; remains from only about 250 graves were removed before construction on the new park began in 1897.  In 1898, the new Hudson Park (renamed James J. Walker Park in 1947), opened on the site.  Remains beneath the park have occasionally been unearthed during construction work, as in 1939 when workmen encountered the coffin of six-year-old Mary Elizabeth Tisdall, who died in 1850.  One reminder of the old burying ground still exists – an 1834 monument to fallen firemen, one of the most prominent markers in the old cemetery, was preserved during the original construction of the park, and stands today along its north side.

St. John’s Cemetery (identified here as Trinity Church Cemetery) at Hudson, Clarkson, and Leroy Streets, 1852 (Dripps 1852)
Tombstones in St. John’s Cemetery, ca. 1895. The firemen’s monument can be seen at the right side of the photo. (NYPL)
The firemens monument at the north side of Walker Park is a remnant of St. Johns Cemetery. (Mary French)

Sources: Dripps’ 1852 Map of the City of New-York extending northward to Fiftieth St; Before They Were Parks (NYC Parks & Recreation); Walks in Our Churchyards (J.F. Mines 1896), 152-164; Literary New York (Hemstreet 1903), 148; The Murder of Helen Jewett (Cohen 1998), 299; Report of the Tenement House Committee…Jan. 17, 1895, 42-43; “What Will Become of These Bodies?,” New York Herald, March 20, 1893, 4; “Old St. John’s Cemetery,” New York Times Sept 13, 1896; The Mummy in Trinity Church (The Archivists Mailbag).

Second Shearith Israel Cemetery

Among the more notable of the remnants of the time when the Greenwich region for the most part was open country are those at the southeast corner of Eleventh Street and Sixth Avenue: the little triangular graveyard and the two old framed dwellings which now rest on the lines of the street and the avenue, but which primitively stood—a few feet from their present site—on the now almost obliterated Milligan’s Lane. The triangular graveyard is a remnant of the second Beth Haim, or Place of Rest, owned on this island by the Jews . . . a plot of ground with a front of about fifty feet on Milligan’s Lane, and thence extending, a little east of south, about one hundred and ten feet. In the year 1830, when Eleventh Street was opened on the lines of the City Plan . . . almost the whole of the Jewish burial-ground was swept away. The street went directly across it—leaving only the corner on its south side, and a still smaller corner on its north side. (Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, June 1893)

Present-day location of the Second Shearith Israel Cemetery. Dotted lines represent approximate boundaries before 11th Street was extended through the cemetery in 1830 (NYCityMap)

In 1804, Congregation Shearith Israel purchased land in Greenwich Village to serve as a burial place to supplement its old graveyard near Chatham Square.  The new property, about 50 x 100 feet on Milligan Street,* was dedicated as Beth Haim Shenee (The Second Cemetery) in 1805.  When first established, the new cemetery was used mostly as a burial place for those dying of contagious diseases and for new immigrants who had no family ties to the old graveyard.  When the Chatham Square cemetery fell out of use following city ordinances in the 1820s that prohibited burials in lower Manhattan, the cemetery on Milligan Street became the Congregation’s primary burial ground.  It functioned in this capacity only until 1829—in 1830, 11th Street was extended through the cemetery, leaving just a small remnant of the graveyard intact.  Burials that were in the path of the street were reinterred in this portion of the cemetery, which exists today as a small trianglar plot on the south side of 11th Street, just east of the Avenue of the Americas. A few dozen headstones are still present at the site.

View of Second Shearith Israel Cemetery, 76 West 11th Street, Greenwich Village (Mary French)
Gravestones in the Second Shearith Israel Cemetery (Mary French)

See more photos of the Second Shearith Israel Cemetery.

*According to Old Streets of New York, Milligan Street ran perpendicular to Greenwich Avenue from its present intersection with West 10th Street, through the southeast corner of Sixth Avenue and 11th Street, to what is now the south side of 12th Street about 200 feet east of Sixth Avenue. It was obliterated when the city’s grid plan was imposed on the area.

Sources: “Greenwich Village,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, June 1893, p. 356; Iconography of Manhattan Island, 1498-1909, 5:1429, 1689; Portraits Etched in Stone 123-133 (David de Sola Pool 1952); NYCityMap