The rapid march of improvement, which forms so distinguishing a characteristic of the Manhattanese, is daily removing or transforming the old landmarks that have been to this generation silent reminders of olden days and a Knickerbocker ancestry. The resting places wherein were interred (as was thought for all time) the remains of those of our progenitors who have passed from earth, are no longer yielded up to the silent dead; the increase of business and population rendering the sites of their “narrow houses” more valuable to the mercantile and manufacturing community than when the practice of intramural interments was universal in Gotham…Among the other localities thus transformed, or to be transformed, is the old burying-ground corner of Amity and Wooster streets adjoining the Amity-street Baptist Church.
The “old burying-ground” at the corner of Amity Street (later 3rd Street) and Wooster was established in 1814 by the Fayette/Oliver Street Baptist Church; formed in 1795, the Fayette/Oliver Street church was among Manhattan’s earliest Baptist congregations. They buried some 1,200 congregants in their small Greenwich Village cemetery that was fenced in on the Amity and Wooster streets sides and bounded on the east by the Amity Street Baptist Church, an offshoot of the Oliver Street congregation that constructed their building in 1834 on an unused section of the cemetery land. By 1849, the Amity Street Baptist burial ground was full—so full, in fact, that it closed soon after the City Inspector found, during a visit in July of that year, “the coffin in one grave was only two feet from the surface; another, two feet four inches, and another, one foot ten inches. A child, buried on Monday last, was interred just two feet three inches below the surface; and there were ten new graves, in not one of which was the coffin three feet under the surface.”
In the 1860s, both the Oliver Street Baptist Church and the Amity Street Baptist Church followed the northward migration of residents and moved uptown, and the decision was made to sell the Amity Street property. Trustees of the Madison Avenue Baptist Church, which had consolidated with the Oliver Street Church, purchased lots at Cypress Hills Cemetery and received permission from the city to exhume the bodies from the Amity Street burial ground for reinterment at Cypress Hills.
“Many of the wealthiest and most prominent Knickerbocker families in the City” were said to have ancestors interred in the Amity Street burial ground, and they were none too pleased by the church trustees’ decision to relocate the bodies. “One gentleman pronounced the proceeding disgraceful and unchristian, inhuman and barbarous,” the New York Times disclosed. Another man said “that if he acted on his own natural impulses, he would shoot the first man who attempted to unearth his mother’s remains;” a third declared the trustees “to be a soulless, godless corporation, in which no sentiment of honor or humanity existed.” Despite these protests, the Amity Street Baptist burial ground was emptied of its mortal remains, and the property was redeveloped. NYU’s Stern School of Business occupies the site today.
Sources: Dripps’ 1852 Map of the City of New-York extending northward to Fiftieth St;Minutes of the Common Council of the City of New York, 1784-1831 (City of New York 1917), 9:125; A History of the Churches of All Denominations in the City of New York from the First Settlement to the Year 1846 (Greenleaf 1846), 258-259; “The Cemeteries,” New York Herald, Jul 26, 1849; “More Removing of Dead Bodies,” New York Herald Feb 15, 1863; “Local Intelligence,” New York Times, Feb 16, 1863; “Special Notice,” New York Herald Feb 17, 1863; “Our Fathers—Where Are They? Exhumation of Remains in the Amity-Street Burial-Ground,” New York Times, Feb 17, 1863; “Record of Important Events,” Frank Leslie’s Sunday Magazine, Vol 13, Jan/June 1883, 217; The Cypress Hills Cemetery 1880 [catalog & list of lot holders]; NYC Then&Now
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Update June 2021: Human remains uncovered during construction at Washington Square Park between 2008 and 2017 were reburied inside the park in March 2021. The partial remains were placed in a wooden box and buried five feet below grade in a planting bed near the Sullivan Street entrance. The reburial site is marked with an engraved paver near the Sullivan Street and Washington Square Park South entrance.
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.
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 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.
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.