Okay, well maybe not the always terrifying ZOMBIES, but we are getting close to halloween. Apparently, Washington Square Park, the heart of NYU, keeps a terrifying secret. Buried beneath the paving stones, and the fountain, and the arch, and the rolling lawns, and the trees, and the flowers, and really underneath the whole park, are bodies. Yes, bodies. How many bodies, you ask?
Yes, 20,000 bodies are buried beneath beautiful Washington Square Park. Until 1797, the area now considered part of Greenwich Village and the university was, like much of Manhattan, farmland. In that fateful year, it was decided that the area that now constitutes the park would be turned into what is known as a “Potter’s Field,” or a burial ground for those who could not afford a proper funeral. After the turn of the 19th century, the field was also used to bury victims of Yellow Fever for hygienic reasons (is there still a risk of infection? Maybe a scientist can weigh in).
At one point, the Potter’s Field was even used as a place of execution, with two eyewitnesses placing the gallows somewhere between where the fountain and the arch now sit. The only person recorded to have been executed in the cemetery was one Rose Butler, in 1820, for arson. Contrary to some tour books and local legends, the tree in the northwest corner of the park known as “Hangman’s Elm” was not used for executions- it seems like this bit of lore was added later, though the tree itself is more than 300 years old.
So how did the Potter’s Field become the park? In 1827, it appears the city just plowed over the field and turned it into a military parade ground. In 1849, they first began to turn it into a park.
And the bodies?
Still there. Still waiting. ZOMBIES!!!