Friday, March 16, 2007

Washington Square: A NYC Landmark-No Bones About It?

Interspersed between the bedrock that is NYC's foundation, there were once marshy areas filled with soil. One of these was located in Greenwich Village, and a small river, called the Minetto in honor of the indigent Indian population, ran through it. In 1797, after the second of the City's yellow fever epidemics, more land was needed in which to bury the casualties, preferably at a distance from the center of business. The Common Council designated the land in the area of what is now Washington Square to be a potter's field. The marshy area was subsequently drained, and thousands of burials ensued. In fact, over time, a number of yellow fever epidemics occurred, and over 20,000 bodies were buried in Washington Square up until 1825, when the cemetery was full. About 100 years ago, residents of the Square saw a blue mist hanging over the park on hot summer mornings, thought to be the "vapors" from the bones below. One of the Square's residents told of seeing an open vault on the south side with a body wrapped in a yellow sheet (used for yellow fever victims). In 1890, workmen digging the foundation of the Arch found headstones with German engravings on them on the north side of the Square. A private German graveyard had been located there at the turn of the nineteenth century. In 1965, Con Edison was digging in the northeast corner of the park and a large underground chamber became exposed. It consisted of a whitewashed brick room with about 25 skeletons present in one corner. The room had a domed roof about five feet below ground level, with a stairway leading to a wooden door opening upon Washington Square. The door and chamber were subsequently sealed off. The next designated potter's field was the land that is now Bryant Park...

Folpe, Emily Kies. It Happened on Washington Square. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.

Photo: Salted paper print from glass negative, circa 1855. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

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