New York City is one of the largest cities in the world, so it should come as no surprise that it’s rich with historical landmarks and artifacts. Yet sometimes people discover things that are completely unexpected.
Take the otherwise-lovely Washington Square Park, for example, found in the Greenwich Village. It’s a wonderful place to visit for both residents and tourists, but underneath its grounds hides a dark secret that has only recently come to light.
Tourists and New York City residents love to relax in the scenic Washington Square Park, located in the heart of Greenwich Village and surrounded by buildings owned by New York University. It’s so pretty and iconic that you would never guess what terrors lie beneath it.
On a cold November day in 2015, construction workers for the Department of Design and Construction (DDC) of New York City were tasked with replacing a nearly 100-year-old water main line under a sidewalk in Greenwich Village.
They didn’t have to dig particularly deep to make their horrifying discovery; just 3.5 feet below the surface, between the corner of Waverly Place and Washington Square East, lie a secret that had been hidden for a century.
Local authorities had actually long suspected that something terrible was hiding beneath the surface.
Back in 1965, the Consolidated Edison (ConEd) power company reported something unusual. But because of insufficient documentation, the new construction workers didn’t really know what they were in for.
So on that November morning in 2015, a team of archaeologists joined the construction workers to assess the situation, and soon found themselves in a vault underground that seemed straight out of a horror story.
In 1965, a journalist from the New York Times reported that there were 25 skeletons in the vault, contradicting the archaeologists’ research.
The team found dozens of skulls and other bones, including broken fibulas and femurs, piled up in the vault.
Many of the bones were so well-preserved that their dental records could be analyzed. Yet this mass grave was not what surprised the team. They had a feeling they would find something like this. The biggest surprise came later on…
Beneath the first vault was yet another vault. “The first vault was not a surprise,” a team member said in an interview. “The second vault, we did not expect.” The first vault may have held a scattering of bones, but the second contained a total of 20 coffins that were highly well-preserved.
This left the team with yet another mystery: who were in these coffins, and why were they in this vault?
Each coffin featured a nameplate with a portion of a date on it: 18. Whenever these coffins were placed here, it must have been some time in the 19th century.
In the decades following the Revolutionary War, Washington Square Park was known as a “potter’s field,” where criminals and people who couldn’t afford real funerals were buried. It was turned into a parade ground in 1826.
This potter’s field was also notable for being a place to bury bodies that had fallen victim to the yellow fever that killed thousands during the late 1700s due to mosquitoes.
Yet the archaeologists believed that the potter’s field was in a different part of the park, so the chambers probably weren’t part of it. They suggest instead that local churches built the chambers because they were forbidden from burying any more bodies under Grand Street.
“As of now, everything points to the Cedar Street church,” one of the archaeologists said in an interview. Now located at 55th Street, it used to be the Scottish Presbyterian Church, which itself would later become 96th Street’s Second Presbyterian church. No records of burials beneath Washington Square park have survived.
We may have hints at what happened based on a pastor’s journal, but for the most part, authorities are trying to learn more about the vaults. “It’s our responsibility to make sure this doesn’t happen again 100 years, or 50 years from now,” said Feniosky Peña-Mora, the DDC commissioner, in an interview.
In a show of respect for the remains, plans to move them are not on the table, and the entire site is being treated with caution. “We don’t want to do any more disturbing than we need to,” Peña-Mora said in an interview.
This wasn’t the first time that corpses were found under New York City, particularly in Downtown Manhattan, where it has been estimated that thousands of bodies are buried beneath the city streets. “Despite massive amounts of disturbance from utilities, even subway installations, we still find pockets of either disturbed or undisturbed materials,” said one of the workers.
It’s certainly disturbing to think that so many unidentified dead bodies may be hiding below the busy streets of the city that never sleeps. Perhaps, though, these mysteries will help us learn more about New York’s history.
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