I have always been fascinated by the early history of New York City’s Washington Square. Once upon a time, as shown in a 1782 document called The British Headquarters Map, a waterway called Minetta Brook passed from around 21st Street and Fifth Avenue down through Washington Square and on to Greenwich Village. The waters of this ancient stream still run through some downtown basements.
The early topography of Manhattan was to change rapidly in the 19th century, and the park changed too. Graceful row houses went up on Washington Square North in the 1820s. But the reputation of the square was mixed, and public executions still took place there– in 1820, for example, a servant named Rose Butler was convicted of arson and hung there.
And it was a potter’s field, after its swamp was drained in the 1790s, interring the City’s indigent, receiving 22,000 bodies over time. Residents were spooked by a yellow fever epidemic so the graveyard moved uptown. The city bought more land around the square and the Washington Parade-Ground was established, opening July 4th with that mainstay of early America, an ox roast. A crowd of ten thousand attended. More elegant homes gradually went up on the south and north sides of the park. Henry James would situate his incisive novel Washington Square in one of them in 1880.
But all those bodies underfoot. Did you say potters field? Walking under the arch (erected as a temporary grace note in 1889 out of plaster and wood, then made permanent in Tuckahoe marble, designed by Stanford White in 1892), I found myself obsessed with what lay beneath my feet.
In June, I accompanied a Con Ed team to install a new gas line at the junction of Washington Square East and Washington Square South. It was a cloudy day, spitting rain. The canopy of a forty-foot honeylocust tree spread above us, its trunk behind the park’s iron fence, in its maturity at least 75 years old. A short distance away, also on the park grounds, stood its neighbor, a nearly-as-tall linden. The three-foot-deep trench the crew was excavating along the sidewalk turned out to be dug on top of a previous trench, and there were no roots of any kind to protect, so all I did was observe.
The foreman was late to the job, I noted, then smoked a cigar and threw the butt in the pit. I had already taken a turn through the park and learned from a handy Parks Department sign that the goldenrain tree was introduced to America in 1763 from Japan. Not this particular specimen, which would then be over 200 years old. I hopped over a metal chain-link divider and held one hand against the bark – as usual no one bothered me with my blaze orange vest, which invests me with instant authority. The trees of Washington Square Park were all so beautiful, especially against the wool-grey sky.
But did you say bodies underfoot? Six months after my work there a tremendous discovery was announced. Just down the street from where my Con Ed crew was digging in the rust-colored fill that day, a little up Washington Square East, another crew of diggers, these preparing to install a new water main, hit a brick arch only three and a half feet beneath sidewalk level. Through a gap they saw human remains. A second vault was then discovered. A stone was removed, a line of sight. And there were coffins, two dozen or so, including, poignantly, the small coffins of children. Some of the coffins bore lozenge-shaped identification plates.
Excavation stopped, of course. Who were these people? Archaeologists came on site and revealed that at least two churches had cemetaries in the vicinity in the 1820s, and these could be them. It turned out that the first vault had been discovered once before, by Con Ed workers, years ago, who saw about 25 skeletons.
I felt as though I just missed the discovery, back in June, distracted by the honeylocust and linden trees. If only we had known to dig a little deeper. Six inches would be enough. There is so much to find beneath the ground, if you know where to look.