17 min read

New York City Potter's Fields

New York City Potter's Fields

A look at New York City potter’s fields, the forgotten cemeteries that lie beneath the most famous parks in NYC.

Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, a number of potter’s fields (cemeteries for paupers) were scattered around Manhattan. Some of NYC’s most famous parks were built right on top of those forgotten cemeteries, including Madison Square Park, Washington Square Park, Union Square Park, Central Park, Bryant Park, and Sara D. Roosevelt Park.

Highlights include:
• Grave robbers
• The 20,000 bodies that lie beneath a famous park
• Yellow fever
• 18th century NIMBYs
• Construction workers finding tombstones

 

Episode Script for New York City Potter’s Fields

DISCLAIMER: I’m providing this version of the script for accessibility purposes. It hasn’t been proofread, so please excuse typos. There are also some things that may differ between the final episode and this draft script. Please treat the episode audio as the final product. 

“Where now are asphalt walks, flowers, fountains, the Washington arch, and aristocratic homes, the poor were once buried by the thousands in nameless graves.”

-Kings Handbook of New York, 1893

“A skeleton was found in Madison Square Park yesterday morning by four plumers laying a water pipe for the city in a six-foot trench near 26th street and 6th avenue. Reginald Pelham Bolton, engineer and authority on the early history of New York, said that the ground from which it was taken once had been a Potter’s Field.”

-From an article published in the New York Times in 1930

 

  • I wanna talk about a topic that I’m really interested in, which is potter’s fields.
  • We’ve talked about them before, but as a reminder, potter’s field is a term that originates from the bible, meaning land that’s too bad to farm, but fine for using for clay for pottery.
  • Potters fields were places where the poor were buried, and they still exist today, in places like New York City’s Hart Island, which we talked about in our Renwick Ruin episodes.
  • Since there are countless forgotten cemeteries in NYC, I wanted to focus on the ones that famous parks have been built on top of, since maybe even for people outside of NYC might recognize some of these places.
  • Also, I used a number of sources, but wanted to acknowledge that a ton of this info comes from the NYC Cemetery Project, which you should absolutely check out if you want to know more; it’s an amazing resource. For some episodes I really do a deep dive and spend many hours going through newspaper archives, but for this episode, any primary sources that I quote or reference were dug up by someone else.

Madison Square Park

  • This was apparently the original potters field in Manhattan.
  • Madison Square Park is a smaller park on 23rd street in the Flatiron district.
  • I used to spent a ton of time there because I worked in the area for about 5 years, and it’s a popular tourist destination because it affords really great views of the famous Flatiron Building, NYC’s first skyscraper, which is shaped like a big triangle.
  • For a short time, from 1794-1797, Madison Square Park was used as a Potter’s Field because of a major yellow fever outbreak.
    • Since this’ll come up a few times today, let’s talk a bit about what yellow fever is. I won’t talk about the symptoms, but I think the context is both necessary and interesting.
    • Yellow fever is a virus spread by mosquito bites.
    • Nowadays, there’s a vaccine, and if you travel somewhere prone to yellow fever, or live somewhere prone to it, you have to get the vaccine.
    • Once you get it, there’s not a lot you can do about it, and even today, half of people who get severe yellow fever die.
    • In 2013, 127,000 people got yellow fever, and 45,000 people died of it. 90% of those cases were in African countries, and about a billion people live in places where yellow fever is common. Over the last five years, there’ve been increases of yellow fever in Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Nigeria, and Brazil, and apparently the vaccine supply has been somewhat strained and there are all kinds of measures that have had to be implemented to save doses–like for example, giving people partial doses, etc.
      • I also know that some countries have looked into yellow fever as a possible biological weapon.
    • Apparently, since the 1980s, yellow fever cases have increased, because fewer people are immune than they used to be, more people live in cities, people move more often, and climate change is causing a better mosquito habitat. I know that in NYC nowadays, a lot of care is taken to try to reduce standing water for mosquitos, though I think that’s for West Nile.
    • But in the 18th and 19th centuries, yellow fever was one of the most dangerous infectious diseases.
    • The first outbreak in an english-speaking North American area was NYC in 1668, but from there the disease spread, apparently along steamboat routes, all the way down to New Orleans. In 1793, yellow fever killed 9% of Philadelphia’s population, and the US government, including George Washington, had to flee Philly.
    • Interestingly, a canadian weather and earthquake predictor known as the Ottawa Prophet, aka Ezekiel Stone Wiggins, said that yellow fever was maybe caused by something astrological, which I find weirdly charming:
      • The planets were in the same line as the sun and earth and this produced, besides Cyclones, Earthquakes, etc., a denser atmosphere holding more carbon and creating microbes. Mars had an uncommonly dense atmosphere, but its inhabitants were probably protected from the fever by their newly discovered canals, which were perhaps made to absorb carbon and prevent the disease.
  • But by 1848, people began to suspect that it was spread by mosquitoes and by the 1930s, two vaccines were developed, one of which is still in use today.
  • In the late 1700s, yellow fever was a major problem in NYC.
  • Though the Potter’s Field at Madison Square Park was only open for about 3 years, hundreds of people were probably buried there, because it was used as a burial ground for people who died in a nearby Almshouse (which was a new, huge, almshouse that was built because NYC’s population was rapidly increasing) as well as those who died in Bellevue Hospital, which had opened a yellow fever hospital
  • In 1795, 750 people died of yellow fever, and while the disease was dangerous for everyone, poor people were the most likely to get it.
  • The burial ground was closed pretty quickly because people didn’t like how dead people were being transported on the busy roads that led up to it, and a new potter’s field was built where Washington Square Park is today (which we’ll talk about in a sec).
  • In 1806, the area was used as an arsenal, and later, it was a House of Refuge for juvenile delinquents.
  • In 1847, the site was leveled and turned into Madison Square Park.
  • Bodies were found during the construction of the arsenal, and more were found by construction workers digging sewer lines and water pipes in the early 20th century.
  • There are probably still bodies underneath the park today.

 

Washington Square Park

  • According to findagrave.com, from 1797-1823, the place where Washington Square Park is now was once a potter’s field.
  • It was a 6-acre cemetery that sat on the bank of a creek that ran through there called Minetta Creek. The cemetery lays under the eastern 2/3 of today’s Washington Square Park.
  • At the time, it was referred to as just “Potter’s Field”
  • The location was chosen because it was north of where most New Yorkers lived at the time, while still being, as the NYC Cemetery Project phrased it, “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”
    • Of course, rich people didn’t like the idea of having a cemetery there, because many of them had country homes in Greenwich Village, and not only did they not want to have a potter’s field next to their properties, but they were also annoyed that the wagons that carried bodies would be moving slowly along the main road,  subjecting them to the annoyance of the additional traffic and, presumably, reminding them that poor people were dying in droves.
    • So 57 homeowners in the area, including Alexander Hamilton, who I loathe, incidentally, wrote a letter protesting the Potter’s Field, saying:
      • “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.”
    • But the city went forward with it anyway, and stopped using the Madison Square Park burial ground.
    • In November 1797, the cemetery opened. It had a sturdy fence around it, and trees were planted there. A keeper’s cottage stood at the northeast corner of the cemetery, where the keeper who maintained the grounds and dug graves lived. Part of the keeper’s job was also to protect against grave robbers.
      • At the time, in the 18th and 19th centuries, grave-robbing was a real issue, because doctors and medical students needed cadavers for research, but there wasn’t an infustructure to get fresh corpses to them, so they robbed graves.
      • At the time, most prominent doctors in the area admitted to body-snatching at least once.
      • Grave-robbing happened mostly at African burial grounds and potter’s fields, where it was rightly assumed that the public would care less if bodies were stolen from.
    • In 1808, the Potter’s Field keeper was fired becase he admitted to helping grave robbers.
    • A later keeper took his duties seriously, and in april 1824, at 3 am, he got an inkling that grave robbers had arrived, and he called for two watchmen and went out with his dog to confront them.
      • He found 10 coffins that had been dug up, and the man who’d dug them up was arrested and spent 6 months in prison.
      • A New York Evening Post article about the incident said: “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.”
  • 20,000 were known to have been buried there and many if not all of their bodies are still there.
    • In 1798, a Great Epidemic of yellow fever hit NYC hard, killing 2,000 New Yorkers, 660 of whom were buried in Potter’s Field.
    • In later outbreaks, churches weren’t allowed to bury people who died of yellow fever, so they all went into Potter’s field.
  • But the area wasn’t just a potter’s field: the cemetery also held a few private church plots, including two African churches’ plots.
  • By 1824, the Village had become a major suburb of the city, and the Potters Field was full.
  • In 1825, the Potter’s field was leveled and turned into a parade ground. On the 4th of July, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, it opened as the Washington Parade Ground.
  • In 1878, it was made  a public park.
  • The idea behind not moving the bodies was that it was deemed disrespectful, especially because some wealthy people had been buried there alongside the paupers.
    • But in 1890, when the triumphal arch in Washington Square Park was built, coffins, skeletons, and headstones were exhumed.
    • In 1941, WPA workers found remains while excavating for a sewer on the north edge of the park.
    • In 1965, workers from power company Con Edison found an underground burial vault that had had a domed roof and held several coffins and at least 25 skeletons–this was probably part of one of the church’s plots.
  • In October 2009, a few weeks before Halloween, construction workers found a tombstone in Washington Square Park.
    • And before that, in early 2008, presumably as part of the preparation for the construction, a soil testing had led to the discovery of four bodies
    • And between 2009 and 2013, during the construction, at least 31 skeletons, including 16 graves, were discovered by archaeologists during the part renovations.
  • Also, at some point, a gallows stood there, apparently near where the fountain at Washington Square Park is today.

 

Sara D. Roosevelt Park

  • This is a park in lower Manhattan, in kinda the lower east side/chinatown/little italy.
  • It’s not a super famous park, and isn’t one that tourists would try to go, but I used to spend a lot of time there in my early twenties.
    • It was near a dumpling place where you could get a really good sesame pancake for like $1 that the health department has since shut down.
    • There was also a bun place called Golden Steamer that I think is still around, where you could get a really good pumpkin or red bean paste bun for $.80.
    • So you could get a pretty good meal for under $2, but there wasn’t seating at either of those places, of course, so I used to sit in the nearby park and eat dinner. Most dinners that I had with friends back in those days were enjoyed at that park.
  • But I’m not here to reminisce about that, I’m here to tell you about something that I had no idea of back then: before the land became Sara D. Roosevelt Park in 1934, it  used to be a cemetery.
    • And not just any cemetery: it was an African burial ground, called the Second African Burial Ground.
    • I think most people know that NYC was once New Amsterdam, if only because of the They Might Be Giants song. Under Dutch rule, cemeteries weren’t necessarily racially segregated, but, predictably, as soon as the British took over, African Americans weren’t allowed to be buried in NYC.
    • Though to be clear, Dutch farmers in the area that is new NYC did use enslaved people as agricultural workers.
      • For example, according to the 1820 census, 338 white people and 91 black people lived in New Lots, Brooklyn, and half of the town’s families were slave owners. New Lots is another area that had a burial ground for black people, though the colonial cemetery there seemed to contain white and black people, with a specific area of it designated for black people.
        • If you’re wondering, in the 1920s, a nearby school took over the cemetery and used it as a playground.
        • To read from the NYC Cemetery Project’s website:
          • at a 1908 meeting of the New Lots Board of Trade . . . President Jacob Hessel stated, “it matters not that these bones are but the remainder of slaves; slaves they were, but they were also part of New Lots’ history, and as such we owe them respect”—[but] there is no evidence removals occurred at the time the playground was established.
        • In the 1950s, that playground was turned into a public park called the Schenck Playground, and in 2019, in memory of the African burial ground that was once there, the playground was renamed to be called Snakofa Park.
    • You’ll find that almost everywhere you turn in NYC, there either is or was a cemetery.
    • There were a good number of African burial grounds in NYC, one of which I used to walk by every day, before the pandemic.
      • That cemetery, which I think was the first major African burial ground in NYC, was in lower Manhattan, in an area that’s now practically entirely made up of government buildings. One of those government buildings does now contain a museum and monument commemorating that burial ground.
      • For about 100 years, starting in the 1690s, both free and enslaved Black people in NYC were buried there. Possibly about 20,000 people were buried there. In the late 1700s, a number of bodies were stolen for medical experiments.
      • And for a very long time, the burial ground was forgotten, until a big construction project in 1991 unearthed bodies. 400 bodies were sent to Howard University to be studied.
      • So now there’s both a museum and monument to the burial ground, as well as the IRS’s offices, since it’s a big government building.
    • Sara D. Roosevelt Park doesn’t have much commemorating the cemetery that used to be there: Instead of it’s full of basketball courts and benches.
      • There is a plaque, which reads:
        • In 1794, the African burial ground near City Hall was closed, and by October of that year, the Common Council of New York City received a “petition from the Sunday Black men of this City praying the aid of this board in purchasing a piece of ground for the internment of their dead.” By April, the land was granted in what was deemed “a proper place,” near the dilapidated ruin of James Delancey’s mansion. […] By the late 1700s, the growing population of the city forced northern expansion. The burial ground began to deteriorate, and in 1853, it closed forever. The human remains were disinterred, and the site was soon built over.
      • That being said, apparently not that many bodies were actually disinterred; as many of 5,000 people were buried in the Second African Burial Ground, and only about 485 interments appear on findagrave.com on the plot in Brooklyn’s Cypress Hills Cemetery where the remains were supposedly all moved.
        • When a local fancy modern art museum called the New Museum was built, around 2007 I believe, human remains were found.
        • Before the burial ground was closed, it was owned by St. Philip’s Church, who did  a big study in 2003 because of a proposed subway extension that would go through the area.
          • The study said that there were likely human remains still there, especially under the west sidewalk on Christie street between Stanton and Rivington.
      • Aside from the plaque, the only other suggestion that an African Burial Ground was in the park is a small community garden that was created in the 1980s, called the M’Finda Kalunga Community Garden, which means “Garden at the Edge of the Other Side of the World” in Kikongo, or Kongo, which is a Bantu langage that’s spoken in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Republic of the Congo, and Angola.
        • It was a language that was spoken by many people who were enslaved and taken to the Americas.
        • Because of that, forms of Kikong are apparently still spoken in rituals in Afro-American religions (especially in Brazil, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the DR, and Haiti)
        • Though mostly Kikongo’s spoken in Africa, where seven million people speak it as a first language and an additional 2 million speak it as a second language

Bryant Park

  • In March 1823, NYC passed laws banning burials in lower Manhattan.
    • Many cities in the US passed similar laws around this time, in the interest of public health.
    • There was a lot of controversies about the laws, though, because some people felt that having churchyard cemeteries all over were hazardous to their health and unsightly. Apparently the smell was also quite bad.
    • However, churches and people who’d bought plots in churchyards weren’t happy about it.
  • The city needed a new place to bury people, so they found a spot three miles north of City Hall, in the city’s common lands, surrounded by 5th and 6th Aves and 40th and 42 streets.
  • The city spent $10K prepping the land for the cemetery, including building 10 public burial vaults, surrounding the land with a 4-foot-high stone wall, and planting weeping willows and elms
  • And that is how, for 17 years, the land that became Bryant Park, which sits next to the main, big NYPL branch with the lions outside of it, was a potters field. If you’ve been to NYC, you’ve probably been to Bryant Park, especially since it’s near Times Square and the theater district.
  • Though the city tried to make it nice, the burial ground didn’t seem to appeal to middle-and-upper-class New Yorkers, and it doesn’t seem like churches or families acquired any of the vaults.
  • Supposedly the land was used as a potter’s field, though the city abandoned it by the late 1820s. But other sources have said that the land was too wet for burials and was just wasteland until 1837.
  • In 1840, the land was then used to make the Croton Distributing Reservoir, which we talked about in a lot more detail during our Egyptomania episode.

 

Union Square Park

  • Today, Union Square Park is on 14th street in Manhattan.
  • It’s by NYU and the New School, and is a really bustling park and area.
  • At least before the pandemic, it was extremely crowded all the time, and there was a great greenmarket there I believe on Saturdays, Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. When I worked near there I used to buy a lot of muffins and houseplants there.
  • There are often protests at Union Square, as well as artists selling their wares and people holding free hugs signs.
  • It’s a little grimy and the kinda place where you’re likely to get catcalled a lot, but it’s also a place that’s very full of life–again, at least before the pandemic. God knows what it’s like now.
  • Before it was a bustling, fashionable area, it was a potter’s field. I haven’t been able to find a ton of info about it for some reason, but it seems to have existed.
  • The last burials there were in 1807, and it was designated as a public park in 1815, called Union Place, which was later renamed Union Square.

 

Central Park

  • I didn’t want to leave the topic of cemeteries beneath NYC’s parks without at least mentioning NYC’s most famous park, Central Park.
  • Central Park has a number of gates that you can enter through, and one of them, Mariner’s Gate, stands at the location where All Angels Church, a mixed-race congregation that opened in 1848, as well as its cemetery, once stood.
  • In 1857, the government took the land and built Central Park
  • As far as we know, the bodies weren’t moved.
  • In 1871, workers were pulling out a tree when they found a coffin that contained a 16-year-old who had been buried there in 1852.
  • A number of other graves have been discovered by gardeners in the area.
  • I’m gonna be honest, I didn’t dig into this one too much, because a lot of the google searches I was getting didn’t surface anything about Central Park, but instead were about coronavirus-related mass graves. So maybe I’ll dig a bit deeper into this another time, but I didn’t really want to sift through all of that this time.

 

Sources consulted RE: New York City Potter’s Fields

Websites RE: New York City Potter’s Fields

  • https://www.findagrave.com/cemetery/2561167/potter%E2%80%99s-field-(washington-square-park)
  • https://brooklynbased.com/2020/04/10/from-the-archives-the-past-lives-of-city-parks-as-potters-fields/
  • https://hyperallergic.com/75684/when-will-there-be-a-memorial-for-nycs-second-african-burial-ground/
  • https://nycemetery.wordpress.com/category/african-american-cemeteries/
  • https://www.nps.gov/afbg/planyourvisit/maps.htm
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kongo_language
  • https://gothamist.com/news/tombstone-unearthed-in-washington-square-park
  • https://brooklynbased.com/2012/08/24/the-bones-beneath-fort-greene-park/
  • https://nycemetery.wordpress.com/2019/05/15/public-burial-ground-madison-square-park-2/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yellow_fever
  • https://nycemetery.wordpress.com/2019/05/09/public-burial-ground-madison-square-park/
  • https://nycemetery.wordpress.com/2019/05/30/public-burial-ground-bryant-park/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madison_Square_and_Madison_Square_Park
  • https://www.huffpost.com/entry/manhattans-forgotten-graveyards_b_4171691
  • https://theculturetrip.com/north-america/usa/new-york/articles/a-brief-history-of-union-square-new-york-city/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Union_Square,_Manhattan
  • https://nypost.com/2014/10/25/the-hidden-cemeteries-of-nyc/
  • https://www.nycgovparks.org/about/history/before-they-were-parks/manhattan
  • https://www.findagrave.com/cemetery/2561849/potter’s-field-(madison-square-park)
  • https://www.findagrave.com/cemetery/2561167/memorial-search?page=1#sr-187815630
  • https://www.findagrave.com/cemetery/2561363
  • King’s Handbook of New York: https://books.google.com/books?id=MEEAAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA505&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=4#v=onepage&q&f=false

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