James J. Walker Park at Hudson Street and St. Luke’s Place is named for the colorful, corrupt, showgirl-loving former mayor, who governed the city during the highs and lows of the Jazz Age and the start of the Great Depression.
But like most city parks, this landscaped stretch of playgrounds and ball fields had a more somber start—as a necropolis.
From 1799 to 1858, this acre of green served as an active burial ground called St. John’s Cemetery, part of Trinity Church.
An estimated 10,000 New Yorkers were interred there—mostly lower-class immigrants who lived in what had once been a posh residential enclave and slowly became a rougher-edged waterfront neighborhood by the middle of the 19th century.
When the city banned burials in this part of Manhattan, St. John’s slid into disrepair.
“The cemetery has for many years been in a dilapidated condition,” wrote The New York Times in an 1894 article about the new park to be built over the dead. Beer bottles and other trash littered the grounds.
“The monuments have toppled over, and many of the tombstones have fallen.”
“Many of the bodies will undoubtedly be removed, especially those contained in the underground vaults. Thousands of those buried in ordinary graves long ago mingled with the earth.”
Because relatives of those buried there were likely also deceased, “it is probably that thousands of the friendless dead will be allowed to rest in peace under the surface of this new park, as they do in the old Potter’s Fields, now known as Washington Square and Tompkins Square Parks, respectively.”
Today, beneath kids playing T-ball and soccer, the “friendless dead” remain, with the occasional marker turning up during construction.
The only visible remnant of the the burial ground is a fascinating artifact: an 1834 sarcophagus dedicated to three young firemen from Engine Company 13 who were killed fighting a blaze on Pearl Street.
Their tomb (today and in a 19th century photo at its original site, above) is marked by a granite coffin with stone helmets resting on top.
It’s near the bocce courts on the St. Luke’s Place side.
[Second photo, MCNY Collections Portal; third photo: NYPL Digital Gallery]