The potter’s fields that became city parks

Next time you find yourself lounging in a Manhattan park, consider the thousands of residents who may have occupied the site before you—when it was a cemetery.

Washington Square Park, Madison Square Park, and Bryant Park are among the parks that started out as potter’s fields.

Here the city laid to rest its paupers, prisoners, unclaimed and diseased until the mid-19th century.

Madison Square Park was the first, in 1794. When it was full in 1797, potter’s field was moved to Washington Square, to a parcel  “. . . bounded on the road leading from the Bowery Lane at the two Mile Stone to Greenwich,” according to It Happened in Washington Square by Emily Kies Folpe.

Estimates vary, but up to 100,000 New Yorkers may have been buried there—with the tombstone of a possible Yellow Fever victim popping up in 2009.

“After the yellow fever epidemic of 1823, with Greenwich booming just to the west, and Bond Street burgeoning just to the east, the city barred further burials and routed new corpses north to what is today Bryant Park,” states New York City historian and author Mike Wallace in a 2007 New York Times interview.

When that potter’s field was chosen as the site of the Croton Reservoir in the 1840s, “the remains of 100,000 paupers and strangers were transferred in 1857 to Ward’s Island, and then, finally, to Hart Island, acquired by the city in 1868, with 45 acres of the 100 acre island being set aside as a potter’s field that opened the following year,” says Wallace.

To this day, Hart Island, off the Bronx, remains the city’s potter’s field—and the former burial grounds underwent pretty makeovers into lovely parks.

[Washington Square Park and Bryant Park photos from the 1930s, from the NYPL Digital Collection]

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9 Responses to “The potter’s fields that became city parks”

  1. Parnassus Says:

    This was common practice in many cities. I remember reading about moving a cemetery in 19th century Bridgeport Connecticut to create a park (I believe donated by P.T. Barnum). it was quite a scandal because what bodies were disinterred were simply heaped together in open wagons and led through the town, with various pieces falling off along the way.

    Your post is appropriate for upcoming Halloween. So the next time you are enjoying a city park, remember what happened in the movie Poltergeist when they built over a cemetery.
    –Road to Parnassus

  2. wildnewyork Says:

    I like that occasionally a tombstone gets unearthed, like the one in Washington Square Park. Now that’s a fascinating find!

  3. focusoninfinity Says:

    When I was an Eastern Air Lines ramp serviceman, we shipped human remains in the aircraft cargo bin, feet forward. Why? I was told because that was the way they once shipped them on the railroads. Why? I think I read that human remains afflicted with a communicable disease, were to be rapped in a disinfectant sheet? Many serviceman’s remains came home on the last in-bound flights at night. I believe I read in the newspapers that a discharged serviceman had remained in Vietnam and was putting narcotics of some sort in the embalming fluid, then in the U.S., somehow processing the narcotic out, for illegal sales in the U.S.?

  4. focusoninfinity Says:

    Joe R. that was interesting to read. It was the Raleigh-Durham Airport; the only thing I remember was the name of the ex-GI soldier who after discharge, remained in Vietnam, ran a bar, and somehow arranged to have the illegal drugs placed in deceased GI’s human remains. When I wrote the above I remembered his name but now I can’t recall it. It was not mentioned in the story. I believe they were charged with shipping illegal drugs, but I do not remember charges against the abuse of human remains. It was the various mortuaries that taught me as a ramp serviceman to respect human remains and I’m glad they did. By-the-way, I still use the term “undertakers” which I understand has nothing to do with putting corpse “under” the ground. “Undertaker” was once used as we do building contractor today; in that they undertook to build a home or bury remains. My grandmother was born 1885; her father, a Confederate veteran musician and hospital orderly, after the Civil War was a framer carpenter, then cabinet maker, and finally he would measure human remains and make a coffin (vs. casket) to fit. His wife, grandmother’s mother; over-night would line the coffin and dab ether on black spots on the face until the next day’s services. One of the loveliest coffins (in old double wedge-shaped coffin style) with lovely oak and thick brass handles, hinges, etc. Was a “wench” from England who had committed suicide by placing her head in an oven and turning on the “coal-gas”. As I contemplated that lovely English coffin, I also contemplated the pain that must have caused her to do such to herself, and perhaps parents, children, spouse and friends. Next a Vietnam remains memory that still makes me grieve for the widow; she thanked me, I think I did the right thing; others say I was wrong?

  5. focusoninfinity Says:

    I was working the Eastern bag-room by myself. It was near the end of the war and before all this security stuff. From the back, I looked through the baggage belt’s opening from the ticket counter. A lady came to the counter agitated, wanting to see her Army helicopter pilot officer husband’s remains. She said she thought the Army was not telling truth, she did not believe his remains were in it; no one would answer her questions. This widow was pathetic and felt she was alone, wanting to know the truth. The ticked counter agent pointedly ignored her presence. He was a good man, I think he feared getting involved with one so distraught. I told the lady I was busy, and could not go out to talk to her; but if she waited a few minutes beside a door, I’d come get her and bring her back and let her talk with me while I worked. She told me a long, long, story of her hell. I told her the undertaker had arrived (was in the restaurant but I did not tell her where) and when he came back, I’d tell him about her, how upset she was, and if he agreed, I could push the wagon with CMAS covered casket into a private room; and provided he signed receipt for the air-bill first, and I remained at a distance looking away; they could reach their decision? I had explained to the lady I was on a a Navy aircraft carrier where a pilot on final had flown too low under the aft flight deck and only his foot in a boot as recovered, which with filling in the cover was buried at sea and filmed. That perhaps 2,000 sailors remained silent as to details, and apparently the widow did not ask. Perhaps the Army was doing the same thing with good intent for her benefit? Would she really want to know otherwise? She said yes. I took her back outside. When the undertaker came I told him what happened. He said “Jesus, why did you do that”. I said he must see his woman; he would see why. I brought her back and went to look at the corner of the room. They talked; she was determined; she wanted to see it was her husband in there. Finally the undertaker said OK; but he must first reveal what he expected to see. He said it was a bag of human organs, tied down by ribbons at one end. If she was prepared to see that; then she could look? She broke-down; no, she wanted the truth; if that was the truth she did not want to see the remains. After a while, calmed, she smiled, nodded thank you, and left. I occasionally think of her pain yet. The undertaker thought I did wrong, Others think I was wrong, but as many say they don’t know? No one says I clearly did right. I don’t know I did right. And I’ve yet wondered, these many years long later; does she think I did her right?

  6. Lisa Says:

    If I’m understanding your story correctly, FocusOnInfinity; I think you did the woman a service. Apparently, she failed to understand that the remains weren’t being made available for her to see only to spare her the horror. Once she was given the option of seeing them -along with the warning- she accepted that they were in fact her husband’s remains.

    If I were that grieving widow, that’s how I’d appreciate being treated.

  7. A New York public restroom out of the Gilded Age | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] this Beaux-Arts little building on the north side of Bryant Park is a comfort station, as it was originally called when it was constructed along with the main New […]

  8. A live connection to James Madison stands tall in Madison Square Park | Ephemeral New York Says:

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