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.
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]
Tags: Bryant Park history, Hart Island Potters Field, It Happened in Washington Square, Madison Square Park history, New York cemeteries, New York City park, Potter's Field New York City, Washington Square Park history, yellow fever epidemic New York City