A child’s casket emerges in a Hudson Street park

The dead who dwell in New York’s burial grounds have a strange way of making themselves known.

One example of this happened in 1939. Workmen renovating James J. Walker Park (second to last photo) on Hudson and Clarkson Streets in the West Village came upon an underground vault—and found a child-size cast iron casket inside.

The casket was “made to look like a shrouded Egyptian mummy,” states the Trinity Church website.

The New York World-Telegram reported on the discovery, noting, ‘The girl’s cast iron casket…had a glass window in the top. Her white silk dress still looked fresh and dainty.'” The paper noted that she was “a pretty yellow haired child.”

What was a casket doing there—and who was the girl inside it?

Until the city seized this green space to make into a park, the land was Old St. John’s Burying Ground (above and at right), run by Trinity Church for the worshipers at nearby St. John’s Chapel, since demolished, according to the New York Cemetery Project.

“It’s estimated that 10,000 people were buried in St. John’s Burying Ground in the years before 1860, when burials stopped—and very few bodies were removed and re-interred during park construction,” states Trinity’s website.

The unusual casket itself revealed the girl’s identity.

“The silver coffin plate gave the child’s basic information: Mary Elizabeth Tisdall, 6 years and 8 months old, died April 14, 1850,” according to Trinity Church.

Church archives discovered that Mary’s cause of death was listed as “brain congestion—probably encephalemia,” and she lived at “219 East Ninth Street in Manhattan, just off of Astor Place.”

Mary’s parents had married at St. John’s. Her father (above) was a British-born coal merchant who became a Mason and wrote poetry; he died in 1878.

Her brother, Fitz Gerald Tisdall, had a long career as a professor of Greek at City College.

Yet no record exists of who Mary was—if she liked school, rolled a hoop in Washington Square Park like other children, visited Barnum’s Museum, or had a favorite type of candy.

All we know about her is that she was one of untold numbers of children who didn’t make it to adulthood in New York at the time, when little was known about sanitation and hygiene and no medicine existed to fight deadly diseases.

Her casket didn’t go back underground, of course. “She rests in peace in the catacombs under Trinity Church,” according to the church website.

The only marked grave in the entire park is an 1834 sarcophagus dedicated to three young firemen who perished in a blaze on Pearl Street.

[Top photo: NYPL; second photo: MCNY; fourth photo: NYC Parks Department; Fifth Photo: Wikipedia]

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13 Responses to “A child’s casket emerges in a Hudson Street park”

  1. Zoe Says:

    This is so very sad; as I’m sure it’s not what her parents imagined. At least she’s in the church now.

    Imagine the shock the workmen had! Especially w/ the window & it being such a young child.

    Cremation is becoming more ‘popular’. (Honestly that was the word I heard used in a segment on WNYC last week). This may be a good advertisement for it. (If one’s religion allows it).

    German/Nordic people (pre-Christian) believed that if one were not cremated they might stay on Earth. Which they did *not* want. Hence the ‘popularity’ of cremation then also. An older good advertisement for it.

    It seems the rare burial ground that lies undisturbed. Look at who was found in a car park in London! And that when Shakespeare writes a play about you. What hope is there for the rest of us then?

    Weren’t graves found during renovations of Washington Square Park a few years ago? W/ hastily deposited coffins that historians explained were deposited quickly & in disarray due to fear of disease during epidemics. Or have I remembered this wrong? Wasn’t it a potters field? (And why were those called ‘potters fields’?).

    Perhaps this country should return to the tall scaffolds open to the elements that Indigenous people here used. The segment I was listening to on WNYC said that cremation is polluting to the environment. Someone rang in & asked the expert about composting. I jest not. The expert explained more about it. Different states have different laws though; so if you want to find a compost facilitator it is apparently not easy.

  2. Tom B Says:

    I just read about “Brain Congestion” of a 17 year old boy in Tiffin Ohio who died in 1854. The article said it is like a ischemic stroke.
    His death stunned the community and there was a long obit about his short life, which was unusual to do back then.

    • Zoe Says:

      Could this have been an earlier name for brain injury (AKA ‘head injury’ till 1990s) Tom?

      As the “congestion” might describe the brain swelling that occurs afterward and/or bleeding into the brain. Which should be treated by a shunt (& for the swelling there is a chemical/drug); but only a few years ago – 2000s? – there was a study showing that many people died in the States due to hospitals lacking and/or not using this piece of inexpensive plastic tubing to save lives. So I doubt they did that in the 19th c.

      Or removed part of the skull – to replace it later – which they also do now. Although they did do trapanning – drilling or cutting out small pieces of skull – which I think was done even by ancient Egyptians.

    • Tom B Says:

      Both of the young deaths were in the 1850’s which came on suddenly. Both were called brain congestion in their records. I thought it was odd that there are two completely different interpretations of brain congestion. One a stroke, the other a swelling. Somehow they knew where the problem was, the brain.

      • Zoe Says:

        That makes sense Tom. All brain injuries cause swelling of the brain. Including anoxia at birth. (Deprivation of oxygen due to cord around neck – or asphyxiation from the substance that covers/protects fetus – forgot name). Unfortunately & fortunately I know a bit about all of the above. Perhaps she had a fall. Carriage (horse carriage) accidents in & out of the City were quite common then. So sad.

  3. trilby1895 Says:

    How very, very sad – even tragic – that the lovely St. John’s neighborhood was destroyed so that the rapacious Cornelius Vanderbilt could further enrich himself. Developers, unto this day, have a lot to answer for.

  4. Ty Says:

    This former graveyard has been a little league and soccer field as long as I can remember. In recent years it has been astroturfed.

    This is New York where people read the obituaries looking for apartments. Besides if there is such a thing as a soul then this little girl’s has children playing nearby all year long.

    • Zoe Says:

      Oh Ty – not sure everyone wants to hang around the City vs The Elysian Fields / Valhalla / The Spirit World / Heaven / The *Mind* of God…

      • Ty Says:

        But we do. Children play just feet up from the graves of their forebearers. Couples walk hand-in-hand in Washington Square over more. Picnics and social events are held at Green-wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. Same up in Van Cortlandt.

        Washington Square even sports a “hanging tree” where alleged perpetrators were sent below not so long ago.

        Totally non-related but I think I can trace adult participation in Halloween back to a particular decade and a particular street corner.

        My dad spent most of his 25 working years nine stories under Greenwich and Christopher Streets operating a power plant for the PATH trains to Jersey.

        Every Halloween the workers would grab a lawn chair and come up to the surface during dinner break and watch the “parade” which involved mostly drag queens walking in a long circle in their very best. These working class men would shout catcalls and applaud the ones they liked. There was a lot of wisecracking and back and forth; most of it not for the ears of innocents. So began the currently multi-corporate sponsored Halloween parade.

        Death, life, young, old, gender benders wearing full-length gowns and working class men offering not-very-informed commentary. The only common rule for engagement was you had to be funny.

  5. Pax Britannica Says:

    Your photograph of the Tisdall father (a ‘coal merchant’) is in fact a well-known portrait of King Edward VII in masonic garb. Are you trying to tell us something?!! (The king died in 1910)

  6. Lady G. Says:

    How sad. She must’ve had a good embalming job for the paper to say she was pretty and yellow-haired. Then again, Embalming wasn’t in much use then, it really took hold during the Civil War when dead soldiers had to be sent back to their families. Then it was quite the sealer casket she had. A lot of embalmers love to create their own “secret potions” and blends to ward off decay.

  7. David H Lippman Says:

    Wow, that’s bizarre…..but I saw the photo was HM KIng Edward VII.

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