Posts Tagged ‘Greenwich Village 1820’

Where the hangman lived on Washington Square

September 30, 2019

You wouldn’t know it today, as you walk through the marble arch or past the central fountain. But an estimated 20,000 bodies are buried beneath Washington Square Park.

Paupers, unknowns, prisoners, yellow fever victims—between 1819 and 1821 or 1823 (sources vary), they ended up here, when Washington Square served as the growing city’s potter’s field.

The square, bucolic and out of the way, was an ideal spot for a burial ground. (Above, in the 1880s)

It would be another decade or so before the north side would become “The Row,” a place of fashionable brownstones for the rich. (Below, in 1936)

And though houses were starting to sprout up in what was then the suburb of Greenwich, this was not yet a dense residential neighborhood.

Still, when the potter’s field opened, the gravedigger, Daniel Megie, had to find somewhere to live close to work.

In 1819, this “keeper of the potter’s field,” who also served as the hangman for Newgate Prison at the end of Christopher Street, paid $500 for a corner plot of land on today’s Washington Square South and Thompson Street.

Here, he built a two-story wooden frame shack, “where he could keep his tools and sleep,” according to a 1913 New York Times article.

“For three years he dwelt there, smoothing the resting places in the Field of Sleep,” wrote Anna Alice Chapin in her 1920 book, Greenwich Village.

As the prison hangman, Megie was tasked with executing prisoners in Washington Square—as legend has it from the infamous “hangman’s elm” on the northwest side of the square.

Megie departed his wood house in the early 1820s, when Washington Square ceased to be a potter’s field and the last public hanging took place.

What happened to him is lost to history.

But his home survived almost for a century, serving as a tavern, general store/soda fountain, and then as a Bohemian hangout Bruno’s Garret and then a coffeehouse/spaghetti dinner restaurant operated by Grace Godwin.

Today, the site of the wood frame house built by Washington Square’s hangman and gravedigger is part of NYU.

[Top image: Jessie Tarbox Beals, 1920; second image: NYPL, 1880s; third image: Berenice Abbott, 1936, MCNY: 89.2.1.126; fourth image: New-York Historical Society, 1914; fifth image: NYPL 1925; sixth image: NYPL 1927]