Potter's Field at Washington Square Park
Part Two of Two
by Randolph Petsche
We are delighted to present Randolph Petsche’s fascinating and in-depth “understory” of one of New York City’s most celebrated, and frequented public spaces. For reasons of length we are publishing it in two parts; the first appeared in issue 16. Though it has not been our practice to include bibliographies, in this case we thought it amply justified.
The New Potter’s Field
The new potter’s field opened to a roaring business. In 1798, the city experienced the worst yellow fever epidemic in its history. Once again, tens of thousands abandoned the lower part of the city and chaos reigned. About 2,000 perished out of a population of fewer than 60,000. (Hardie, 8)
Grant Thorburn, a recent Scottish immigrant who could not afford to leave the infected area, left these personal reminiscences:
“During the prevalence of the yellow fever, when not in attendance on the sick, I was busily employed in making nails for the coffin-makers. A carpenter in Warren Street kept twelve men constantly employed in making white-wood coffins, not painted, which he sold for five dollars each. The stout lads with a hand-cart load went daily through the streets, stopping at every corner and crying out ‘Coffins, coffins, all sizes, only five dollars… undertakers, as a profession were not known in that period.” (Thorburn, 49)
Yellow fever epidemics continued to add to the number of burials in the potter’s field during its thirty years existence. Between 1799 and 1802 there were “sporadic” outbreaks of the disease in the summer months but on August 25, 1803, the Boston Gazette reported that at least a third of New York had evacuated, “and where, a few weeks since, the din of labour was loudest, is now as solitary as a desert.” (Quoted in Stokes V, 141)
By 1805, these outbreaks now being routine, one observer noted:
“As soon as the dreadful scourge makes its appearance in New York, the inhabitants shut up their shops, and fly from their houses into the country. Those who cannot go far, on account of business, remove to Greenwich, a small village situate on the border of the Hudson River, about two or three miles from town…
Very few are left in the confined parts of the town except the poorer classes and the negroes. The latter not being affected by the fever are of great service at that dreadful crisis and are the only persons who can be found to discharge the hazardous duties of attending the sick and burying the dead. Upwards of 20,000 people removed from the city, and from the streets near the waterside, in 1805.” (Lambert, 856 )
After a hiatus of fourteen years, major outbreaks recurred in1819 and finally in 1822.
The city almshouse also contributed greatly to the number of burials. Between 1736 and 1797, most of its burials were conducted on land near the almshouse, located by the present City Hall. Long before the the new almshouse was constructed its graveyard was overfull. In noting the burgeoning number of impoverished people a visitor’s guide to the city wrote in 1807: “The poor-list is exceedingly enlarged by wretched emigrants from Europe and by needy adventurers from almost all parts of our own country.” (Mitchill, 122)
On June 30, 1800, Congregation Shearith Israel, the city’s only synagogue, petitioned the City Council for land in the new potter’s field, “inasmuch as a recent city ordinance deprives this congregation of the privilege of burying in their own cemetery the bodies of such of their dead as die of pestilential disorders.” (Folpe, 60; MCC, 1784-1831, II: 641)
The petition was not approved. There are longstanding strictures within Judaic practice against the burial of deceased Jewish people among gentiles, which continue even to this day. Allan Amanik, the leading authority on Jewish burial customs in New York, writes:
“…Most Jewish New Yorkers have perpetuated in remarkable consistency a longstanding practice to keep to themselves in death due to Jewish laws prohibiting burial among religious groups or those at variance in their levels of observance, requirements to bury in land owned by another Jew (at minimum physically separating Jewish and non-Jewish cemetery holdings), or simply deep sensitivities to turning over the dead to outsider care.” (Amanik, p. 4)
Given these restrictions, it was not surprising that Shearith Israel’s dealings with the city came to naught. Amanik writes anecdotally of an account which occurred two years later:
“Few New York Jews would have imagined that a funeral procession ‘wending its way towards the potter’s field’ could help re-shape their experience of dying for decades to come… Yet one early procession did amplify those changes when Gerhom Mendes Seixas, Ephraim Hart, and Napthali Phillips happened on it unwittingly in the summer of 1802. After stopping the funeral party to ask about the departed, they paled to hear to hear that the stranger was ‘only a poor Jew’ unknown to the community. The stigma of a pauper’s grave collided with the knowledge that one of their own, even if only an itinerant, had come so close to spending eternity not surrounded by other Jews. Taking charge of body and burial, these men ended the ceremony at once. (Amanik, p. 47)
In 1804, the Congregation obtained land at Milligan Place (now West Eleventh Street, west of Sixth Avenue) for further burials. However, the intention was to limit burials to congregants who had succumbed to epidemics and to Jewish “itinerants” to the congregation, while members of the established families were still interred in the first burial ground at Oliver Street. (Amanik, 37)
In 1807, a second minority became involved in the politics of the potter’s field. On August 10, a city inspector reported to the City Council that the Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church had been burying people at a rate of 150 per year in a vault under its church building at Leonard and Church Streets for the previous five years, “creating an offensive condition.” (MCC, 1784-1831, IV: 522) One week later the City Council authorized the superintendent of the almshouse to “set apart a portion of Potter’s Field about Fifty feet square, for the use of said society.” (MCC, 1784-1831, IV: 525)
Bishop Christopher Rush joined the Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1803, was licensed to preach in 1815, and ordained as a minister in 1822. He left a more sympathetic account of the congregation’s burial practices.
“…When the corporation of the city prohibited the opening of graves in the thickly inhabited parts of the city in the summer season, the Trustees applied to them for a burying ground as the Church was not able to purchase ground for that purpose at that time and on the (then) Pottersfield (which is now called Washington Parade Ground), which the Trustees fenced in, and used in the summer season of every year, until the Corporation of the City thought proper, to fill up the said Pottersfield, and improve it as it is now.” (Rush, 26, 104)
At this point matters become confusing. City Council records state that Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church bought a petition on March 21, 1808, requesting:
“that portion of the Potter’s Field which has been assigned to them for a burial place be exonerated from any assessment for regulating a street adjoining said ground understood to be called First Street amounting to about Twenty-eight dollars.” (MCC, 1784-1831 V: 59)
The archeological reports of the Department of Parks and Recreation believe that the planned First Street later became the current Mercer Street, two blocks east of Washington Square. (Geismar, 2004, 9) An entry in Stokes’s Iconography calls Mercer Street, First Street, as it was probably known when the city surveyed it in 1796. (Stokes III, 1005; Taylor and Roberts Map) Shifting the Zion AME burial ground to Mercer Street would have continued the tradition of rigid segregation in burials, even at the potter’s field -- an important consideration while slavery remained lawful. But if the church’s burial yard was placed in Mercer Street no evidence has been found of it in 200 years. Geismar offers the explanation that the potter’s field may have been considerably larger than was thought. (Geismar, op. cit.)
At the time of the petition the Second African Burial Ground occupied land one block east of Bowery, in today’s Chrystie Street. Chrystie Street was re-named from First Street in 1817. (Goerck-Mangin Map; Bridges Map; Stokes III, 996, 999; VI, 592). Possibly the City Council was confused as to which black church was petitioning. So far the location of the Zion African Methodist Episcopal Burial Ground has not been found in Washington Square, the Department of Parks apparently believing that it was never placed there. (Geismar, 2004, 9).
Responding to the complaints of nearby landholders the Council issued specific guidelines for burials at both the potter’s field and the Second African cemetery on August 21, 1820.
“That no Corpse shall be left at any time, without a covering of earth at least two feet deep, and no grave shall be left from one day to another day, without being entirely filled up with earth.
No Corpse shall be deposited nearer the surface of the ground than four feet.
Nor shall any person whose death was occasioned by any contagious or putrid fever be interred otherwise than in a single grave six feet deep.” (MCC, 1784-1831, XI: 256, 286-87)
Although these cemeteries were undoubtedly practicing unhealthy burials, this was hardly unusual. An English traveler who landed in New York during the epidemic wrote in his account:
“But what may also contribute to produce unhealthiness, is the very foolish and absurd practice of burying the dead within the town. Some of the church-yards have become so full, that they are raised several feet above the level of the neighboring streets. Indeed, the bodies in many places have been buried three deep.” (Blane, 12)
Traditional African burial rituals may have remained in observance and open expressions of religious zealotry practiced by the African Methodists may have disconcerted nearby whites. At least half of the African American population of the time were members of African Methodist churches.
Theatre of Death
The arrival of hearses on thousands of occasions brought a theatrical appearance to the potter’s field. On returning to New York in September, 1798, Grant Thorburn observed:
“I met two hearses filled to overflowing with dead mortality, each containing fourteen coffins…on their way to the Potter’s Field. The wheels of these chariots of death rolled heavily up the hill, the springs and timbers screeching and groaning as if chanting the requiem of friends departed. Each hearse has a driver and assistant, sitting in front with a lantern between their feet. They sit as dumb as mutes. The pale light from their lanterns flickered across their stupid faces’ unmeaning countenances, which looked as white as the face of Samuel just peeping out of the grave, when called by the witch of Endor from the mansions of the dead.” (Thorburn, 52)
Contributing to the atmosphere of theatrical death was the presence of thousands of corpses buried in earth a few feet beneath the surface and prone to emitting vile odors at odd times, especially during summer. The potter’s field was considered so inherently noxious that a committee reporting to the City Council found that the “foul air” emitted from the potter’s field was “known to be frequently offensive and it sickened a detachment of militia stationed near it, in 1814, during the late war.” (Allen and Akerly, 14)
An even murkier subject was the routine practice of medical students from Kings College (now Columbia) to remove corpses from potter’s fields for dissection as part of their studies. In April, 1788, an event known as “the Doctor’s Riot” occurred, the origins of the riot being described in a newspaper article of the time:
“During the last winter, some students of physic, and other persons, had dug up from several of the cemeteries in this city a number of dead bodies for dissection. The practice had been conducted in so indecent a manner, that it raised a considerable clamor among the people. The interments, not only of strangers and the blacks, had been disturbed; but the corps of some respectable persons were removed. These circumstances most sensibly agitated the feelings of the friends of the deceased, and brought up the passions of the populace to ferment.” (N.Y. Packet, April 15, 18, 1788, quoted in Stokes V, 1226)
Matters continued from there after “a limb was imprudently hung out of a window at the hospital to dry…” (ibid.) This resulted in a mob entering the hospital on April 13, destroying anatomical specimens and chasing several young doctors out of the building and into the safety of the city jail. Some of its members broke into the homes of prominent physicians in search of specimens. The following day the mob returned to the jail and was confronted by the mayor and Governor John Jay who persuaded them to leave. But later that day, a second mob returned, attempted to force its way into the jail, beat back a small brigade of militia who were sent to defend it, roughed up the mayor and the governor, tore down the fence in front of the jail, hurled paving stones at the windows and fought back for several hours when a second, larger brigade of soldiers was sent to protect the jail. (Headley, 31-39)
Bowed but untamed, the medical profession continued to search for specimens and the potter’s field was the most likely source. As David C. Humphrey, an historian of medicine writes:
“Despite the violent response to grave robbing, New York did not legalize the dissection of unclaimed bodies until 1854, when body snatchers were emptying at least 600 or 700 graves annually in and about New York City. . .
Blacks were not the only victims of the widening gap between the legal supply of cadavers and the demands of medical schools. Body snatchers preyed most frequently on the dead of impoverished and powerless whites. White paupers crowded the country’s almshouse, particularly outside the South, and in death filled most of the graves in potter’s fields. . . “ (Humphrey, 821).
In an address to the College of Surgeons and Physicians in 1850, Valentine Mott, one of the most esteemed surgeons in the country, reminisced nostalgically on his days as a student of anatomy:
“Material for dissection was scarce and could only be obtained by individual enterprise, and in many such have I been engaged. I well remember on one occasion driving, in disguise, a cart containing eleven subjects, from old Potter’s Field burying ground, sitting on the subjects, and proud enough of my trophies, but we were not always so fortunate being on occasion discovered and pursued, and obliged to leave our spoils behind us, with only our hard labor for our pains.” (Mott, 14)
These practices were common throughout the United States. As Humphrey has written:
“Nineteenth century newspapers abound in stories that describe the many unsavory aspects of body snatching: midnight raids on graveyards, the corruption of cemetery officials, fake burials with empty coffins, the discovery of dead relatives at medical schools or in crates awaiting shipment.” (Humphrey, 822)
Corruption at Washington Square came to light in December, 1808 when John McKenzie, keeper of the potter’s field, was discharged for “resurrectionism,” a euphemism for selling cadavers to medical schools. (MCC, 1784-1831, V: 383, 390) By then McKenzie had been keeper for six years at a salary of $1.00 per day (MCC, 1784-1831 III: 749 ).
Duels and Executions
The occasional duels between mutually aggrieved gentlemen provided further theatricality to the legend of the potter’s field. For example, in November, 1803, William Coleman, editor of the Hamiltonian Evening Post, killed the city’s harbormaster, Captain Thompson, a supporter of Burr and Jefferson, in a snowstorm on the third round of a nocturnal duel. (Folpe, 61-2) The following year Burr and Hamilton, Greenwich Village’s two most celebrated landowners, repeated the exercise on the heights of Weehawken, New Jersey.
Apparently, the tradition continued, even after the potter’s field was closed to burials, as the Evening Post reported that on January 15, 1828, two gentlemen with seconds and surgeons engaged in “pugilistic combat” for about half an hour in which a number of shots were exchanged, both men leaving “badly bruised.” (cited in Folpe, 61-2)
Some modern historians claim that a “hanging tree” at the northwest corner of now Washington Square was used administratively to execute prisoners from nearby Newgate Prison, located at the foot of West 10th Street and the Hudson River. (Folpe, 64) What is known for certain is that on July 8, 1819, Rose Butler, a black woman:
“who had been sentenced to be hung for setting fire to a dwelling house, and who was respited for a few days, in the hope that she would disclose some accomplice in her wickedness, was executed at two o’clock near the Potter’s Field.” (New York Evening Post, July 10, 1819, quoted in Folpe, 63; Janvier, 130)
Dorothy Ripley, a Quaker, who had taken up the cause of Rose Butler and visited her on a frequent basis while she was in the Bridewell, described the execution in detail:
“I suppose we had a mile and a half ride to the Potter’s Field, where the gallows was fixed. We were covered with dust as we went on to Broadway; for thousands of inhabitants, old and young, were in the broiling sun, while thousands more were in the windows, doors, and in the trees and tops of the houses… We at last got into Potter’s field, where lay the bones and ashes of strangers of almost all nations; who had died in the city from the yellow fever; and in the midst a high gallows, for Rose to ascend; while tens of thousands were beholding how she would conduct.” (Ripley, 7)
This execution occurred on a gallows specially constructed for the event, not a “hanging tree.” It appears that the execution followed a tradition described by Burrows and Wallace as a:
“sober communal ritual, in which the condemned, the crowd, and the civic authorities all played their respective roles: the first contrite, the second awed, the third magisterial.”. (Burrows and Wallace, 506; see also Janvier, 130)
The sparsely reported details of contemporary newspaper accounts failed to notice:
“any of the unnecessary and absurd details that are given at the present day in like cases, neither was her dying speech recorded, much less transmitted to other countries, as in the case of a recent execution in England.” (Haswell, 102)
How widely the potter’s field was used for mystical religious ceremony remains an open question. The early decades of the nineteenth century were marked by a widespread revival of religious evangelicalism, particularly within the Methodist Church (Burrows and Wallace, 481-2) A contemporary British traveler in New York and other American places wrote in a published letter to an English friend:
“Advantage is sometimes taken of the extra-ordinary event of Providence to produce an excitement. A sudden death, or the death of a young person, is often employed for this purpose, with the most remorseless disregard of all the claims of relationship and private grief.” (Dewey, Orville, 20)
Gentrification of the Potter’s Field
The master plan for laying out Manhattan Island was authorized by the City Council in 1807 and completed in 1811 by the three Commissioners of Streets and Roads. The rigid system of straight lines for streets and avenues has been criticized by urban planners ever since.
The original Commissioners’ Plan (Bridges, 1807-11) does not show the grid structure for the present Washington Square or a larger piece of land north of it, this being interpreted as above the “settled area of the city.” (Homburger, 69) The only known map showing the potter’s field was made by an anonymous draftsman and is kept in the Topographical Bureau of the Manhattan Borough President’s Office. (Anonymous Map, 1817; Geismar, 2005, 8 )
The Commissioners took an unsympathetic view of public park space. They wrote:
“It may be a matter of surprise that so few vacant spaces have been left, and those so small, for the benefit of fresh air and health. . . . But those large arms of the sea which embrace Manhattan Island render its situation, in regard to health and pleasure, as well as to the convenience of commerce, particularly felicitous. When, therefor, from the same causes the prices of land are so uncommonly great, it seems proper to admit the principles of economy to greater influence than might, under other circumstances of a different kind, have consisted with the dictates of prudence and the sense of duty.” (Quoted in Janvier, 59)
Lack of access to open air spaces was the lot of the majority of New Yorkers, one historian describing the potter’s field as a “ghastly resort for health and pleasure.” (Wilson IV, 554) But the demands of the well to do for squares and small parks took root in the late 1820’s, just as the potter’s field was closing. Disenchantment with the increasing expense and congestion of downtown living was pushing the affluent to move uptown. The creation of small parks and squares in London’s West End furnished a powerful example of developing exclusive neighborhoods. (Burrows and Wallace, 575-580)
Efforts to create luxury housing surrounding local squares were eventually initiated at the revived Hudson Square, Gramercy Park, Union Square, Tompkins Square, Madison Square and Chelsea Square (grounds of the General Theological Seminary). (Ibid.) Washington Square was probably the first use of public land to achieve this.
The closing and transformation of the potter’s field was a necessary step in re-developing the surrounding area. Public health concerns came to the fore. In a revealing pamphlet published in 1822 titled Documents and Facts showing the fatal effects of interments in populous cities, Dr. Samuel Akerly expressed his concern for local land values in the area surrounding Washington Square, noting: “Improvements are progressing and population fast increasing about the public burying ground known called Potter’s Field. This (potter’s field) is known to be frequently offensive, and it sickened a detachment of militia stationed near it, in 1814, during the late war.” (Allen and Akerly, 12) Continuing in this vein, Dr. Akerly deplored the potential effects of overfull burial grounds on real estate values near the Trinity Church graveyard. “Depend upon it, the property in that part of the city will be greatly injured and depreciated unless something is done.” (Ibid., 8)
The future beautification of the potter’s field had been put forward as early as 1806 by a panel of three prominent citizens reporting to the Board of Health that:
“. . . the present burial ground might serve extremely well for plantations of grove and forest trees and thereby instead of remaining receptacles of putrid matter and hot-beds of miasmata, might be rendered useful and ornamental to the city.” (Cheetham, 93-4; Allen and Akerly, 15)
On January 31, 1825, the City Council voted to close the potter’s field to new burials as of May 1, 1826. (MCC, 1784-1831, XIV: 306-7) The following year the Council noted the progress in “regulating” the ground and voted to rename it as the Washington Military Parade Ground. (MCC, 1784-1831, XV: 234. 484, 748). In order to complete the square for military training purposes the Council ordered the taking of the west side of the Minetta Waters and the land owned by the Scotch Presbyterian Church on the east side of the square. (MCC, 1784-1831, XV: 410)
A building boom in upscale houses around the square began quickly and by 1828 a guide to the city reported:
“…there have already been erected around it many handsome private dwellings, and this vicinity has likewise become a most fashionable residence, although somewhat remote at present from the center of business.” (Goodrich, 439)
Washington Square remained a highly desirable area for decades and a later city guide saw it as a:
“great and most effective ornament to the city that was formed by laying out the ground formerly occupied as Potter’s Field. The bones were collected in a vast trench, one on each side of the field, which were enclosed with fences and planted with trees.. . . .The Square is surrounded with splendid private houses and one side is the University building and a splendid church.” (Ruggles, 85)
The City Council claimed that 20,000 persons had been buried in potter’s field between 1798 and 1826. (MCC, 1784-1831, XVI: 49) Apart from a handful of well to do people who were buried at the height of the epidemics, precious little is known of them.
For readers who would like to revisit the first part of Petsche's article, see PART I.
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Randel, John C., The City of New York as laid out by the Commissioners, with the surrounding countryside by their secretary and surveyor John Randel. 1821. (New York, 1821)
Taylor, Benjamin, and Roberts, John, A New and Accurate Plan of the City of New York in the State of New York and North America (New York, surveyed 1796, published, 1797).