Workers from New York City’s Department of Design and Construction (DDC) got a nightmarish jolt one day in November 2015. They had been contracted to replace a 100-year-old water main and were digging under a Greenwich Village sidewalk. Then, almost out of nowhere, they stumbled upon a subterranean chamber filled with macabre mysteries. Work came to a hushed standstill…
Who would have known that Washington Square Park harbored such dark secrets? Situated at the end of Fifth Avenue, the leafy park is best known for its triumphal arch, its expansive fountain and its New York University buildings. Beneath its urbane charms, however, lie remnants of an older and stranger time.
The discovery was made just three and a half feet below the surface of the street near the corner of Washington Square East and Waverly Place. City authorities had suspected that they might uncover something in the area; they just didn’t know exactly where – or what – it might be.
In fact, the subterranean chamber uncovered by DDC workers had previously been discovered back in 1965 by a power company called Con Edison. However, the company did not properly document the site, and the exact details of its whereabouts – along with its disturbing contents – were lost and forgotten.
This time, however, an archaeological team was primed to investigate and record what was found. So, having carefully removed two stones from the exterior of the underground vault, researchers from Chrysalis Archeological Consultants were able to look inside using digital photographic equipment. What they saw was the stuff of horror movies.
Inside, the gloomy brick-built vault measured eight feet deep, 15 feet wide and 27 feet long. In the dirt below, a small pile of rubble marked the spot where Con Edison had penetrated the vault’s arched ceiling some 50 years ago. Meanwhile, the rotted remains of wood coffins lay scattered about the floor, and in the corners were heaps of human remains.
In 1965 The New York Times reported that the vault contained some 25 skeletons, but the findings and analysis of Chrysalis contradicted that. In fact, they counted around a dozen skulls among the morbid heaps of disarticulated bones – the jumbled assortment of disconnected femurs, tibias and fibulas.
Furthermore, the images they obtained were so detailed that it may be possible to determine the age, sex and cause of death of some of the skeletons. “You can get enough resolution to see dental wear patterns [and] suture closings on bones,” Chrysalis archaeologist Alyssa Loorya told The Guardian.
But no sooner had the archaeologists begun documenting the site than a second chamber was located a short distance to the south of the first. “The first vault was not a surprise,” Loorya told The Guardian. “The second vault, we did not expect.”
The dimensions of the second chamber were identical to the first. However, its human remains were not disarticulated, but rather preserved inside an array of around 20 wooden coffins. Unlike the first chamber, “[the vault] doesn’t show any indication of having been breached at any time,” Loorya said.
Indeed, on the west wall of the vault was a wooden door on metal hinges, its lock apparently unbroken. Where did it lead? We have yet to find out, but there is a distinct possibility that it may open to yet more underground chambers and yet more human remains.
But where did the bodies come from, and when were they interred in the vaults? Chrysalis’ photographs of coffin name plates in the second chamber have provided part of a tentative date, specifically, the first two digits: “18.” Thus the vaults would appear to have been 19th-century tombs.
During the post-revolutionary years, Washington Square Park served as a so-called “potter’s field” – a burial ground for criminals, persons unknown or those too poor to afford a proper funeral. In 1826, however, the field was converted into a parade ground.
Notably, the potter’s field was used to bury victims of an outbreak of yellow fever that claimed thousands of lives in the late 18th century. Spread by mosquitoes, the disease can culminate in a particularly unpleasant death marked by fever, the yellowing of the eyes and skin and the vomiting of blood.
However, Loorya does not think that the chambers were part of the field, which is believed to occupy a different area of the park. Instead, she thinks they were built by local churches that purchased nearby land after city authorities prohibited any more burials under Grand Street.
“As of now, everything points to the Cedar Street church,” Loorya told The Guardian. Now located at 55th Street, the church was descended from the Scottish Presbyterian Church, which later became Second Presbyterian church on 96th Street. Sadly, no surviving records of the burial chambers under Washington Square Park have yet come to light.
There is hope that the journals of a pastor who moved to upstate New York may have some clues about the site. Until then, though, city authorities are doing everything they can to chart the history of the vaults. “It’s our responsibility to make sure this doesn’t happen again 100 years, or 50 years from now,” DDC commissioner Feniosky Peña-Mora told The Guardian.
So while relatively little is known about the people who were interred in the two vaults, the site is being treated very carefully. Out of respect for the dead, there are no plans to move the remains. “We don’t want to do any more disturbing than we need to,” Peña-Mora told The Guardian.
In fact, human remains are often found under New York City; indeed, there may be thousands of people buried under its busy streets, especially in southern Manhattan. “Despite massive amounts of disturbance from utilities, even subway installations, we still find pockets of either disturbed or undisturbed materials,” Loorya told The Guardian.
As analysis of the tombs continues, then, who knows what they might discover? With any luck, they may even be able to trace living relatives of the long-forgotten dead. For now, however, the discovery highlights a hidden history of the city, exposing how the worlds of the living and the dead exist side by side, often intersecting in unusual, unseen and unexpected ways.