The arch and fountain of Washington Square Park are a staple of New York City, like a lighthouse that beckons tourists to its shallow pools.
On hot summer days, children and city-dwellers alike can be found wading through its arching spurts of water in an attempt to cool down. But who knew that just below the surface of the streets lies a deep, dark Manhattan secret?
A Hidden Chamber
Like a scene from a movie, construction workers received a jolt of shock on a chilly day in November 2015. They had been assigned to replace a century-old water main that lay submerged beneath a Greenwich Village sidewalk.
A Construction Mystery
Workers from New York City’s Department of Design and Construction (DDC) had a fright when they dug deep. From nowhere a macabre mystery was resurfaced after 100 years.
What Lies Beneath
The team didn’t have to dig deep into the sidewalk to dig deep into the history of the streets. The dark discovery was unearthed only three and a half feet below the corner of Washington Square East and Waverly Place.
It Looks Normal In Daylight
City authorities had suspected they might unearth something entrenched below the surface, but a question lingered in the farthest recesses of their minds. What EXACTLY would be unearthed by the placid park remained unknown.
But A Mystery Is Buried
While this story climaxed in 2015, it certainly didn’t start there. You see, back in 1965 a power company named Con Edison had discovered something odd beneath the city’s surface. However, due to poor documentation, modern-day construction workers didn’t know exactly what they were looking for–only that a dark secret lay buried beneath.
Digging Up Secrets
So on that eerie November day in 2015, the construction crew and an archeological team primed themselves to investigate. After careful work, the team found themselves in the exterior of the underground vault. What lay inside can’t even be found in horror films because, in this case, the monsters were real.
A Tragic Tomb
In 1965 a New York Times journalist reported that the vault contained some 25 skeletons, but the findings and analysis of the archeological team contradicted that fact.
What Remains Of The Past
The team documented more than a dozen skulls piled up in morbid heaps of bones. The ghastly assortment included a jumble of misplaced femurs and broken fibulas.
After A Day’s Work
In fact, some of the bones were intact so well that dental records could be taken and analyzed to find out who the bones came from. This tragic tomb was not a surprise to the archeological team. They had been expecting to stumble on something of this sort. The real surprise came before they got through half a day’s work.
A second vault was soon discovered beneath the first, surprising everybody. “The first vault was not a surprise,” Loorya told The Guardian. “The second vault, we did not expect.” While the first chamber contained a mess of bones that appeared to be a mass grave, the second one contained 20 well-preserved coffins.
But where did the bodies come from and when were they placed inside the vaults? The archaeological team unearthed another mystery that contained the answer.
But Where Did They Come From?
Nameplates in the second chamber provided part of a tentative date, specifically, the first two digits: “18.” Thus the vaults would appear to have been 19th-century tombs.
A Walk Through History
During the post-revolutionary years, then, 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.
Disease, Death, and Discovery
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.
The Mystery Beneath Grand Street
However, the archeological team does not think that the chambers were part of the field, which is believed to occupy a different area of the park. Instead, they believe the chambers were built by local churches that purchased nearby land after city authorities prohibited any more burials under Grand Street.
A City In Silence
“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.
No More Clues
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.
Back To The Present
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.
Maybe Not So Mysterious…
In fact, human remains are often found under New York City – there may be thousands of people buried under its busy streets, especially in downtown 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.
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Happily Ever After?
So who knows what other unexpected horrors lie beneath the depths of New York or any other city for that matter. The only way to discover is to dig up the past.