23 January 2008

Digging Up the Past

Call me a ghoul, but I think it's totally cool that city archaeologists, doing soil testing for a planned restoration of Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, have uncovered skeletal remains, possibly centuries old.

One of the greatest things about Washington Square Park, in my opinion, is the fact that it has played host to some of the most grisly activities that Gotham ever got up to. From 1797 to 1826, it was a potter's field, filled up with the bodies of all those New Yorkers nobody else would or cared to lay claim to. There are 20,000 souls under that bohemian soil, folks, most of them dead from yellow fever, which struck NYC hard in the early 1800s. It was also popular as a dueling ground, which I guess was convenient, since the losing party could simply tumble into an open common grave and shake off this mortal coil all the easier.

But, wait! There's more! The park was also Manhattan's favorite hanging grounds. The big old elm near the northeast corner was known as The Hangman's Elm. (Some dispute the tree's morbid status, saying it was part of a nearby farm at the time.) The events were super popular with the locals, who would build a picnic around whatever's convicts death. In 1824, the Marquis de Lafayette was treated as honored guest at the hanging of 20 highwaymen. That must have been fun for the Frenchie!

It gets creepier. In 1825, the park was converted into the Washington Military Parade Grounds. Trouble was, as the troops marched back and forth across the square, they kept sinking their feet into the shallow pauper's graves of yesteryear. That may be why it was made into a park soon after.

For those who oppose the coming redesign of WSP, there is a silver lining in this news. If they discover a sufficient amount of skeletons, historians may call for the construction to halt indefinitely.

(I thank The Bowery Boys for the picture.)

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