‘Nothing but death all around here’: Ghost hunters reveal chilling secrets of Washington Square Park

‘Nothing but death all around here’: Ghost hunters reveal chilling secrets of Washington Square Park
The Hangman’s elm at Washington Square Park was once used to execute criminals (Sean Kennedy/YouTube and Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK: It's Halloween, and with it the time of year that calls for spooky details. Did you know that there are 20,000 bodies buried under Washington Square Park, known for its liveliness with tourists and artists? Although the city planned to bury only 5,000 bodies in the park, it was forced to increase capacity when four yellow fever epidemics struck New York in 1797, 1798, 1801, and 1803, according to NY Post.

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In a 2011 blog post for the New York Public Library, research librarian Carmen Nigro wrote, "In its 2005 Archaeological Assessment of Washington Square Park, the New York City Parks and Recreation Department confirms that corpses possibly numbered as many as 20,000 and it appears these burials remain under varying depths of fill.” In the popular guidebook 'Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City' by Michelle Nevius and James Nevius, the authors detail, 'While estimates vary, it seems likely that over 20,000 people were buried in the land.... The bulk of the bodies were never disinterred, which means that they remain to this day under the grass and pavement of Washington Square.'"

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Wooden boards stick up from a work site project for water mains where a vault containing a large pile of skeletal remains dating back approximately 200 years was discovered this week on November 5, 2015 in New York City.  The discovery, made at New York City's Washington Square Park, contains the remains of at least a dozen people. The city will reach out to anthropologists and archaeologists to investigate the vault to determine its exact age and purpose.
Wooden boards stick up from a work site project for water mains where a vault containing a large pile of skeletal remains dating back approximately 200 years was discovered on November 5, 2015. The discovery, made at New York City's Washington Square Park, contains the remains of at least a dozen people (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

In the blog, Nigro writes, "So, how did those bodies get there? In 1797, the quickly expanding New York City government purchased a portion of an old farm for $4,500 to create a potter’s field—a burial ground for the indigent, poor, criminals, and victims of the epidemic. The potter’s field operated for almost thirty years and occupied what is now the eastern two-thirds of Washington Square Park. It also happened to be adjacent to several established church cemeteries, adding to the area’s body count. In Around Washington Square, Harris commented that this area was a 'natural choice for such bleak facilities because it was a rural northern suburb of the city and already the site of cemeteries owned by downtown churches.'"

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People walk and ride carriages near the arch, covered in papier-mache wreaths, garlands of flowers, and American flags, in Washington Square Park during the celebration of the centennial of George Washington's inauguration, New York, New York, April 30, 1889. This arch, made of wood and plaster, was designed by architect Stanford White for the celebration, and the final marble version, also designed by White, was commissioned two days later. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Washington Square Park in 1889 during a celebration for the centennial of George Washington’s inauguration. City workers have discovered two burial vaults underneath Washington Square Park in New York City, uncovering the remains of at least a dozen people interred around two centuries ago (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

A tour guide with the NYC Ghosts organization, which gathers a tour group under the park's iconic arch each evening to tell the haunting stories, said park visitors "feel sudden cold chills on hot summer nights as they walk over the mass burials. Others have seen shadowy figures in the trees that vanish when approached." Another ghost hunter, commenting on the 'Ghosts of Washington Square Park' video, said, "This is nothing but death all around here. Is it haunted? Absolutely. I mean, there has got to be those spirits and energy that's still here."

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As per the report, a few believe the hangman’s elm — a 350-year-old tree near the northwestern entrance to the park — was once used to execute criminals. New York City urban archeologist Joan Geismar told NY Post, “The hangman’s tree has always been a legend in the park. These sorts of stories come out all the time, but we don’t know if there’s a basis for them.”

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