Theme VIII, Horror: Dark History of Washington Square

By Ariana DiValentino

It’s no secret that New York is a goldmine for paranormal enthusiasts and folklore junkies. Without statues to rub for luck and centuries-old ghost stories — only a mostly-joking belief held by some that there is a correlation between walking under the arch and graduating — NYU may not be as steeped in campus tradition as some of our benchmarks, but hints of superstition are visible in our urban habitat nonetheless. Lafayette Hall skips thirteenth rooms on each floor and the 13th floor entirely, as much as a 17-story building can lack a 13th floor, as does the much-newer Gramercy Green, built within the last decade. Rumours of haunting right on our own campus are one of the pieces of NYU history we share with alumni generations before us, namely the ghostly presences felt in Brittany Hall, supposedly stemming from its colorful history as the Brittany Hotel. But some deeply buried legends tell stories older than the horror-movie tropes they seem to have been ripped from. A university as old as ours in a city as rich and complex as New York is bound to have a few skeletons in its historical closet, and in fact there are thousands that we share the square with. What’s most disturbing is that these forgotten tales are far from myth.

University Building Watercolor and Engraving by A.J. Davis, c. 1833

University Building Watercolor and Engraving by A.J. Davis, c. 1833

As it turns out, NYU wasn’t the first entity to make controversial land claims on the turf of lower Manhattan. Long before the name Greenwich Village was ever uttered, the (now nonexistent) Minetta Brook marsh area was home to the Sappokanican settlement of Native Americans. One horror story you probably don’t need to be told is the eventual warfare and expulsion of the native people from the land they had agreed to share with the Dutch settlers, who held very different ideas of ownership and very negative feelings towards the native people.

To support the Dutch settlement with few workers, The Dutch West India Company transported Africans to the island — then New Amsterdam — to be sold as slaves and perform the work the Dutch had little interest in. After terms of loyal service some of these slaves would be granted land and freedom, although conditionally. An area of lower Manhattan was cleared by African slave and half-slave labor, and the farmland granted to them became known as “The Land of the Blacks,” serving as a buffer zone between the Dutch and the native people with whom they were at worse relations and had less control over. This freedom, of sorts, required contributions to the Dutch rule, and worse, the children of these so-called freed slaves were to be considered slaves themselves. Once the English took control, the African-American farmers were disenfranchised of their land anyway. The Land of the Blacks, by the way, covered a section of lower Manhattan that included — you guessed it — what we know call the Village.

None of this should be surprising. White settlers enacting horrors upon native Americans and black slaves are the gruesome foundation of much of American history. Still, it forms the preface for the next chapter of horrors buried in the history of our adopted home. The land was purchased by the city — now New York, under English rule — in 1797. At this time, the land was still outside of the city proper, so it was used as a potter’s field. If, like me up until this week, you didn’t know what a potter’s field is, it’s a sort of public burial ground. The difference between a potter’s field and a regular cemetery is that while most cemeteries are comprised of many individual graves where people are laid to rest respectfully and commemorated with headstones, a potter’s field is more of a mass burial ground where the bodies of the poor the unknown are frequently buried en masse. When yellow fever struck the city numerous times in the early 1800s, spreading largely due to meager sanitation and health resources in poor tenement communities, the bodies of the dead were disposed of here to get them away from the then-developed portion of the city, further north. From 1797 to 1825, under the fountain, the arch, the open-air concerts and theatrical performances we know Washington Square Park to be the home of, as many as 20,000 bodies were buried and still lie there today.

The potter’s field was the site of several more tales as well, from the 1824 New York Post report of a man found digging up graves so that he could sleep in a coffin as shelter from the elements, to the public hanging of one Rose Butler, a black woman convicted of arson. Though stories on the site and frequency of a “Hangman’s Elm” conflict, there is record of at least this one, and it’s worth noting that one purported site of the gallows was right where the fountain stands today.

The potter’s field eventually became high-demand real estate and not long after, our university formed on the site. The University Building, which was constructed with stones chiseled by inmates at Sing Sing Correctional Facility  stood on the east side of the park from 1835 to 1894. The building was plagued by rumors of haunting by a student who had committed suicide in one of its turrets. Now situated between Washington Place and Waverly Place is the Silver-Waverly-Brown building complex, site of a more well-known tragedy. In 1911, the Brown Building was known as the Asch Building, in which the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire resulted in the deaths of 146 young immigrant women as a result of the common and cruel labor practice of locking employees in during the workday. Over the past several decades, reports have abounded of strange sightings, mysterious noises, and even the smell of smoke.

If you’re wondering why so many of these stories are so widely forgotten, know that I am too. But consider this: stories of native people, African people, the sick, the poor, immigrants, and women being mistreated in life or death, one way or another, are so common that they would be trite if not for their horror. In history, these stories are the rule, not the exceptions. Looking back at horrible accidents like the Triangle Shirtwaist fire and the generally negative energy that notoriously surrounds our campus, you wouldn’t be alone to sometimes feel as though NYU is cursed. And, not to resort to superstition, but looking back at the history of this turf — from the attacks against the Sappokanican people to the mass burial of the poor and homeless — but it seems as though the groundwork for a bad omen is resting right beneath our feet.

For more info on the 20,000 bodies and potter’s field, see this report from the NYC Parks and Rec department.

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