Washington Square Park tombs

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Photo: New York City Department of Design and Construction, 2015

The Washington Square Park tombs are two burial vaults located under the northeastern corner of Washington Square Park in the New York neighborhood of Greenwich Village.

Workers laying water mains for the city's Department of Design and Construction discovered the first of the structures in November 2015, just 3.5ft beneath the sidewalk. The DDC immediately halted construction and brought in contracted archaeologist Alyssa Loorya to assess the find. Loorya, working with colleagues at Chrysalis Archaeology, discovered a second tomb parallel to the first that has lain undisturbed, she estimates, since the mid nineteenth century.[1]

Both of the vaults are identically constructed, measuring 27 feet in length, 15 feet in width, with randomly coursed fieldstone walls and whitewashed, barrel-vaulted brick ceilings.[2] Disarticulated skeletons litter the floor of the first vault, probably the result of having previously been disturbed. Workers for the Con Edson utility company had discovered a vault beneath the park in the 1960s, but its location at the time was not recorded.[3] The second tomb, however, contains up to two-dozen coffins, some in a fine state of preservation. Many of these bear brass identification plates which, when studied, it is hoped, will lead to the identification of the individuals interred.

The first vault. (Photo courtesy: Commissioner Peña-Mora)

It is estimated that up to 20,000 bodies have been buried under the area now covered by Washington Square Park. In 1797, the rapidly expanding city purchased an old farm to be used as a 'potter's field', or public burial ground, for the city's indigent, poor, criminals, and victims of the yellow fever epidemics that hit New York at the turn of the 18th and 19th Centuries. The site was considered a rural northern suburb of the city at the time, and the cemetery remained in use for 30 years, before work began on the construction of the park.[4]

The newly discovered vaults, however, appear not to be part of the city cemetery, but may be related to a large plot extending across the northeast corner of the park that belonged to the Scotch Presbyterian Church in the early 19th Century.[5]

As of November 2015, neither of the newly-discovered tombs had been entered by the city's archaeologists. Loorya and her colleagues relied on remote camera technology to inspect the sites. They were able to identify the text “William” on one coffin and “Aged 21 Y” on another. A wooden door in the second vault is visible, its lock apparently intact, leading to the possibility of further discoveries beyond.[6]


  1. David W. Dunlap, “Beneath Washington Square, Forgotten Tombs Begin to Yield Their Secrets”, New York Times, November 6, 2015, accessed October 15, 2016.
  2. Alan Yuhas, "Two centuries-old tombs unearthed beneath historic New York City park," The Guardian, November 7, 2015, accessed October 15, 2016.
  3. Dunlap, “Beneath Washington Square."
  4. Carmen Nigro, "Beware of Zombies: The Grim Origins of Washington Square Park", New York Public Library, March 10, 2011, accessed October 15, 2016.
  5. Dunlap, “Beneath Washington Square."
  6. Ibid.