6 Secrets That New Yorkers Probably Didn't Know About Washington Square Park

You guys know that whole Halloween thing that's coming up? 

Everyone's been talking about it. Everyone's been buying candy and costumes, and loading their apartments with spooky apparel. The city's rocking out too, with tons of Halloween events, haunted houses, and parades and bar crawls.

We're going to go ahead and hop on that bandwagon, by digging up some of the city's spookiest stories.

When it came to Washington Square Park, that was easy. The park is barely 10 acres, but the secrets it holds are immense.

What we're saying is, Washington Square Park isn't just a battleground for the fiercest chess matches in the city, nor is it just a pretty arch beside a fountain where you can enjoy a picnic.

The truth is, there are thousands of bodies buried below Washington Square Park. There were people executed at that park, and if you ask us, the odds are high that there are ghosts abound in the park.

Why are we telling you all this? Well, if there was ever a time of year to get spooked walking home at night, it's Halloween, isn't it? Read on to learn all the ghost stories about Washington Square Park.

1. It used to be a cemetery

likabrdthatflew The Empire State Building through the arch of Washington Square Park, New York City. April 2015 #arch #architecture #empirestatebuilding #landmark #park #washingtonsquarepark #nyc #newyorkcity #manhattan #april #2015

Way before Washington Square Park was a park, we're talking hundreds of years ago, it was a marshy ground with a trout stream called Minetta.

After the Revolutionary War, however, the fathers of New York acquired the property for a potter's field. It became a public burial place where people who couldn't afford private burials, mostly victims of yellow fever, were buried.

Epidemics continuously wracked New York's population, and after twenty years of use, the cemetery was completely filled. 


Once the cemetery was leveled and landscaped, the new parade ground helped elevate the value of the surrounding real estate. 

Since there are 20,000 or so human corpses underground beneath the park, we've got to say we'd recommend staying away from here if zombies ever do rise.

[via Washington Square Park Conservancy]

2. It's next to other cemeteries 

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Since the bodies buried under Washington Square Park are not the only bodies buried in the area.

When the New York City government purchased the land for $4,500 to establish a potter's field, there were already several established church cemeteries nearby.

Apparently Washington Square Park was a natural choice for the potter's field, because it was already the site of cemeteries owned by downtown churches. 

The largest belonged to The Scotch Presbyterian Church. Also, hundreds of members of the African Zion Methodist Church were buried in the park once their crypts filled.

Soon, the burial ground was far over capacity, so the city formed a new potter's field where Bryant Park currently is. These bodies, however, we relocated to Ward's Island.

[via New York Public Library]

3. It used to host hangings

nylap4life Walked past the oldest tree in NYC today. It's called hangman's elm, and was used for executions in the 19th century. Great piece of history in our local park #hangmanselm #NYC #NYlap4life #history #washingtonsquarepark #sunnysunday #rockjunkettour #cleansunday

Well, according to legend at least.

Legend has it that before Washington Square Park morphed into the sun drenched, grassy park filled with children's laughter and plenty of people enjoying a book and some outdoor greenery, it was the site of public executions.

There's a 110-foot English elm, estimated to be about 300 years old in Washington Square Park, and it's called hangman's elm. 


The tale says that the traitors of the Revolutionary War were hung from the tree's branches. Another tale says that in 1824, the Marquis de Lafayette, visiting from France, said he witnessed 20 highwaymen hung from the tree. 

There was also a state prison called Newgate State Prison on Christopher and 10th Streets, and those condemned to death were reportedly hung from hangman's elm. 

[via Ephemeral New York]


4. There was a gallows 

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In the middle of the square, just about where Washington Square Park's fountain is now, stood a gallows. 

Guilty people were executed here until 1820, and buried in the potter's field with all the other bodies. This also vastly increased the cemetery's body count.


One known record of an execution that took place at the Washington Square Park gallows was in 1820. Rose Butler was convicted of arson and strung up from the gallows across the street from Washington Square Park.

So, if you're a ghost buster, or a ghost seeker, finding ghosts at Washington Square Park is probably a good bet.

[via Untapped Cities]

5. It used to be a drill field

dking12 #nyu #nycprimeshot #nyc #washingtonsquarepark

After Washington Square Park was a cemetery, it became a drill field. 

The New York Common Council decided that the cemetery would be an ideal practice space for the city's volunteer militia companies. On July 4th, 1826 (50 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed) it was officially declared the Washington Parade Ground.

In 1827, Mayor Philip Hone allowed the city's Seventh Regiment to use the square for practice ground. They needed more space, so the borders of the park expanded to include about fourteen acres.

The field was lumpy and the militia's heavy artillery sometimes unearthed crushed coffins and skulls. So, the bodies on top were exhumed and reburied elsewhere. 

Then the land was fenced in, paths were planned out, and grass was planted.

[via Untapped Cities]

6. There was a tragic fire

sarahjewelproctor The memorial set up in remembrance of the 1911 Triangle Shirt Waist Coat factory fire. #trianglefire #nyubrownbuilding

The Brown Building, which sits on the Western edge of Washington Square Park and is a part of NYU's campus, was once the site of a horrible, tragic fire.

In 1911, the Triangle Waist Company produced women's blouses on the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors. To prevent workers from taking breaks, the owners used to lock the doors.


At the end of the work day on March 25th a worker put out a cigarette in the highly flammable environment, and a fire erupted. At that time, there were no fire alarms, no evacuation plan, and deteriorating fire escapes, 141 people died. Many of them were forced to jump to their death.

After this tragedy, laws and fire codes were changed. According to folklore, the occupants of the building still hear moans from the top floor around the anniversary of the fire.

[via Sherris Traveling Classroom]

Check out 4 Secrets That New Yorkers Didn’t Even Know About the Empire State Building

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