At the edge of New York City’s Greenwich Village lies one of the most bucolic parks of the city. At the entrance of the park is a gracious arch that originally was meant to be a temporary visitor to mark the Centenary of George Washington’s inauguration, but which proved such a hit that it was made permanent.
Surrounding the park are magnificent townhouses that were old in the days when Henry James wrote “Washington Square.” New York University, one of the city’s most prestigious institutions of higher learning, as well as one of its largest landowners, holds classes and processes registrations in buildings so old that they have simply been joined together with ramps so the secretaries and student interns have easy access through a rabbit warren of passages that were old on the day President Grant was sworn in.
In the park, skateboarders practice tricks while nannies chase down errant charges. Construction is going on in the park. New York City never sleeps. But hidden beneath the grassy ground, underneath the big oaks and the gracious triumphal arch, Washington Square Park hides a bloody secret of murder, epidemic disease, madness and death.
New York’s Greenwich Village, of which Washington Square Park is but one small corner, owes its existence and importance to one of the most savage institutions known to man: slavery. In the early days of the republic, Greenwich Village was indeed a sleepy hamlet, but the profitable slave trade brought with it unwanted cargo: yellow fever. Along with the profits of human misery, the sailing ships of the New World’s Triangle Trade landing daily in the port of New York City, down by where tourists now stroll along the sanitized South Street Seaport and watch the mimes and the jugglers a thoroughly unwanted passenger emerged: yellow fever.
This dread disease, carried by a parasite-infected mosquito that accompanied the human cargo, swept what was then the entire city of New York, all of which once lay south of today’s City Hall. To escape this Angel of Death, high society fled the miasma of downtown trade for the cooling breezes of Greenwich Village. There they would remain until the chill of winter put the mosquitoes and the yellow fever plague to death.
Some 20,000 souls were said to have been buried in land that would become today’s Washington Square Park from the days that it first turned from farmland to burial ground in the ending years of the 18th century through the plague filled decades of the early 19th. Washington Square hosted a gallows during these years before being turned into a public parade ground in 1826. Today’s fountain is believed to be on the original site of the gallows. A famed “Hanging Elm” was said to be the last tree that many of the condemned ever climbed or fell from. This tree, said to be over 300 years old and located in the Northeast Corner of the park, is over three centuries old and the oldest living tree in Manhattan. Perhaps the blood proved good fertilizer. Rose Butler, the last person hanged for arson in New York State, met her ignominious end here in 1820.
Is it any wonder that the park is rumored to host the ghosts of the unquiet dead? Ghost tours are popular Halloween entertainment. Billing itself as the oldest Ghost Tour Company in New York, Ghosts of New York presently offers a dozen tours and is adding more. A 90-minute tour of Washington Square Park and its apparitions is one of their offerings. Book one if you dare.