Volume 79, Number 26 | December 2 - 8 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

That 1798 fever was grave may unravel stone riddle

By Kim Velsey

Many New Yorkers know about the bodies buried beneath Washington Square Park — remains belonging to thousands of impoverished residents who died more than two centuries ago. But when archaeologists and construction workers discovered a 210-year-old headstone while digging in late October, it presented a mystery.

The sandstone grave marker, 3 feet tall, extremely well preserved, with very legible inscriptions, belonging to a James Jackson, should not have been there. The poor could not afford headstones and no man of means would be buried in a potter’s field. Archaeologist Joan Geismar, the consultant for the city Parks Department who made the discovery, was delighted but perplexed. 

“Mr. Jackson was a complete surprise,” said Geismar. “Such a beautifully carved stone.” 

Working her way through a few theories and a lot of old newspapers, Geismar unraveled the riddle of how the headstone ended up in the southwest corner of the park near Sullivan St. 

The headstone reads, “Here lies the Body of James Jackson Who departed this life The 22nd day of September 1799 aged 28 years Native of the Country Kildare Ireland.”

It is an unusually wordy stone. The only thing missing is the body.

Workers dug down 7 feet but found nothing; it is likely that Jackson and his headstone parted ways when the field was graded to become a parade ground in 1825. 

Searching through historical records, Geismar learned that Jackson was a watchman — something similar to a police officer — also possibly a grocer on the side, and certainly a man of some means. He lived on what is today the Lower East Side. He was also a victim of yellow fever. 

Geismar suspected that the manner of death might have something to do with his mode of burial. 

Yellow fever epidemics hit New York nearly every summer in the late 1700s and early 1800s. People at the time thought the disease traveled between humans, although it is was actually transmitted by mosquitoes.

Poring over 18th-century newspapers at her house recently, Geismar made her second major discovery — an article saying that all yellow fever victims had to be buried in the potter’s field. She was so excited that her cries alarmed her husband in the next room.

“Now I’m wondering why we never found any stones last time around,” she said, referring to the first phase of the Washington Square Park renovation project. The project’s second phase started a few months ago.

The brief article, from the August 1799 New-York Gazette and Advertiser, reads, “It is in importance to remark here that no person dead of Fever are admitted to any other Cemetery, which was not the case heretofore.” 

Geismar speculates that the terrible fever epidemic of 1798, in which 2,000 residents out of the city’s 70,000 died, may have had something to do with the 1799 ordinance. 

“To be crude, it puts flesh on the bones,” said Geismar. “We haven’t found any yet, but it gives you a reason why he was buried there.”

When bodies are unearthed, protocol in the Washington Square Park renovation is to stop immediately, document the gravesite, and then cover it with a wooden box, cloth and clean soil. The redesign process is diverted around the sites — the location of the park’s water-holding tank has been changed three times, according to Geismar. 

During the building of the arch in 1890 at the park’s northern gate, workers found bones, intact skeletons and remnants of wooden coffins. Now Geismar suspects that many well-heeled fever victims and their headstones may also be underfoot. 

“Other than Central Park, most of New York City’s parks were burial yards,” said Geismar. “From an archaeological standpoint, parks protect the resources better than development usually does.” 

Vendor Thiru Kumar, whose vegan dosas are a neighborhood favorite, had his cart parked in its usual place — right next to the site — when the discovery was made. He saw digging, but only later found out about the headstone. 

“I say, ‘Wow,’” he said.

He’d heard rumors from older customers about the bones up by the north gate, but this hit closer to home. 

John Krawchuk, the Parks Department’s director of historic preservation, noted the groundswell of interest in graveyards.

“People are often kind of shocked about this, but cemeteries didn’t always have the same respect they now do,” he said. “Until the late 1970s, people just built over human remains.”

The headstone recently was removed from the park for fear of theft or vandalism, but according to Geismar, it will be returning. 

“It will be relocated right nearby at grade level so people can see it,” she said. “A nice reminder of the park’s history.”

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