Throughout the late 1700s and early 1800s, a series of yellow fever epidemics swept Boston, Philadelphia, and New York, causing the deaths of tens of thousands of individuals - naturally, the poor and immigrant populations were particularly affected, especially in New York.
The first major epidemic in New York occurred between July and October in 1795, resulting in the deaths of 732 New Yorkers (out of a population of about 50,000). Hysteria gripped the city - 500 citizens were hanged for fear that they were contaminated, 40 were guillotined, and hundreds of dead bodies were piled on the Battery, burned en masse.
LEFT: 1767 RATZER MAP OF MANHATTAN. THE POPULATION CENTER (CIRCLED IN RED) STOPS AT ABOUT CHAMBERS STREET. THE MAJORITY OF THE LAND NORTH OF THAT WAS STILL FARMLAND.At the time, just about everything north of Chambers Street was still rural land, so inhabitants were crowded together in the relatively close quarters of downtown Manhattan, facilitating the spread of the already highly contagious disease.
The cemetery at Trinity Church was too small to accommodate the death toll - and, given its location smack dab in the city center, was not considered the most desirable of repositories for all of New York's - well, undesirables.
It became very clear to city officials that something needed to be done to curb the disease - and at least to distance the many contaminated corpses from the immediate environs of the population center. For a short while, a potter's field was established at what is now Madison Square Park, but the location, being on the far outskirts of the city, was found to be inconvenient, especially considering the frequency with which people were dying.
The solution arrived in 1797, when the Haring (or Herring) Farm, a tract of land extending from the Bowery across Bleecker Street to the Minetta Creek, and then up to Christopher Street (essentially encompassing the better part of today's Greenwich Village) was being auctioned off for $45,000.
Side-note: the area around Minetta Creek was known as the Land of the Blacks: several slaves were granted freedom and several parcels of land by the Dutch in 1643 -- the immediate neighborhood remained largely populated by African-Americans up through the turn of the 20th century.
The land immediately went into effect as the city's potter's field (and execution ground: a public gallows was erected approximately where the fountain stands today - don't worry, we'll get into that later...), to serve as a final resting place for indigents, slaves, and victims of contagious disease.Washington Square was then in the real wilds, an uncultivated region, half swamp, half sand, with the Sand Hill Road,—an old Indian trail,— running along the edge of it, and Minetta Creek taking its sparkling course through its centre...and the adjacent region was full of wild duck.Peter Stuyvesant's farm gave the Bowery its name... for Bouwerie came from the Dutch word Bouwerij, which means farm, and this country lane ran through the grounds of the Stuyvesant homestead. A branch road from the Bouwerie Lane led across the stretch of alternate marsh and sand to the tiny settlement of Greenwich, running from east to west. The exact line is lost today, but we know it followed the general limit of Washington Square North...
And it was none too soon: in the late summer of 1798, yellow fever struck again, causing the deaths of 2,086 New Yorkers over the course of three months (Philadelphia was hit even harder, with an estimated 3,500 deaths). Cities were sent into a panic - residents who had the means fled New York, many others relocated further north in the city, where they could avoid the cramped, contaminated streets of downtown Manhattan.
A carpenter on Warren Street was kept busy day and night making cheap coffins of plain pine boards. He would send two boys out with a light hand wagon on which three or four coffins were carried, to sell them in the streets. Stopping at the street corners the boys would cry, "Coffins! Coffins of all sizes!" Still most people could not afford the four dollars asked for a coffin. Every night the dead cart carried corpses to be thrown into the pits of Potter's Field.
James Hardie's account of the 1798 epidemic
Yellow fever epidemics recurred throughout the early 1800s: hundreds of afflicted corpses were consigned to the potter's field, and many infected individuals were sent there to die.
By 1822, when yellow fever paid its final visit to the city, New York was looking a lot different than it had in 1795. The population had nearly tripled in size - 125,000 people called New York home. Those who had moved northwards during the early epidemics to avoid the cramped streets of lower Manhattan set the trend for the next several decades to come, establishing Greenwich Village as a healthy safe haven for those who could afford it.
(AT RIGHT: JAMES HARDIE ILLUSTRATES THE NORTHWARD MIGRATION RESULTING FROM THE EPIDEMIC)
That year, New York ramped up its efforts to contain the disease: a pamphlet entitled Documents and Facts, Showing the Fatal Effects of Interment in Populous Cities was published, attributing the epidemics in large part to the graveyard at Trinity Church (around which the bulk of the yellow fever cases had been found). Trinity had served as the city's primary burial ground since 1698, and "contained almost 120,000 bodies, some in graves less than 2 feet deep. The stench of decay was obvious for blocks around." In response, the Board of Health banned future burials in the cemetery, which, of course, made for a significant increase in the number of bodies anonymously interred in the potter's field.
By the year's end, the potter's field had been filled to capacity. The new residents of the surrounding neighborhoods balked at having to live in such close proximity to a public gravesite, especially considering the social status of the majority of those interred there.
In 1825, New York leveled the overflowing burial ground and relocated the potter's field to what is now Bryant Park. Washington Square was transformed into a military parade ground (ABOVE: THE 7TH REGIMENT ON REVIEW IN 1851), Greenwich Village quickly became one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in the city, and the Square's unsavory origins were soon forgotten.
...UNTILLLLLLLLL..... (come back
NY Board of Health Secretary James Hardie's Accounts of the Yellow Fever Epidemics in:
Books (thank you Google Books!)