Friday, February 4, 2011

Washington Square Park

Hangman's Elm - photo by Srosenstock for Wikipedia Commons

Washington Square Park is among the elite of New York City's 1,900 public greens. The ten-acre site, which also serves as the quad of NYU, is a landmark in the Manhattan neighborhood of Greenwich Village, and a magnet for marchers, the fashionable and the bohemian.

But when the park was dedicated in 1826, its pedigree wasn't all Joe Cool. Its foundations are an old Native American burial grounds, and like many NYC parks, Washington Square was built over a potters field of the graves first of the unwanted and unknown, and later the victims of the yellow fever epidemic of the early 1800s.

It was also the scene of weekend festivities in the mid-eighteenth century, when it was an execution grounds. The crowds would turn out and picnic while the criminals of the era were hung from the elms in the morning and tossed into a common grave in the afternoon.

A legend passed on in many tourist guides says that the large tree at the northwest corner of the park, honored with a plaque specifying it as the "Hangman's Elm," was the old hanging tree.

Unfortunately for the legend, said tree is located on the other side of the now-diverted Minetta Creek, then the dividing line for the execution grounds, and apparently stood in the back garden of a private house during the necktie party days.

Later, it was thought that the park area was used as a formal cemetery, with tombstones and all, for the dearly departed huddled masses. All in all, it's estimated that 15-20,000 bodies lay under the park's greenery and landmark fountain and arch.

So hey, no surprise that the park has become somewhat famous for reports of apparitions walking around the park during the bewitching hours. Some speculate that the spooks are from the poorly buried Potter Field remains, searching for their bones that have been broken and scattered from their shallow graves.

Other stories say that ghostly figures still sway in the breeze from the sturdy branches of the Hangman's Elm late at night (hey, maybe they did hang people in backyards).

The most famous is the ghost of Rose Butler, the last woman hung in Washington Square in 1820. A maid accused of torching her master's house, she was executed for a fire that later investigations showed to be almost surely started accidentally. Her spirit has been seen swinging from the Elm on stormy nights - when else?

Ghost hunters have photos of orbs galore populating the park.

In justice, the karma of the place may be the source of its lore. New says said that “the place just feels haunted.” So one night, after an afternoon of watching street theatre and sipping Starbucks while playing chess, hang out til the midnight hour. Then you'll discover if the spooks are real or not...

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