One of the best ways to truly experience New York City is to the explore the many neighborhoods as if they were a living museum. As you wander through these areas, you will discover that each is defined by their personality and layers of history lend themselves to tales of the past, some of them harrowing. Earlier this week, my son and I coupled with another family signed up for the New York Ghost Tours for a fun way to learn about the history of Greenwich Village, which is also known as New York City’s most haunted neighborhood.
Washington Square Park
We met our tour guide Meg who wore a Victorian dress holding a lantern under the Washington Square arch about thirty minutes after sunset. Meg began the tour telling us the haunted history of Washington Square Park. My initial image of the park, which consisted of students from NYU, chess players and street performers buzzing around on a summer day faded upon learning that the park once was a Potter’s Field. A potter’s field is a place where people buried unknown or indigent. Twenty thousand bodies rest under the park, many of them slaves and victims of the 19th-century yellow fever epidemic. During the American Revolution, a military parade ground was established over the potter’s field and as cannons were dragged across the ground, fragments of bones rose. During the building of the arch for the centennial of George Washington’s inauguration and when centering the fountain bone were found. Even today remnants of the past surface during construction in the park. In fact, as recently as 2009, construction workers found a headstone from 1799. According to Meg, bones are not the only link to the park’s past. She claimed that many visitors had seen some of the spirits that rise from below.
Another spooky tale is that a silent witness to the history of the park sits at the northeast corner. Hangman’s Elm is the oldest tree in New York City and is 334 years old. Legend-lovers believe that public hangings took place under this particular tree; however, historians state that no public records of hangings exist.
The Brown Building
After hearing many ghost stories in the park, we ventured to the adjacent streets to learn more harrowing tales. One of the saddest revolved around what is now known as the Brown Building, which is part of the NYU campus. Back in 1911 The Triangle Waist Company which produced women’s blouses occupied the eighth, ninth and tenth floor. To prevent workers from taking breaks, the owners would lock the doors. A fire broke out at the end of the work day on March 25th after an employee put out a cigarette in the highly flammable work environment. With no audible alarms, evacuation plans, and deteriorating fire escapes, 141 people died, many of them forced to jump to their death. Many laws and fire codes resulted from this horrific tragedy. Today occupant of this building has said that they have heard moans from spirits on the top floor often around the anniversary of the fire.
The House of Death
A couple of blocks north of the park on West 10th Street, a Greek Revival brownstone is known as the “House of Death.” People claim that there have been 22 deaths in this home and all 22 spirits haunt this house, including Mark Twain who lived in the home from 1900 to 1901. The home also has another weird reason why it is known as the “House of Death.” It was the home where Joel Steinberg beat his six-year-old daughter on the second floor in 1987. Today this is still considered one of the most shocking murders in the city’s history.
Former Fire Patrol #2
Fire Patrol Station #2 on West 3rd Street is now the current residence of Anderson Cooper, but in 1930 it was the scene of suicide. Firefighter Schwartz has hanged himself from the ceiling rafters in the attic after discovering his wife had cheated on him. Former firefighters have reported having not only to have heard strange noises but to have also seen the shape of Schwartz suspended in mid-air.
Meg shared many other ghost stories that included Edgar Allan Poe, Samuel Morse, and John Barrymore. The whole evening was one captivating ghost story after another, but it was the history behind the tales that made the night memorable and entertaining. After hearing some of the scary stories, I will never associate Washington Square Park with the scene where Harry drops off Sally in front of the arch again. Instead, I might walk around the perimeter of the park to stay clear of the spirits resting below!