September 310, 1998
by Gwen Shaffer
The remains of at least 15 bodies have been discovered in Washington Square Park since spring. Surprisingly, the findings never made it into the daily papers or the six o'clock news.
Perhaps that's because the dead aren't victims of a crazed serial killer. In fact, they belong to Revolutionary War soldiers, as well as poor people who couldn't afford private plots, buried during the 18th century when the park served as a mass gravesite.
The old cliché "Sticks and stones may break my bones" is taking on new meaning for construction workers replacing the crumbling walkways in Washington Square Park. Each time they dig their shovels into the ground, workers must make sure they don't plow into the remains of any of the thousands of bodies buried in the square between 1705 and 1795. That's when City Council shut down the square as a burial ground and ordered trees be planted and public walks be installed.
Any bones encountered by construction workers may not be moved. An archeologistcontracted by the Fairmount Park Commissionis testing the bones for age and sex data, as well as cause of death. It is impossible, however, to determine precisely how long the bones have been buried.
Four months into the renovations, Washington Square is a swatch of freshly overturned dirt, piles of stone slabs and scattered dump trucks. Even on a fast-track schedule, the job won't be complete until July 2000. Sitting in a trailer smack dab in the midst of the debris, usually holding a cell phone up to his ear, is Reggie Corbin.
Corbin, the construction site engineer, initially ducks questions concerning the skeletal remains. Corbin says he has evaded snooping reporters who have come around asking questions. When people hear the phrase "dead bodies," he says, they immediately think of homicide. "I'm cautious as to not project the wrong image."
The city's tourism bureau appreciates it, no doubt. But inquiring minds want to know, Reg, what have your men dug up?
What is now known as Washington Square was originally a "potter's field," where the poor and working class were buried. Members of churches and elite social organizations were buried in private plots.
Now that the park is being ripped apart so that a new stone walkway, drainage system, electrical wiring and benches may be put in, construction workers are resurrecting history that has been, well, long buried.
Corbin says workers digging trenches for a new drainage system in the park have uncovered bone fragments from at least 15 individuals. Typically, they were discovered about 4 feet deep. The bones may belong to more than 15 people, but since they are not intact, it is difficult to determine. "We might find a skull or a fractured foot, or the lower portion of a leg," Corbin says. The bones could belong to all one person, or to two or three people, he says, noting that the bodies may have been damaged during previous excavations in the park.
Nearly all of the recently discovered bodies were buried without clothing, strongly suggesting they were American and British soldiers who fought during the Revolutionary War. "These were poor rebels," Corbin points out. "If you died of a disease or were killed, your gun and clothes were immediately taken so others could use them."
Mass burials also took place in the square during the Yellow Fever epidemic that swept through Philadelphia in 1793.
One body was found in a casket and wearing clothing, and is believed to have belonged to a teenage girl who was apparently among the "potters" buried in Washington Square. Archeologists have also identified a cranial fragment belonging to a 4- or 5-year-old child.
Thousands of American prisoners of war who died during the British occupation of Philadelphia, from October 1777 to June 1778, were buried in the squarethe Walnut Jail was on the corner of Sixth and Walnut Streets. Bodies were dumped in pits, about 20 by 30 square feet wide, dug along the boundary of Walnut and Seventh Streets. Coffins were unceremoniously piled atop one another until the trenches swelled. Trenches were also dug along the entire southern border of the square, according to a site plan at the National Park Service.
Eventually, soldiers were dying faster than coffins could be built. At that point, bodies were flung into the pits wrapped in a blanket or sheetor, sometimes, nothing at all. On April 13, 1777, future President John Adams described to his wife, Abigail, the horrible scene of soldiers' bodies tossed, en masse, into Washington Square:
"I have spent an hour, this morning, in the congregation of the dead. I took a walk into the Potters Field, a burying ground between the new stone prison, and the hospital, and I never in my whole life was affected with so much melancholy. The graves of the soldiers, who have been buried, in this ground, from the hospital and bettering house, during the course of the last summer, fall and winter, dead of the small pox, and camp diseases, are enough to make the heart of stone to melt away.
The sexton told me, that upwards of two thousand soldiers had been buried there, and by the appearance, of the graves, and trenches, it is most probable to me, he speaks within bounds
Disease has destroyed ten men for us, where the sword of the enemy has killed one."
Today, their bodies are historically significant. Whenever construction workers dig deeper than a foot underground, an archeologist must be on site.
"The intent of the project is not to enhance archeological knowledge, but to treat the remains with respect," says Daniel Roberts, vice president of the archeological firm John Milner Associates, which has been contracted to oversee the project.
Although "rudimentary examinations" of the bones have been conducted, little new information can be gleaned beyond determining the age and sex of the bodies, Roberts says.
Make no bones about itconstruction workers in the park don't have it easy.
"It is tough because while we usually only have to concern ourselves with obvious pipes or utilities underground, we gotta look close for skeletons that have been buried for 200 years," Corbin says. "We do more scraping than digging."
In addition to human remains, construction workers have uncovered various artifacts, such as cups, plates and bottles. "We've found dishes ranging from fancy china to plain clay," Corbin says.
However, the artifacts have little scientific value since many of them were found amid rubble that was dumped along the north edge of the park following a big fire sometime during the early 1800s. Trash was also sporadically dumped in the park and used as "fill."
"The artifacts found in fill are not important because the context of the fill has been disturbed," explains Roberts.
Once the excavation is complete, Dr. Thomas Cristof the archeological firm Kise, Straw & Kolodnerwill produce a written report of the skeletal remains in Washington Square.
Crist commends the Fairmount Park Commission for protecting the decaying bones of Revolutionary War soldiers. "Really, what we're talking about here are American heroes."