Given that much of our focus here at Top Secret Writers is to uncover unbelievable things that lie right under your feet as you go about your daily life, it was a given that during my trip to Philadelphia in May that I would have to make a trip to the Tomb of the Revolutionary Soldier.
I wanted to see the tomb not only because of the important message it holds for all future Americans, but for the fact that the park where it resides – Washington Square Park – is actually a mass grave site that has become one of the most popular and most visited parks in the city.
The history of the square is remarkable and filled with death – many thousands of bodies are buried in the hollowed earth there. Yet, you will find people rolling out blankets for a family picnic, reading under trees, or panhandling the many tourists that pass through. Residents and visitors alike pass through this park by the thousands every day – yet beneath the tranquil atmosphere, the ancient and towering trees and the soothing fountain – lies a history of suffering and death.
This week, I would like to introduce you to the truth about Washington Square Park – a perspective that will hopefully give you a whole new view of the park the next time you decide to visit.
It is Really a Mass Grave
It is shocking to consider the scope of death underneath the green grass and the massive roots of the trees that grow in this park today.
William Penn established the square in 1682 – called Southeast Square at the time. It didn’t take long for the square to fill with bodies – starting in 1704, the people of Philadelphia buried people there for almost a hundred years. The bodies were typically those of strangers that had no family. The bodies were simply buried right under the earth without a coffin and with little or no ceremony.
As those burials led to a vibrant pasture (bodies tend to serve as great fertilizer), by 1766 the grounds (by then a field) became the cow pasture of Jasper Carpenter, who leased the field from the city.
It didn’t take very long for the pasture to revert back to burial ground. By 1776, the bodies of revolutionary soldiers – Washington’s troops – started rolling in. The Army dug massive pits along Walnut Street and 7th Street, and then piled up the coffins of the fallen soldiers – filling the entire hole, approximately 20 feet wide by 30 feet long.
At the time of the burials, the square was known as Potters Field, and it was a place that people of the city recognized as one of loss and mourning – a place that represented many thousands of lives lost to the effort to win freedom and independence for an entire country.
That wouldn’t be the end of the body-dumping in Potter’s Field. The British buried revolutionary prisoners that died in the Walnut Street jail. By 1793, the Yellow Fever claimed many victims, also buried in the field. In 1805, bodies were no longer buried there, but the surrounding community had fallen into disrepair. Who wanted to live so close to the buried, rotting corpses of dead soldiers and disease victims?
From Burial Ground to Park
It took about a decade before the city and the young, free country started to put the city back together – a parallel to the national recovery from the Revolutionary War as well.
The City and its residents created the public walk and began planting trees in 1815. Many of the beautiful old trees – in some cases very rare trees – that you see in the park today are a direct result of that beautification effort.
Potter’s Field was finally renamed to “Washington Square” in 1825. It wasn’t until 1954 that the city finally built a memorial – the Tomb of the Revolutionary Soldier. As shown in the opening photo for this article, the memorial is a statue of George Washintgon himself, facing Independence Hall.
In very large letters above the statue is written: “Freedom is a light for which many men have died in darkness”
I was glad to read additional text on the memorial that made it clear at least not everyone had forgotten the death that lie beneath the picnickers, runners and couples strolling arm-in-arm.
“In unmarked graves within this square lie thousands of unknown soldiers of Washington’s Army who died of wounds and sickness during the Revolutionary War.”
It was a poignant moment for me as I stood there reading the text. A glance at the plaque was no less sobering.
“Beneath this stone rests a soldier of Washington’s army who died to give you liberty.”
I looked up from the plaque, and glanced around the park. How many of these Americans and visitors realized what the park represented? How many knew what lay beneath their feet?
I turned around, and took a snapshot of the fountain and wading pool.
The day was beautiful, and there were families sitting near the pool, resting during their tour of the old city. I glanced up at the American flag – at half-staff for some reason. I reminded myself to find out why later on in the day (I never did), and then continued my tour of the park, walking back to the corner at 6th and Walnut.
As I walked down one path away from 6th Street and back toward the center of the park, to my left I spotted another family having a picnic in the shade of a rather large, old tree.
Closer to me and slightly to the left, I spotted an odd-looking stone sticking out of the ground. If I hadn’t been looking for signs of the park’s history of death, I probably wouldn’t have thought much about it. However, it looked just enough like a grave stone to warrant a stroll off the paved path and a closer look.
Sure enough, there was a small bronze plaque embedded into the small, worn gravestone. The plaque was completely blank, worn down bare over decades of exposure to the elements.
My visit took place during mid-day, around 2pm. I observed most visitors sticking to the well-traveled, paved pathways throughout the park. There were people – both tourists and the city’s homeless – sitting in the benches.
There were plenty of people doing what people do in most city parks, a father and son tossing a frisbee, a young mother letting her toddler daughter take her first steps, and a jogger dashing by on her way from one corner of the park to the other.
I was surprised that, given the large number of people crowding the sidewalks of this busy city, I was actually able to capture areas of the park that were isolated and relatively quiet.
Other than the occasional stone that could have been a gravestone, but not quite, I couldn’t find many other clues that betrayed the true history of the park. One thing that’s for certain is that even this far into the future, the soil is rich and the foliage that grows in the park is vibrant.
As I made my way from one end of Washington Park to the other, I couldn’t help but admire the age of some of the trees there. There were certainly many trees that were planted in more recent times, but occasionally you’ll come across a massive tree that is clearly quite old. I captured as many of them on film as I could, but the pictures just did not do justice for the beauty of these trees.
If only trees could talk – the stories I am sure they could tell.
While most visitors to Washington Square would tour the park by exploring the buildings along the peripheral, I was anxious to study the park from within.
I was interested in a few of the buildings along the outer streets, which I will write about another time, but for this visit, I wanted to focus upon the ground inside this burial ground. I wanted to walk with the spirits of our nation’s freedom-fighters, even amid a bustling city filled with tourists, restaurants and busy city streets.
As I walked through the park, overshadowed by the towering modern buildings, I could feel the melancholy of the place. I could still feel what John Adams described in 1777 when he wrote:
“I have spent an hour this morning in the Congregation of the dead. I took a walk into the ‘Potter’s 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.”
I also spent an hour in the “Congregation of the dead.” I did not have the ability to see the trenches or freshly disturbed earth as Adams did, but like him, I could feel the presence of the past bearing down upon me. I could feel the dark history buried beneath the bleached stone pathways and carefully manicured lawn.
I was also affected with so much melancholy, but even more so – I was affected by the blissful ignorance of others in the park, by the lack of reflection in their behavior, and by the realization that as a nation, we may be losing touch with the hard lessons of our difficult past.