In collaboration with Washington Square Park Conservancy, we present a very special episode all about spooky myths. In the spirit of Halloween, we start the episode off with a spooky story, sure to scare the pants off you. Stick around to the end to hear from historian Sheryl Woodruff, who will separate fact from fiction.
NEVER MISS A BEAT
If you liked this episode and want to hear more, sign up for our weekly digest where we'll announce new episodes from our studio and feature other podcasts, exhibits, and places we love.
At Gesso, we believe the best way to celebrate Halloween is with a spooky, Halloween themed podcast. This Gesso original ghost story involves New York City’s very own Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village.
Named after George Washington, Washington Square Park wasn’t always a place to sit on a nice day and listen to musicians strum guitars or play the trumpet. In fact, the area has a more eerie past. Originally a piece of marsh land near the Indian village of Sapokanikan, the land was purchased in 1797 by the City’s Common Council and was designated as a potter’s field.
What’s a potter’s field? Potter’s fields are burial grounds for those who lack a known identity or are too poor for an official burial. In fact, New York City has historically been home to several potter’s fields and mass graves. Examples in addition to Washington Square Park include Bryant Park, Union Square, and Madison Square Park.
Washington Square Park’s past life as a potter’s field gave way to several myths and legends, including the “Hangman’s Elm” in the park’s northwest corner, which was the source of inspiration for Gesso’s fictional Halloween podcast. Here to clear up any confusion and separate fact from fiction is historian Sheryl Woodruff from the Washington Square Park Conservancy.
Sheryl says that the hardest myth to clarify is the idea that there is a tree from the Revolutionary War era called the Hangman’s Elm in Washington Square Park. She acknowledges that the tree has been there for around 350 years, and it is rumored that General Marquis de Lafayette saw traitors hang from it. However, a lack of primary sources to corroborate these claims makes this statement difficult to verify. Another claim that Sheryl believes to be fiction is the notion that the ghost of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s dog, Fala, haunts the park. While it is true that the Roosevelts had an apartment adjacent to Washington Square Park and that their dog would always follow them around, there is little evidence to make this a historical truth.
The one true fact that Sheryl can share with us is that Washington Square Park is in fact full of bodies. This, Sheryl says, stems from its previous use as a potter’s field. Those who were buried in Washington Square Park were most likely people who couldn’t afford a churchyard burial and those with yellow fever. “It’s estimated that up to 20,000 bodies were buried in the potter’s field from when it opened in 1797 to when it closed in 1825,” says Sheryl. So… next time you walk through the arch in Washington Square Park, remember that this scene of children playing by the fountain and musicians playing for their audience is a stark contrast to the history that lies below. Happy Halloween.
You can listen to Sheryl Woodruff from the Washington Square Park Conservancy in Gesso Media’s episode, The Hangman’s Elm, wherever you get your podcasts and be sure to subscribe to Gesso Media for future releases.
I’m Henna Wang, and you’re listening to Gesso – a podcast about human creativity, and the spaces we live to learn about.
In the spirit of Halloween, we’re bringing you something a little different: a spine-chilling short story based off legends about New York’s Washington Square Park.
Stick around afterwards, and you’ll hear from a historian who will sort out fact from fiction… if you make it that far.
[Music cue: Livio Amato, So Much Love to Give]
It’s twilight in New York. You’re getting colder by the minute.
<SFX: leaves blowing>
A crisp fall day has come to a close. Night brings rich smells and sounds from nearby diners,
<SFX: clattering dishes and laughter>
a cloudy peach-colored sunset, and brutal, gritty gusts of wind.
<SFX: wind gust>
You tighten your scarf around your neck, shivering. It’s bruising weather.
Under florescent street lamps walk throngs of people.
<SFX: feet clattering>
They cast strange shadows. There are mothers clutching wiggling children, teenagers clad in absurdly puffy coats, an elderly man and his walking cane out on a brisk shuffle.
You sidestep bags of garbage and scurrying rats. One of them skitters a little too close to you and you contemplate punting it across the street.
<SFX: squeaking >
The last tints of orange have drained from the sky as you turn up 5th avenue.
<SFX: phone beeps and boops, subway rumbles>
It’s unfortunate that you have to be walking at all. But the N isn’t running and you missed your transfer on the 6 and by the time you figured out the E would be your fastest bet you’d run out of dang swipes.
So here you are. Your phone’s on 1%, and you’re glued to the GoogleMaps screen. It seems like a pretty straight shot once you cross Washington Square Park. Yeah. All you gotta do is get through the park.
<SFX: car ambiance>
Crap. Phone’s dead. You stuff it into your bag, let your eyes adjust to the darkness. You’ve been walking long enough that your footfall starts to sound like a metronome.
<SFX: Step. Step. Step. >
And here you are, stepping through the entrance of the park.
<SFX: change in tone.>
[Music cue: Ai Yamamoto, Walking in depreston]
Man, it’s quiet. Weird, because the street is right there, but you could swear it was louder just a moment ago, outside the entrance. Your ears must be clogged. You always get bad colds every time the seasons change like this.
A young man leans against the garbage can just inside, chewing on a cigar. As you pass by, the two of you eye one another. Wow, his outfit is super weird. Woolen suit jacket, striped pants, and a… bowler hat?! Ok, maybe he’s headed to a late-season costume party, or maybe is just an escaped hipster from Williamsburg. It’s hard to tell the difference around here.
After that dude, it’s empty bench after empty bench. It’s a little unsettling, honestly, how few people there are. Maybe it’s because there are more streetlights out than usual. In the distance, you can see the shadows of people moving, but you can’t really make out anybody’s faces.
<SFX: distant murmurs>
You walk towards them, half an idea in your head to strike up a conversation. Maybe you’ll ask if they also notice the unusual silence of the park this evening. But as you move towards them, they seem to move away in equal measure -- like you and they are magnets with opposing charges.
<SFX: leaves rustling>
Maybe it’s because you’re getting sick, but it feels like time is sludgy and slow right now -- like you’re moving underwater. Above your head, trees stretch heavenward. Their leaves tessellate, creating lacy black shadows.
<SFX: small dog RUFF>
Dead ahead, a small black dog stands in the middle of the path. It’s scruffy, about the size of a fox. It’s pretty cute, with dark, marbled black eyes. You approach it, and it barks at you.
<SFX: continued barking >
<SFX: shh, shh – hey, boy. Where’s your parents?>
Probably belongs to one of these people lurking around the edges of the park, smoking cigarettes or something. It’s a peeve of yours when people don’t leash their dogs.
You approach it gingerly, trying to ignore your throbbing headache. You hold out one hand, dig the other into your pocket for the dog treats you keep on you most days.
<SFX: YELP and running through bushes>
Crap. It’s making a break for it. Before you know it, you’re running too, chasing it. You follow it down the path, crash through bushes and nearly trip while hopping a fence.
<SFX: tripping, blustering noises>
It’s kind of amazing how fast it’s going. A little black shadow. You’re not sure how it seems to streak through the bushes as though there’s nothing there at all.
<SFX: Howl, bark>
Wait, where did it go?! It was right there, just a second ago! You were just chasing it!
You spin around wildly in a circle, but it must have bolted off, or gone to hide in one of the bathrooms. But your eyes were so fixed on it!
<SFX: louder panting>
And now, you realize, you’re completely discombobulated, and out of breath. God, you really are getting sick. You put out a hand on a nearby tree trunk to steady yourself. The bark is so rough it burns, scraping across your skin. What kind of bark is this? Elm?
<SFX: cue eerie music>
[Music cue: Antonio Bizarro, The Dark Room]
Slowly, your gaze traces the trunk of the tree, from eye level thirty feet up, then fifty, then one hundred. As you take in its vastness, you start to feel something churning in the pit of your stomach.
It spreads like a chill, or a fever, over you – down your shoulders, your back, into somewhere deep in your core. You take a second to place the feeling, but then you realize.
Whispering down your spine, sinking to your feet, clenching your organs in its fist one by one. And why? Because of this big tree?
HAT GUY: “It’s the oldest tree in Manhattan.”
You jump about a foot in the air. Standing behind you is that guy with the bowler hat. The little dog is at his feet. He looks really pale. Maybe he’s getting sick too.
“Oh, good,” you say weakly. You want to sound polite, even though you’re suppressing the urge to throw up. “You found your dog.”
HAT GUY: “Oh, he’s not mine. He belongs to the park.”
What? You nod, a hand on your stomach, turning back around to regard the tree.
HAT GUY: “He makes sure the men stay up there.”(Laughs). “I’m kidding. They’re not going anywhere.”
You try and fail to process this. “Sorry. He does what?”
The man smirks. His smile spreads across his face, wider than you thought a smile could go. He looks up at the top of the tree, and says in a loud voice –
HAT GUY: “This kid doesn’t even know.”
You’re feeling sicker and sicker to your stomach. Kind of feverish, too. You think about just pivoting and exiting the park, but every time you try to train your eyes on an exit, it blurs out of focus, and the dread intensifies.
“What don’t I know?” you say loudly. You look up to the top of the tree, half expecting to see someone crouched in its branches, but all that’s there are those strange, swaying leaves. It’s like looking into the depths of the ocean, eddies of water moving deep below the surface.
The young man sighs and turns his face to the streetlight.
It’s in this moment that you notice he has the same eyes as the little dog -- black and marbled and shiny.
HAT GUY: “This tree is over 350 years old and you don’t even know its name.”
You’re mute at this point, your feet rooted to the ground. Your fever is getting unbearable. It’s like you’re trapped in a burning house. You look at him, beseechingly. Just tell me. Just let me go. I want to get out of this conversation.
HAT GUY: “Look. Closer this time. You know what it’s called?”
<SFX: high pitch>
You look up. And suddenly, dizzily, you can’t breathe. Someone -- something -- is grabbing your neck. Your vision is blurring, but those swaying leaves -- they look like -- they look like the shapes of people -- swinging --
HAT GUY: “It’s called the Hangman’s Elm.”
<SFX: high pitch blurs out>
<SFX: coughing, panting. A drum. >
[Music cue: Kai Engel, Dark Alleys]
When you open your eyes, the man has vanished. You’re flat on your back, under the swaying branches, sweating through your jacket, dizzy, nauseous. You stagger to your feet, start running away from the tree. You’re limping. The world is spinning out around you. Your brain thumps against the inside of your skull.
The park is empty as a grave, except for those shadow-figures around the edges. Their voices mutter all around you. Like they’re coming up from under your feet. You’ve got to get out of here. Get out. Get out.
Your fever is blurring out your vision. Your voice is trapped in your throat. Oh god – there’s the arch—yellow-white, flickering. It’s at the opposite end of the park, opening onto the street. You lurch towards it. You’re barely running at this point – more like a crawl -- a lumbering creature, your bag and phone and belongings somewhere far behind.
[Paralytic Insomnia 0:08]
But then a figure blocks the path. And another. And another. It’s the shadow figures. They’re finally convening. They’re a swarm, right in front of you. They’re blocking your way.
<SFX: swarming noise>
The dread is puncturing all your organs now, the sweat coursing down your body, but you stagger ahead, strangely drawn to the figures, wanting to see their faces, maybe they can save you –
And then the shadow crowd parts, and the young man with the bowler hat steps forward, and you see the marbles of his eyes, and you see that he, like you, is drenched in sweat. He points at himself, and then right at you.
HAT MAN: You don’t look well.
The shadow-people are crowding around you, closer and closer. It’s getting hard to breathe.
HAT MAN [whisper]: I think we’re contagious.
And then the man’s face splits open into a smile, and his mouth is crimson. All of a sudden you know. You will never, ever make it to that arch.
This special Halloween story was written and performed by producer Georgia Wright. Stick around for a few words from historian Sheryl Woodruff, Community Development Director at the Washington Square Park Conservancy!
Hi everybody, it’s me, Georgia. I’m back from beyond the grave!
So Washington Square Park has seen a lot. The park is almost 200 years old, but its land has a longer history. The ghost story you just heard was inspired by some of the legends and myths that are whispered from New Yorker to New Yorker about the park. But what’s the real truth? I sat down with historian Sheryl Woodruff, of the Washington Square Park Conservancy, to find out the answer.
Legend #1: There’s a tree in the park called the Hangman’s Elm, because it used to be the site of public hangings in the Revolutionary War Era.
SHERYL: That’s the one that’s the hardest to pinpoint, the tree has been there about 350 years, so the Marquis de Lafayette was a general along with George Washington during the Revolutionary War, the end, it is rumoured that he saw 20 traitors hang on the tree. I’ve never actually seen it written in any of the diaries or journals that he was here, so that makes it hard to say. It’s possible, but we just don’t know.
GEORGIA: Legend #2: Washington Square Park is full of bodies.
SHERYL: Ok, so this relates to Washington Square Park’s previous history as a potter’s field. Before it was a park, it, parts of the current land that are the park were used to bury those who couldn’t afford to be buried in a churchyard, as well as victims of yellow fever. It’s estimated that up to 20,000 bodies were buried in the potter’s field from when it opened in 1797 to when it closed in 1825.
GEORGIA: So, this one’s a fact. When you walk through Washington Square Park, you’re walking on the graves of over 20,000 people.
Legend #3: The ghost of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s dog, Fala, haunts the park.
SHERYL: There is some reasoning behind this. So Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt had an apartment right across from the park, from 1943 to 1949. 29 Washington Square West. So really on the right opposite the English Elm. So apparently Fala would go with the president and then after he died in 1945 with Eleanor, wherever they went. So I think that’s where the myth springs from, now, Fala was actually buried at Hyde Park -- my guess is he would haunt Hyde Park area as opposed to Washington Square, but I don’t know, maybe he ran into another dog that barked at him or something.
GEORGIA: Okay, this one’s obviously fiction. I mean, I guess it can’t be proven false, but it has no grounding in the real history of the Roosevelts. Honestly, a ghost dog sounds kind of cute to me.
Oh, and one more fact about the park I hadn’t bargained for…
SHERYL: There’s actually documented grave robbings from when Washington Square was a potter’s field. There’s the story of a young gentleman who was caught trying to steal bodies. He was a medical student, and he was convicted.
And there you have it. The next time you walk through Washington Square Park, you’re technically walking on the graves of thousands. So… you might wanna watch your back after the sun sets.
OUTRO: This interview featured Sheryl Woodruff, Community Development Director at the Washington Square Park conservancy. Special thanks to Grace Harman, also of the conservancy, whose article about park legends inspired this episode, and to Michael Reynolds, who made his voice acting debut.
This podcast was produced for Gesso Media by Georgia Wright.
For more stories about places, download our app, Gesso Experiences, or look for us wherever you get your podcasts.
Gesso | Primer