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Archivist's Angle NYBOO: A History of NYU’s Ghosts and Ghouls

An engraving of the University Building from 1836.

By Claire Ashley Wolford (GSAS '13)

With Halloween around the corner, it’s the perfect time to take a look back at the spooky legends surrounding NYU. Since the University’s founding in 1831, quite a few tales of haunted events at NYU have surfaced in the folklore about the 180-year-old institution. Numerous NYU buildings have been said to have ghosts, and the area of Greenwich Village that the school now occupies has a haunted past all its own.

In the early 1800s, the city purchased the farmland that is now Washington Square Park to create a potter’s field – a mostly anonymous burial ground for the indigent and unknown.  The large plot, which at that time was outside of city limits, also became a mass burial ground for victims of Yellow Fever epidemics. As the city expanded, the area became valuable real estate and the cemetery was closed in 1825. Yet an estimated 20,000 bodies still rest beneath Washington Square. In 1965 Con Edison workers unearthed 25 graves while working on the road to the northeast side of the park.

Adding to the park’s gruesome history is a tall elm tree towards the northwest corner of the park there that was purportedly a hangman’s tree. Though this particular elm is over 300 years old, it is not the tree where at least one recorded hanging took place in 1820. That tree was east of the nearby Minetta Creek and was the execution site for an arsonist who was then buried in the potter’s field.

NYU’s Brown Building, site of the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911.

Despite the massive burial ground below, Washington Square was chosen as the site for NYU’s University Building in 1835. The building became a favorite spot for artists, inventors, and bachelors who lived and socialized in what had become a somewhat bohemian hangout. But an 1894 retrospective on the building noted that there were rumors surrounding one of building’s turrets where a student had supposedly killed himself and his ghost still roamed.  While impossible to trace the origins of the story for sure, it may have come from a novel written by an NYU student who had lived in the University Building. The book, entitled Cecil Dreeme, was written by Theodore Winthrop and takes place in a building clearly modeled after the University Building on a square that stands in for Washington Square. The novel is a classic gothic tale with a scheming villain, a forbidden romance, and a supposed suicide. The ghost stories about the University Building persisted until its destruction in 1894.

Another NYU building that is rumored to host the supernatural is the Brown Building, formerly known as the Asch Building and the site of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.  The fire, which took place on March 25, was a needless and horrific tragedy that killed 146 garment workers, most of them young girls. The building is now NYU’s Brown Building of Science, and the 9th floor, where many of the victims perished, is the Center for Developmental Genetics, where there have been rumors of strange noises and the smell of smoke. While NYU students remain respectful of the tragedy that took place a century ago, for some, it appears, the overwhelming history of the building has created an unsettling atmosphere.

The history of a haunting is a hard thing to pin down. Rooted in informal oral traditions, ghost stories usually have no concrete supporting evidence, but can point to certain moments in history or reflect a community’s memory of a specific place. Even today, legends persist at NYU; this month finds a group of brave undergraduates putting on the supposedly cursed play, The Tragedy of Macbeth. Shakespeare’s famous tragedy about witchcraft and regicide is supposedly so cursed that merely saying the title aloud dooms the entire production. Some legends even claim that Shakespeare used real witches’ spells in his play. The NYU student production will take place on October 29th at 2:00 and 5:00 in Washington Square, rain or shine. Break a leg!

For more information about the upcoming performance of The Tragedy of Macbeth, click here.

 

 

 


For more information about the upcoming performance of The Tragedy of Macbeth, click here.

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