But this week, as park workers dug below Washington Square they revealed his gravestone, a three foot sandstone tablet buried so long ago that it’s a wonder the writing on his headstone is still so clear.
It reads: “Here lies the body of James Jackson, who departed this life the 22nd day of September 1799 aged 28 years native of the county of Kildare Ireland.”
What’s remarkable is that they found a headstone at all; most of the dead in this plot were buried in inexpensive graves or in unmarked wooden boxes, so a headstone is a surprising find.
James Jackson was buried in the pauper’s plot, also called the potter’s field (or public burial ground), which had been purchased by the Common Council of New York two years earlier in 1797. And Jackson’s may well have been a lonely death, because this plot was used mainly for burying unknown or poor people when they died.
Although the cemetery itself was finally closed in 1825, for a quarter of a century it served as the burial place for New Yorkers who had died in the yellow fever epidemics of the early 1800s. They were buried there safely away from the then center of town, as a hygienic measure. It’s quite possible then, given that timeline, that Jackson was himself a victim of the disease.
After the discovery The New York Historical Society identified a James Jackson of 19 East George Street, who was listed in city death records on September 23, 1799. In the record his occupation is listed as a watchman, though another city directory listed him as a grocer.
The headstone, which is in relatively mint condition, was uncovered two and a half feet below ground near the southwest corner during preparation work for the next phase of redevelopment of the park.
Workers dug seven feet below the young Irish immigrant’s gravestone but found no trace of his body, which may have been moved when the area was covered over and developed into parade grounds, before the park itself was finally completed in 1850 (the famous Washington arch was completed in 1892).
To this day, it’s believed that the remains of more than 20,000 bodies rest under Washington Square. It’s certain that in the coming months James Jackson’s story, and his chapter in the history of the city itself, will come more fully to light.