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Discourse of Disease: A New Historicism Review of

Edgar Allan Poe

February 12, 2015 / elzasteelmane

A Discourse of Disease: New Historicism Review of Edgar Allan Poe

Jessica Warren

History books have long told American children that the early half of the 1800’s were years filled with
growth and wealth. That is the exact ideology that they want you to believe. Edgar Allan Poe’s writings
show a darker, more diseased America than one could believe from their 8th grade Social Studies text book.
Cholera, Tuberculosis, Influenza, Yellow Fever, Diphtheria, Measles, Scarlet Fever name a few, but there is
one disease, that’s only been considered such in more modern day, that was just as equally rampant during
the time of Poe; Addiction. Ever-present themes in Poe’s writing; pallid women, death, spiritualism, and
disease (catalepsy or catatonia); prove that he lived in a time where there was little attention paid to actual
medicine, or hygiene. In Fall of the House of Usher, Lady Madeline “had long baffled the skill of her
physicians. A settled apathy, a gradual wasting away of the person and frequent although transient affections
of a partially cataleptical character, were the unusual diagnosis,” (Thompson, 205) shows how little
physicians of the day actually knew. Catalepsy or Catatonia are not only side effects of schizophrenia,
epilepsy and nervous disorders, but also a severe side effect of cocaine and opiate withdraw. Poe seems
obsessed with this disorder, and it’s mentioned, or at least hinted at in The Premature Burial, Berenice, and
Annabel Lee. Census records from the time show that the major cities Poe lived in, Boston, New York City,
and Baltimore were infested with disease and horrendous hygiene. We know that Poe’s mother died of
Tuberculosis when he was young, as did his brother and his wife in later years. There is speculation that his
biological father too, died of the disease only a short time after his mother. John and Frances Allan, Poe’s
foster parents are speculated to have died of either Tuberculosis or Cholera, which were both rampant
diseases infecting many in major cities. The use of opiate tinctures at the time more than likely helped to
push these diseases to their epidemic statuses, lowering immune systems. More than likely the pale, ghostly
looking living women, the disease, the sickness and death in Poe’s stories is part of the big city life
discourse during the early half of the 1800’s.

Tyson tells us that new historicism is a way to look at literary works with regard to the “spirit of the age,” or
rather, what other motivations were going on at the time period the work was written. Directly quoting her,
“What do the interpretations tell us about the interpreters?” (Tyson 282) is one question that she says a new
historicist would ask about a work. Poe has been studied heavily in the 165 years since his untimely death on
the streets of Baltimore, Maryland, and is the perfect representation of the Dark Romanticism movement
that came from England in the early 1800’s. Looking at him with a new historicism viewpoint sheds some
light on the man himself, even if he’s still left partially in shadow.

Poe experienced loss very early on in his life. His father left the family when he was three, and his mother
passed away, not long after, from Tuberculosis ( There is some sources that say Poe’s
father also had TB and died within days of his mother. These deaths, while probably giving him
abandonment issues, were still not catastrophic for him. He was far too young to take it all in. For his first
three years, he lived in Boston, which used lead and wood pipes to carry water to residences. Also by the
early 1800’s, most of the local water supplies had been fouled by livestock, cemeteries built in or near
watershed areas, latrines and garbage waste from humans (Kempe 9). It’s possible that Poe’s issues with
being sickly most of his life had to do with not only himself being exposed, but his mother also drinking
from water pipes made with lead.

Frances Allan, the woman Poe looked to as a mother figure, after her and her husband had fostered Poe from
the age of three, passed away, more than likely of Tuberculosis or Cholera, while Poe was away in the
military. At the time, Richmond, Virginia was still carrying water from locally sourced wells and springs,
but the same thing was occurring there, as was in Boston, the watersheds were filling up with human and
animal wastes of all kinds and people were getting more and more ill by the day. Much later, John Allan,
Poe’s foster father, would succumb to a long-time illness that was left undetermined, but was more than
likely TB as well.

About this time in history, the late 1820’s and early 30’s, Tuberculosis was considered a working class
disease because it started infecting the higher populated poor areas. Little was known on how TB was
contracted, and most thought it was hereditary. There were points in New York City, Boston, Philadelphia
and Baltimore where the number of people contracting TB was higher than the amount of people who didn’t
have the disease. One source said that it neared 100% of the population, and that 40% of New York City’s
population had already died from TB. (Kempe 12). What’s worse, TB breaks down blood cells in your body,
and you become anemic, and scientific medicine at the time believed that you had to rid the body of the
excess fluids in order to be cured of your disease. Bleeding TB patients often led to their deaths even faster.
These reasons were also why people turned more toward Quackery than scientific medicine. Tinctures of
opiates like Laudanum were sold over-the-counter, and sometimes, even door-to-door. Since it was a pain
reliever, people suffering from TB and other ailments would take these tinctures, more and more frequently,
and essentially become highly addicted to them.

Henry Poe, Edgar’s brother, also died of Tuberculosis, along with his wife Virginia at the age of 24. She
lived quite a while with the disease though, and assuredly, Poe saw her slow decomposition over time. So
many deaths to Tuberculosis, and whatever he saw in the streets, typhoid, malaria, yellow fever, diphtheria,
to name a few, could have led Poe to look at the pale, sickly blue tint to a woman’s skin, which meant she
was probably dying slowly, as an icon of beauty. Or perhaps, in a time of rampant laudanum and cocaine
use, most women actually looked this way. Throughout history, women with pale complexions and almost
translucent skin were seen as gorgeous. And since the Romanticism movement had come to America, I’m
sure that all of these factors had to do with why Poe felt the way he did about pallid women in his stories.

Catalepsy, for example, a disease that is mentioned by Poe in several of his stories, Berenice, The Fall of the
House of Usher, and Premature Burial; other stories elude to the disease but do not state it outright.
Catalepsy, according to the footnote by Thompson, states that catalepsy “is a nervous disorder related to
epilepsy, schizophrenia, and hysteria in which the sufferer falls into a deep, narcotic sleep, has no response
to external stimuli, shows no visible sign of breathing, and is stiff and rigid to the touch.” Lady Madeline
was said to have catalepsy, and true to form, later in the story, she returns from the crypts below the house to
scare the daylights out of everyone. The mention, in the footnote, that catalepsy sufferers fall into a deep,
narcotic sleep, is similar to the overdose symptoms for opiates. Coma, extremely slowed breathing, heart
rate, involuntary twitching, rolling of one eye, memory loss, seizures, depression and anxiety are all
symptoms of morphine abuse, or overdose. It’s quite possible, aside from the obvious catalepsy, Madeline
had TB, suffered with it for a long time, much like Poe’s wife, and was taking heavy amounts of laudanum
in order to deal with the pain.

In Berenice, Poe writes “Disense — a fatal disease — fell like the simoom upon her frame, and even while I
gazed upon her the spirit of change swept over her, pervading her mind, her habits, and her character and, in
a manner the most subtle and terrible, disturbing even the identity of her person!” and a few lines later adds
more to the fact that this first malady is followed by others, including “a species of epilepsy not unfrequently
terminating in trance itself —trance very nearly resembling dissolution, and from which her manner of
recovery was, in most instances, startlingly abrupt” (Thompson 142). The reference made here is to
catalepsy, and the thought that she was dead, when she was only in a “trance.” This story could be in
reference to Poe’s wife Virginia, and her death due to TB, since the narrator Egaeus, is cousins with
Berenice, and they grew up together. A wonder if this doesn’t have a ring of truth to it. Is it possible that
Virginia, much like Berenice, in coming down with the original disease, was given high doses of morphine
to control the pain, and once the disease had subsided, they both went through the withdraw symptoms,
which included the catalepsy?

In Annabel Lee, the quote, “A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling/My beautiful Annabel Lee/ So that her
high-born kinsmen came/ And bore her away from me,/To shut her up in a sepulchre,/ In this kingdom by
the sea” (Thompson, 15-20). My grandmother used to tell me not to stand by windows or doors or I would
catch the cold. I believe, now, she was making reference to getting TB or one of the other diseases that were
part of her early years. (My grandmother was born in 1921.) When a person has Active TB, they experience
uncontrollable chills, and unintentional weight loss, along with the other well known symptoms

To draw this together, and make a conclusive argument to the discourse of disease, Poe lived in a time of
death perpetuated by disease, which could have very well left him with a residual love for the society he
lived in. My belief is that he wasn’t nearly as morbid and dark as people seem to think he is. He seems more
of a product of his society; a working man, living in big cities, not exactly having a substantial amount of
income, surrounded by the truth behind his stories. People around him died, constantly, and more often,
violently. If it wasn’t a gradual wasting away from one of the many epidemic type diseases at the time, it
was from violence on the streets, or even addiction. Several sources that I read stated that Poe got a bad rap
from his first biographer, Rufus Griswold, and that the stories of him being a drunkard aren’t even true
( (Contradictorily, there were other sources that stated Poe was a binge drinker, and when
things became bad in his life, he resorted to days or weeks of drunken debauchery before sobering up and
resuming his life. This second theory sounds more plausible than the one where Poe is constantly drunk, but
then again, most of the great writers throughout history were total drunks.) In using New Historicism we can
show that Poe’s sometimes terrifying works may not have just been tales of horror, but had actual basis in
the era that he lived. What’s more horrifying than reading about someone’s lover dying a slow, tragic death?
Experiencing it firsthand.

Works Cited

Kempe, M. “New England Water Supplies – A Brief History.” Massachusetts Water Resources Authority.
n.d. Web. 6 May. 2014.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The Selected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. G.R.
Thompson. New York: Norton, 2004.

—. “Berenice.” The Selected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. G.R. Thompson. New
York: Norton, 2004.

—. “Annabel Lee.” The Selected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. G.R. Thompson. New
York: Norton, 2004.

“Poe’s Life: Who is Edgar Allan Poe?” The Museum of Edgar Allan Poe. n.d. Web. 6 May. 2014.

Steckelberg, James M. “Diseases and Conditions: Tuberculosis.” The Mayo Clinic. n.d. Web. 5 May. 2014.
The Fall of the House of Humanity:
A New Historicist Criticism of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of
Usher” The media of any culture reflects the dreams, beliefs, and fears of
that particular culture at any time. Literature is said to hold a mirror to
society but the same can be said about television, cinema, or fads of an
epoch. This is especially true about the hidden or suppressed fears of
American culture, especially throughout the mid-nineties to early two
thousands. For example, in the fifties many movies were about monsters
interrupting unsuspecting lovers at the quintessential “make-out point”
warning away teenage sexuality and promiscuity. Similarly, movies made
about aliens and spies in the fifties and sixties spoke of a prevalent fear of
communism. In the last two decades, the supernatural and paranormal has
been popular in movies and literature with a special emphasis put on
vampires and zombies in the past few years.
Because vampires have been summarily humanized, made sympathetic, and
stripped of their fright factor through characters such as Edward Cullen from
the Twilight series, it can only be assumed that zombies are more
frightening in some way. But lumbering, un-sentient, brainless creatures
can’t possibly be frightening enough to be an obsession of a generation;
therefore, there has to be some other factor that accounts for this craze. This
fear, like many others, was found by Edgar Allan Poe in the middle of the
eighteen hundreds initially and this is the fall of civilization. While Edgar
Allan Poe does not write about zombies and the end of humanity outright,
there is one story in particular that carries the components and themes that
make up a good zombie story. “The Fall of the House of Usher,” put simply,
is the story of a sister murdering her brother after being buried alive by him;
however, under the assumption that “The Fall of the House of Usher” is a
story of a disease that turns Madeline Usher into a member of the walking
dead, Poe creates a particular discourse that parallels one that exists today,
almost 2175 years later. Poe realized that what scared people was not simply
an individual’s loss of reason or grip on reality, but also a loss of
civilization, something he hints at in his short story. This fear of the fall of
humanity is reflected in the fascination with zombies that the generation of
today suffers from. Although the zombie apocalypse craze seems to be a
recent development in the human experience, through the motifs of decay
and self-destruction in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” it is found that
death by zombies has been feared for centuries. According to Lois Tyson’s
Critical Theory Today, a discourse is a language created by the society of a
culture in a time or place that “expresses a particular way of understanding
the human experience” (285). A discourse was being described earlier by
bringing attention to the fact that certain eras in the United States of
America were wrought with suppressed fears that were revealed through a
brief look at film genres in those particular time periods. Discourse can
sound a lot like ideology, a term used in many other forms of criticism, and
Tyson admits that the words can be used interchangeably. But Tyson also
clarifies that discourse specifically “draws attention to the role of language
as the vehicle of ideology” (285) and this, put simply, means that a
discourse is an ongoing conversation in a society that can be looked back on
and studied, but never reproduced as the cultural conditions of the time
cannot be wholly replicated.
The discourses of a period, however, are hinted at through the media and
artifacts of the day such as novels, periodicals, and short stories.
Poe’s short stories deal with many historical discourses in his time such as
mental health, industrialization, and the gold rush, but if “The Fall of the
House of Usher” is looked at in a certain way, it could be said that he also
added to (or maybe even started?) the discourse concerning zombiism. Just
perusing through synopses of Poe’s works establishes that Poe was well-
versed in things that go bump in the night and while he had a particular
interest in the decay 3 of the mind, “House of Usher” speaks of a more
physical decay. In Poe’s time, the zombie discourse spoke of a fear of
burying loved ones alive since medicine was not a completely sure science
and illnesses sometimes induced deathlike states that could not be told apart
by actual passing.
The zombie discourse of today is somewhat different. Zombies are the
product of a disease that reanimates bodies after death and causes the primal
creatures to attack and feed on living beings. Instead of the classic zombie
rising out of the grave of the past, this modern zombie is caused by a virus,
such as in AMC’s television show The Walking Deador Max Brooks’ novel
World War Z. This discourse differs from Poe’s century’s discourse because
the generation of today fears more than just the dead rising again; they fear
the dead taking over the world and causing the collapse of all of humanity.
But what makes “The Fall of the House of Usher” a zombie tale? Just like
the ‘lore’ of vampires or werewolves, zombies have specific traits that are
held as canon across all of American pop culture, with some variations in
certain works; “House of Usher” is no different. Whether Poe intended it or
not—and I maintain he did—“The Fall of the House of Usher” is a zombie
story through and through, as it holds true to zombie attributes that are true
of any zombie book, movie, or television show. George Snell, a former
journalist, collects these attributes and condenses them into five specific
traits in his article, “Is Edgar Allan Poe the Grandfather of the Modern
Zombie Story?” First, zombies are mindless, unfeeling living corpses.
Madeline Usher enters Roderick’s room at the climax of the story with
blood on her dress and stands “trembling and reeling,” a characteristic lope
of a mindless zombie (Poe 216). What’s more, Poe also writes that Madeline
utters a “low, moaning cry,” a signature sound of any zombie (216). Second,
zombies eat human flesh and Madeline falls “heavily inward upon the 4
person of her brother and in her violent and now final death-agonies, [bears]
him to the floor a corpse” (216). Sure, Poe doesn’t say explicitly that
Madeline eats her brother, but he leaves enough room in his language to let
the reader wonder what ‘falling heavily’ is and how this action causes
Roderick to die. Third, zombies can be killed by destroying the brain or
lighting them on fire. No one directly defeats the zombies in “House of
Usher,” but the house is swallowed up by a classic Poe maelstrom and that
probably defeats the zombies well-enough (216). Fourth, as mentioned
before, zombies are caused by a plague. Madeline and Roderick Usher are
both ill from the same thing and Poe writes, “the disease of the lady
Madeline had long baffled the skill of her physicians” and the symptoms
include “a gradual wasting away of the person” (205). Roderick is also
described by the narrator as being wan and emaciated (205). This illness
could be an eighteenth century precursor to the accepted zombie disease of
today due to its corpse-like symptoms and being beyond the skill of
physicians. Finally, and most importantly, the zombie is usually associated
with the end of civilization and this is where Poe’s “House of Usher” really
holds true to the zombie discourse of today. Symbolically, the house has
been said to represent the mind and its destruction mirrors the destruction of
Roderick Usher’s own mind. Or, the house itself has been a mirror of itself
and its destruction represents the destruction of self. In a zombie discourse,
the destruction of the house represents the destruction of civilization and this
undercurrent of the fall of humanity is what makes “The Fall of the House of
Usher” frightening. Edgar Allan Poe is exposing a real fear in “House of
Usher” by relating not the collapse into madness but the collapse of
humanity in both the individual and societal sense. Zombiism means, on a
psychological level, a complete abandonment of the ego and superego and
total 5 takeover by the id. Humans, based on principle, fear this primal
creature because the id is something that we try to suppress every single day
of our lives. A zombie apocalypse also generally brings about the fall of
humanity in the sense that it usually hits so quickly and destructively that
there is nothing left of society, culture, or government, which in a well-
structure society like the United States of America is inherently terrifying.
Without society to tell us what to do, what to like, or who to follow, what
are we supposed to do? Poe figured this out long before the first zombie
thriller because the descent into madness is scary, but the fall of civilization
is unthinkably horrific; this, of course, causes the morbid fascination in our
society that we experience today. So how does something that was written
almost two hundred years ago affect a pop cultural craze today? While there
is a sense of disconnect between ourselves and our ancestors, humans have
been the same for centuries. This means that things that Poe wrote centuries
ago can still be applied to lives today. “The Fall of the House of Usher,” like
many of Poe’s works, has motifs of self-destruction and decay that are found
in zombie films and literature today. This isn’t just talking about the literal
self-destruction and decay of the human body because it has a zombie virus,
but the destruction of human society by human hands. This mirroring and
doubling is found in many of Poe’s works with Roderick and Madeline
having a “striking similitude” (Poe 211), or in “William Wilson” where the
title character murders his doppelganger. The topic of most zombie texts is
over humans killing the zombies (and vice versa) and this can be taken as a
killing of the mirror self since the zombies themselves used to be human.
This is found in “House of Usher” when Madeline ultimately kills her
brother (216). This symbolic “self” destruction is a strong theme throughout
“House of Usher” and is found in every zombie text available. 6 The human
mind’s fear of the fall of structure and civilization is repeated again and
again throughout history, but not so potently than by various zombie novels,
shows, and movies, of which “The Fall of the House of Usher” is one.
Reading “House of Usher” as a zombie text allows us to believe that Edgar
Allan Poe understood that while the individual being mad was a frightening
topic in itself, the world around an individual going mad was far worse. This
suppressed fear is mirrored in the perverse obsession the generation of today
has with the zombie apocalypse, because, like Poe, we like to think about
and talk about what scares us the most in some sort of “safe environment,”
such as literature.
New England

New England has more of a shared heritage than other regions of the country. It has played a dominant role
in American history. From the late seventeenth century to the late eighteenth century, New England was the
nation's leader in politics, education, culture, and intellectual thought as well as the country's economic

The cluster of top-ranking universities and colleges in New England—including four of the eight schools of the Ivy
League, as well as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Tufts University, and numerous other elite
colleges and universities—is unequaled by any other region. America's first college, Harvard, was founded at
Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1636 as a church school. Many of the graduates from these schools end up settling in
the region, providing the area with a well-educated populace.


The city recovered after 1800, re-establishing its role as the transportation hub for the New England region
with its network of railroads, and even more important, the intellectual, educational and medical center of
the nation. Along with New York, Boston was the financial center of the United States in the 19th century,
and was especially important in funding railroads nationwide. In the Civil War era, it was the base for many
anti-slavery activities. In the 19th century the city was dominated by an elite known as the Boston Brahmins.
They faced the political challenge coming from Catholic immigrants. The Irish Catholics, typified by the
Kennedy Family, took political control of the city by 1900.

Disasters in the 1700s

A particularly virulent sequence of six smallpox outbreaks took place from 1636 to 1698. In 1721–22, the
most severe epidemic occurred, killing 844 people. Out of a population of 10,500, 5889 caught the disease,
844 (14%) died, and at least 900 fled the city, thereby spreading the virus.[19] Colonists tried to prevent the
spread of smallpox by isolation. For the first time in America inoculation was tried; it causes a mild form of
the disease. Inoculation was itself very controversial because of the threat that the procedure itself could be
fatal to 2% of those who were treated, or otherwise spread the disease. It was introduced by Zabdiel
Boylston and Cotton Mather.[20]

In 1755, Boston endured the largest earthquake ever to hit the Northeastern United States, (estimated at 6.0
to 6.3 on the Richter magnitude scale), called the Cape Ann earthquake. There was some damage to
buildings, but no deaths.[21][22]

The first "Great Fire" of Boston destroyed 349 buildings on March 20, 1760. It was one of many significant
fires fought by the Boston Fire Department.

19th century
Economic and population growth (AND RAILROADS BUILT EVERYWHERE)

Boston was transformed from a relatively small and economically stagnant town in 1780 to a bustling
seaport and cosmopolitan center with a large and highly mobile population by 1800. It had become one of
the world's wealthiest international trading ports, exporting products like rum, fish, salt and tobacco.[40] The
upheaval of the American Revolution, and the British naval blockade that shut down its economy, had
caused a majority of the population to flee the city. From a base of 10,000 in 1780, the population
approached 25,000 by 1800. The abolition of slavery in the state in 1783 gave blacks greater physical
mobility, but their social mobility was slow.[41]
Boston was part of the New England corner of triangular trade, receiving sugar from the Caribbean and
refining it into rum and molasses, partly for export to Europe. Later, confectionery manufacturing would
become another refined product made from similar raw materials. Related companies with facilities in
Boston included the Boston Sugar Refinery (inventors of granulated sugar), Domino Sugar, the Purity
Distilling Company, Necco, Schrafft's, Squirrel Brands (as the predecessor Austin T. Merrill Company of
Roxbury[42]) American Nut and Chocolate (1927)[43] This legacy continued into the 20th century; by 1950,
there were 140 candy companies in Boston.[43] (Others were located in and some moved to nearby
Cambridge.) The Boston Fruit Company began importing tropical fruit from the Caribbean in 1885; it is a
predecessor of United Fruit Company and Chiquita Brands International.

Boston had the status of a town; it was chartered as a city in 1822.[44] The second mayor was Josiah Quincy
III, who undertook infrastructure improvements in roads and sewers, and organized the city's dock area
around the newly erected Faneuil Hall Marketplace, popularly known as Quincy Market. By the mid-19th
century Boston was one of the largest manufacturing centers in the nation, noted for its garment production,
leather goods, and machinery industries. Manufacturing overtook international trade to dominate the local
economy. A network of small rivers bordering the city and connecting it to the surrounding region made for
easy shipment of goods and allowed for a proliferation of mills and factories. The building of the Middlesex
Canal extended this small river network to the larger Merrimack River and its mills, including the Lowell
mills and mills on the Nashua River in New Hampshire. By the 1850s, an even denser network of railroads
(see also List of railroad lines in Massachusetts) facilitated the region's industry and commerce. For
example, in 1851, Eben Jordan and Benjamin L. Marsh opened the Jordan Marsh Department store in
downtown Boston. Thirty years later William Filene opened his own department store across the street,
called Filene's.

Several turnpikes were constructed between cities to aid transportation, especially of cattle and sheep to
markets. A major east-west route, the Worcester Turnpike (now Massachusetts Route 9), was constructed in
1810. Others included the Newburyport Turnpike (now Route 1) and the Salem Lawrence Turnpike (now
Route 114).

Manhattan is still dotted with several interesting historic cemeteries, such as the First Shearith Israel Graveyard at
55-57 St. James Place (pictured below, between 1870-1910). But a great many other burial grounds once existed but
were removed due to new developments. And in several cases they even left the bodies behind!

In the colonial era, the city of New York was mostly confined to the area south of today’s City Hall. As
New York rapidly grew starting in the early 19th century, its population naturally moved up the island.

At the same time, deadly epidemics ravaged the city during various periods, forcing the city to quickly
develop burial grounds and potter’s fields (for unclaimed bodies) on the edge of town. But as what was
considered “the edge of town” moved further north, those burial grounds were suddenly considered valuable
land. In many cases, they exhumed the corpses and turned those spots into well-manicured public parks.

Sometimes, however, they left the bodies where they lay.

Above: In 1831, President James Monroe was buried at New York City Marble Cemetery on Second Street.
His body was later moved. (Courtesy Harper’s Weekly)

Most of these burial plots date from before 1851, when the city passed an ordinance forbidding further
burials below 86th Street. Historical cemeteries (like those at Trinity Church and Old St. Patrick’s) and
land with private vaults (such as the East Village marble cemeteries) were allowed to remain, and unique
exceptions have been made, such as the singular grave of William Jenkins Worth in front of the Flatiron
Houston Street Burial Ground (105-107 East Houston Street)
Approx. 1820s-1848
This remained the principal cemetery for Quakers in New York during a period of incredible prosperity for
New York City, thanks to the opening of Erie Canal and the planned formation of streets and avenue from
the Commissioner’s Plan of 1811.

Today this is the location of Whole Foods supermarket.

In 1848, the bodies were moved again to a private cemetery, where they remain today, located in today’s
Prospect Park. It was in this very cemetery in 1966 that the actor Montgomery Clift was laid to rest.

African Burial Ground

(Modern marker at Duane Street and Elk Street)
For almost one hundred years, starting in the 1690s, New York slaves and black freedmen alike were forced
to bury their friends and loved ones outside the comfort of church and city limits, in an area south of Collect
Pond, New York’s source for fresh drinking water. As many as 20,000 bodies may have been interred here
at one time.

It was a lonely and unprotected area; at one point, in 1788, bodies were even exhumed from here illegally
for medical experiments. New York simply developed over the land in the 19th century, building department
stores, government buildings, even opera houses.

For decades, the area’s original identity went unmarked, until burials were discovered during excavations in
the 1990s. A spectacular monument was built here on one portion of the former burial ground and dedicated
in 2007.

For more information on the African Burial Ground, check out our podcast on the incredible history of this

Washington Square Park

“Where now are asphalt walks, flowers, fountains, the Washington arch, and aristocratic homes, the poor
were once buried by the thousands in nameless graves.” (Kings Handbook of New York, 1893)

This plot was used as a potter’s field during a devastating outbreak of yellow fever. When fashionable New
Yorkers moved from the confines of lower Manhattan to this area of Greenwich Village, the burial ground
was closed for business and a lovely park placed on top of it.

While this might seem truly morbid, in fact the city considered this a preventative and sanitary option.
According to city records, a recommendation was made that “the present burial ground might serve
extremely well for plantations of grove and forest trees, and thereby, instead of remaining receptacles of
putrefying matter and hot beds of miasmata, might be rendered useful and ornamental.”

Of course, in modern times, that “hot bed of miasmata” serves as one of New York’s most bustling and
vibrant outdoor spaces. But the city simply built over the burial ground. It was claimed during the 19th
century that a blue mist could be seen hanging over the park at night, the creepy vapor of the remains

It is believed that over 20,000 people are still buried here. Bodies are routinely uncovered during

If you’d like more information on the history of Washington Square Park, you might like my audio walking
tour, which takes you through the park and around its perimeter.
St. Marks Church-in-the Bowery - Second Burial Ground
1803-around 1851

One of the East Village’s most historic landmarks, St. Marks Church-in-the-Bowery has a very famous
burial area on its immediate land, strewn with the vault markers of famed families, as well as that of New
Amsterdam director-general Peter Stuyvesant. But the congregation owned another burial ground one
block north for less wealthy members of the community. Most notably, many stars of the theater were buried
here, including Stephen Price, impresario of New York’s famed Park Theater.

According to historian Mary French, the land was donated to the church by Peter Stuyvesant IV, with an
unusual stipulation, “ that any of his present or former slaves and their children have the right to be interred
in the burial ground free of charge.”

This yard was closed for several years before St Mark’s finally sold it in 1864, and the bodies were moved
to Cemetery of the Evergreens in Brooklyn and Queens.

Union Square
Probably late 1790s-1815
Potter’s fields — where the poor or unclaimed were buried — moved frequently around the city as land
values improved with the city’s growth. This particular area at 14th Street was once comfortably outside of
town, but its proximity near Bloomingdale Road (the future Broadway) soon required its functions as a
burial plot be transferred to other usable fields, like Washington Square.

The land here was transformed into the elliptical-shaped Union Place, a strolling park surrounded by an iron
fence. By the 1830s, Samuel Ruggles would modify it further into New York’s toniest park, Union Square,
luring the wealthy who quickly built homes of ‘costly magnificence’ around it.

For more on the history of Union Square, check out our podcast history on this fascinating park.

Madison Square Park

The short duration of this burial ground stems from the fact that it was used only to inter those who died at
nearby at the hospital at nearby Belle Vue Farm (today’s Bellevue Hospital) and the local almshouse during
a devastating yellow fever epidemic. Later, with fears of a new war with England looming, the land was
given to the U.S. Army as an arsenal, and the land that was later Washington Square became the official
place to bury the dead.

There’s some evidence to suggest that some of the remains were never moved.

Bryant Park
1823-40 but possibly used as late as 1847
Yet another burial plot for paupers, still further north of city center. Soon however the adjoining land
became an ideal spot to put the Croton Reservoir, supplying the city with drinking water. And, well, it
wouldn’t do to have a bunch of graves next to that, would it? After a duration as the location of the grand
Crystal Palace Exposition, the land was turned into a park, named after editor William Cullen Bryant.

While it’s unclear whether the old potter’s field grants the park any kind of supernatural aura, the New York
Public Library (on the site of the old Reservoir) provides some of the more interesting specters from the
film Ghostbusters.

Park Avenue and 49th Street

In the early 18th century, the area soon to become known as Park Avenue, the richest street in America,
was home to railroad tracks, cattle yards, various grim asylums and, yes, Manhattan’s last potter’s field.
Before Columbia University moved to Washington Heights, it was located here in this area of today’s
Midtown. The campus sat near this unpleasant spot, a potter’s field so shockingly maintained that “the ends
of coffins still protruded from the ground,” according to historian Edward Sandford Martin, “a malodorous
neighbor much in evidence and disrepute.”

In the late 1850s, the city forced the potter’s field off the island entirely, and the bodies were slated for
removal to Ward’s Island (today attached to Randall’s Island). Given municipal corruption and delays,
however, the project took years, with train passengers often greeted with the sight of coffin stacks and grisly
open pits.

Today, that former burial plot is occupied by the Waldorf=Astoria Hotel, built on the property in 1931,
long since transformed by the burial of tracks into Grand Central Terminal.

NOTE: Some of the dates above are estimates, as record keeping for these kinds of things is rather hit and
miss! Many dates are from Carolee Inskeep’s exhaustive survey of old New York burial grounds The
Graveyard Shift.

And if you’re in a Halloween mood, visit our blog and download our latest Halloween-themed podcast,
Early Ghost Stories of Old New York!

As the American frontier pushed westward, migrants from New England transplanted their region’s patterns
of culture and government to new frontiers in the Midwest. The Industrial Revolution successfully invaded
New England in this period, and manufacturing came to dominate the economy. Such products as textiles,
shoes, clocks, and hardware were distributed as far west as the Mississippi River by the itinerant Yankee
peddler. Both before and after the American Civil War, a new labour force from Ireland and eastern Europe
flooded New England’s urban centres, causing an ethnic revolution and forcing the traditional Protestant
religions to share their authority with Roman Catholicism.


Boston in the 19th & 20th Century:

The potato famine in Ireland led to a surge in Irish immigrants in the 1840s, which helped push the
population of Boston close to 100,000 people.

Boston during the Civil War was a tense and sometimes violent place where abolitionists, Irish laborers and
freed slaves clashed over political and social issues.