Park lives up to ‘land of dead’

Two thousand years ago today, the Celts, who occupied much of the United Kingdom, created the day we now know as Halloween. For the Celts, Oct. 31 was the day the worlds between the dead

Two thousand years ago today, the Celts, who occupied much of the United Kingdom, created the day we now know as Halloween.

For the Celts, Oct. 31 was the day the worlds between the dead and the living met, and the ghosts of the dead were allowed to return to earth.

In honor of the Celts, I thought I would venture to a place most would not expect to be haunted – Washington Square Park.Many may have strolled through the park on a romantic date, or may just have walked through it on their way home everyday.

Washington Square Park is considered one of the nicest areas in Philadelphia, so what in the world could possibly be haunting it?In a short, Washington Square Park is Philadelphia’s “Land of The Dead.”

From 1704 to 1794 the land was used as “potter’s field” – a mass grave for people who had little money. Many Revolutionary soldiers have been buried there, and during the outbreak of yellow fever in 1794, more than 5,000 people were placed under the very landscape that exists today.

My goal for this project was to visit the park late in the evening – when the sun is gone, the homeless are sleeping and the streets are completely quiet. It was cool autumn night on Oct. 26. Once I entered the park, I felt rather comfortable.

The glowing street lights and changing leaves made it one of the more peaceful sites I have visited since I began my investigations. But as I walked, I began to think about the things I’ve heard – the stories of the female ghost who roams the park watching over the dead.

Some have seen her wandering through the park, while others say she has approached them and then disappeared. Would I run into her on this beautiful fall night? I sure hoped so, if not a physical sighting, then at least a sign from her.

The park was deathly quiet. Unlike most city parks where homeless folks are snuggled onto park benches, this one was relatively empty. Was this because of its past? Maybe it’s just really uncomfortable, or does something else keep them out? Who knows for sure? All I could envision as I walked through the paths was a stream of the dead walking with me, sitting on the benches and watching me invade their territory.

At one point I heard fast footsteps behind me. When I turned around there was nothing – absolutely chilling.With no noise and no one casually strolling through, I was sitting all alone in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the rest of the departed.

I scanned the area fearing something would happen, but secretly hoping it would. It was amazing how so many people walk through this park everyday and probably don’t know what lies under their feet.

My biggest question about the park’s haunting is: If there is a ghost keeper then why is she here? Was she merely protecting the dead which lie underground, or does she have some other purpose?

I began to picture what the director of “Night of the Living Dead,” George Romero, would be thinking if he was sitting next to me on the bench. In his eyes, the ground would erupt to life – skeletons and dismembered bodies would crawl out of the ground, hungry for flesh.

I could almost picture the beautiful green grass tearing apart, revealing the shocking and disturbing world which sits underneath Washington Square Park. The next time you are in Old City and decide to walk through the park, don’t forget where you are. As beautiful as it may look, this park has a dark history.

Remember when you are walking through that you are in the world of the living, but what lies beneath you is the land of the dead. Tonight, if those worlds meet, Washington Square Park may just become a George Romero nightmare.

Dan Cappello can be reached at

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