New York City may not be as old as some the cities in Europe, whose catacombs and crypts have become major tourist destinations, but it still boasts a number of places to get spooked if that type of exploration strikes your fancy. While some of these spots are off-limits to the public, others can be easily visited. Some have been known for centuries, and others just discovered in the last few years. And if you haven’t gotten your fill from this article, you can join us on our upcoming tour of the Ghost Stories of the West Village!
1. Catacombs of Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral
Thanks to heavy tourist promotion, the catacombs of Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Nolita have probably become the most well-known around New York City. We recently overheard French tourists on the Roosevelt Island tram desperately trying to explain to locals how they had been to the “basilique” with the catacombs. Nonetheless, a visit to Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral is still worth it for its Godfather connection (as a filming location), its sheep that “lamb”scape, and a visit to the catacombs with crypts, tombs, and more to entertain the morbidly curious.
Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral is also one of the last places you can still be buried in Manhattan – though for a price of about $7 million, if you want a special spot inside the catacombs, less for a spot in an above-ground columbarium in the cemetery.
2. Crypt Below the Church of the Intercession
Tucked away beneath an elegant and striking block in Hamilton Heights, there’s a rarely seen hallowed space carved from rough stone with perfect acoustics and history thickly hung from every rafter. Simply known as the Crypt, it is a hidden gem of New York City owned by the Church of the Intercession.
This cemetery and the surrounding blocks served as the home base for John James Audubon, the naturalist and artist known for his work in ornithology (the study of birds). In the 1920s, cemetery space in the city was scarce and in high demand. To accommodate for this, the crypt’s walls were prepared to hold cremated remains and with that it became the first church in the U.S. to have its own columbarium (a building with niches for storing funeral urns). Today, you can actually take in jazz concerts amidst those buried!
3. Trinity Church Burial Vaults
Below Trinity Church is the vault of the Bleecker family which exists from before the current structure’s existence. Burials for the family took place in this vault from 1791 to 1884. In 1981, Richard Bleecker, a descendant of the Bleecker family asked to visit the vaults, which was one of the first requests in decades. Officials were not even positive any burial vaults were still accessible.
It took until the year 2000 to actually visit, and then a few years later, the vault was “desecrated” by workers, according to another Bleecker family descendent who wrote of the story on CNN. He writes, “workers who had been allowed in to fix a wall and upgrade the ventilating system had apparently destroyed the remaining coffins, pushing human remains and brass plates to one side and leaving bones and teeth exposed.” This went unnoticed until 2014 when Richard Bleecker asked to return, upon which Trinity Church restored the vault and rebuilt the entrance. A ceremony inside the church reconsecrated the vault.
Meanwhile, other artifacts have been found under Trinity Church as well, including old bottles, battery oil and more. Not quite the buried treasure from the well-known caper National Treasure with Nicholas Cage but perhaps more historic.
4. Green-Wood Cemetery Catacombs
The catacombs of the Green-Wood Cemetery are opened only a few times a year to the public, for guided tours of the mysterious underground and for concerts. Access is gained by using an old-fashioned dungeon-like key, which unlocks the iron gates out front. The staff of Green-Wood cemetery calls the space as “30 Vaults,” a reference to the number of vaults inside.
Located underneath a hill stretching about 150 feet, the catacombs date to the early 1850s, built as a series of family vaults in an area that was once excavated for gravel. Jeff Richman, Green-Wood Cemetery’s historian calls them, a “sort of apartment house for above ground interment…a middle class option for people who wanted the luxury of above ground interment without the expense of constructing something on [their] own.”
The most famous person buried in the catacombs part of Green-Wood cemetery is Ward McAllister, the Gilded Age high society tastemaker who coined the term “The 400” to refer to the exclusive set in New York City that could fit in Mrs. Astor’s ballroom. He was not as wealthy or blue-blooded as those he advised, so burial in the Green-Wood catacombs was a fitting endeavor for someone of his stature. Richman says McAllister would have been “quite chagrined to know that the catacombs are now locked up and access is very limited.”
5. Cathedral of St. John the Divine Crypt
The Cathedral of St. John the Divine is the largest cathedral in the world, but remains unfinished. On the exterior, it shows its unfinished nature through its asymmetrical facade, but inside, until earlier this year when a fire broke out there, the crypt most obviously showed the work that still remains. A Guide to the Cathedral from 1921 posited that it might take 700 years for the Cathedral to be completed, since it was employing true Gothic building methods, but there are no current plans for new construction.
To lay the foundation of the cathedral, the builders had to dig 300 feet down in a project funded by J.P. Morgan. The Guastavinos did the ceiling of the crypt, which is laid out in the shape of a crucifix. Today, that crucifix is truncated due to the unfinished plan. The walkway of the crypt follows the layout above, with studio spaces named after the chapels above. The studios were closed off during our visit in 2014 but there were some renderings available. Isadora Wilkenfeld, the coordinator of the Cathedral’s Programming and Communications, tells us: “The Cathedral has had a long history of artists in residence, and a few of the artists have used the spaces you’re referring to in the crypt. Greg Wyatt, the sculptor who created the Peace Fountain on the south west side of the Cathedral Close, used one as his studio.” Philippe Petit, the World Trade Center tightrope walker, also has a studio here.
In April 2019, a fire broke out in the crypt of the cathedral, destroying and damaging “many paintings, icons and pieces of furniture,” reported the New York Times, an accident that will certainly delay the renovations that had begun for that space in spring 2018.
6. Prison Ship Martyr’s Monument Burial Vault
Standing 149 feet tall in front of a grand 100-step granite staircase, the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument in Fort Greene Park is rarely opened for visitors. But the over 100-year old structure stands on top of the remains of thousands of American prisoners of the Revolutionary War.
The impressive monument is dedicated to the 11,500 men and women who died as prisoners of war during the American Revolution. After winning the Battle of Long Island and control of Fort Putnam, later rebuilt and renamed Fort Greene during the War of 1812 at the site of Fort Greene Park, the British detained thousands of American men and women on prison ships anchored in Wallabout Bay. On the ships, the prisoners experienced overcrowding, contaminated water, starvation and disease. The bodies of those who died were haphazardly buried along the shore.
In 1808 the remains of those prisoners were relocated to a more proper burial site inside a tomb on Jackson Street near the Brooklyn Navy Yard. In 1873 the remains were relocated once again and brought to Fort Greene Park, known at the time as Washington Park. Encased in twenty-two boxes, only a portion of the remains were brought over to the park and interred in a 25×11 foot brick vault. Washington Park was a newly designated public space designed by landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the same men who designed Central Park and Prospect Park.
7. Washington Square Park Vaults
Photo by Chrysalis Architecture
Washington Square Park is already rather ghoulish, with its prior history as a potter’s field – the city’s burial ground for the unclaimed and poor. In 2015 two burial vaults were discovered with human remains just east of the park by workers on a water main project that’s part of the NYC Department of Design and Construction (DDC).
The DDC, in partnership with The Landmarks Preservation Commission and Chrysalis Archaeological Consultants, assessed the significance of the findings and catalogued the contents without actually disturbing the vaults. In addition to the vault entrance, human skeletal remains of a dozen people were found in the first vault. Both vaults are 8 feet deep, 15 feet wide and 20 feet long. They believe the vault dates to the 19th century and are likely related to the former Cedar Street Presbyterian Church. One vault has been disturbed but another looks intact, said archaeologist Alyssa Loorya of Chrysalis.
8. Crypt of St Patrick’s Cathedral
Entrance to the crypt of St. Patrick Cathedral crypt
A pair of copper doors, just below the altar, lead to the crypt at St. Patrick’s Cathedral along Fifth avenue. The crypt, which is rarely opened to the public, is small and has a “black, speckled floor, light gray marble and fluorescent lighting… [and a] gold prie-dieu, or kneeling prayer desk,” according to The New York Times. The crypt is home to many of New York City’s former Archbishops and Cardinals, including most recently John Cardinal O’Connor and Edward Cardinal Egan. Additionally, Pierre Toussaint, a former slave and philanthropist, is buried in the crypt. Toussaint was originally buried at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral. When Pope John Paul II declared him to be Venerable, a step towards possible canonization, Toussaint was reinterred at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Next, discover 10 more of the spookiest places in NYC.