Gothamist has a photo of the recently unearthed WSP tombstone and more information:
About James Jackson, whose stone this is:
The New-York Historical Society believes that he resided at 19 East George Street (the former name of Market Street), and was a watchman and grocer. They say, “There are many fewer Jacksons than I would have expected in the directory. Chances are this is him.” It’s suspected he may have died from yellow fever, which was rampant in the city at the time.
The inscription on the stone, which was just 2 1/2 feet underground, 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.” And while the body hasn’t been found yet (it may have been moved when the area was developed), parks commissioner Adrian Benepe declares: “They’re going to try to unravel the mystery of James Jackson and how the headstone came to be there,” as well as find his body.
Yes, it certainly sounds like yellow fever to me. Someone should have published a necrology, though, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find him there. Young, poor, Irish immigrants were disproportionately represented among the dead during the yellow fever epidemics of the turn of the nineteenth century. Some thought it resulted from intemperance and a heavy meat diet, but it had more to do with living in damp, unsanitary conditions or in the marshy east side, where the mosquitoes that carried the disease were more likely to breed. (It would be another century before people understood that was the case, however.)
It does seem odd for a tombstone to turn up in a potter’s field — especially one this wordy.
A passage from Anna Alice Chapin’s apocrypha-laden Greenwich Village comes to mind:
In 1795 came one of those constantly epidemics of yellow fever which used to devastate early Manhattan; and in 1797 came a worse one. Many bodies were brought from other grounds, and when the scourge of smallpox killed off two thousand persons in one short space, six hundred and sixty seven of them were laid this particular public cemetery. During one bad time the rich as well as the poor brought there, and there were nearly two thousand bodies sleeping in the Potter’s Field.
People who had died from yellow fever were wrapped in great yellow sheets before they were buried,– a curious touch of symbolism in keeping with the fantastic habit of mind which we find everywhere in the early annals of America. Mr E.N. Tailer among others can recall years later seeing the crumbling yellow folds of shrouds uncovered by breaking coffin walls, when the heavy guns placed in the Square sank weightily into the ground and crushed the trench vaults.
It would be interesting to examine, in fancy, those lost and sometimes non-existent headstones of the Field,– that is, to try to tell a few of the tales that cling about those who were buried there. But the task is difficult, and after all, tombstones yield but cheerless reading. That the sleepers in the Potter’s Field very often had not even that shelter of tombstones makes their stories the more elusive and the more melancholy.
She does go on to offer anecdotes about a few of the tombstones that were known to populate the Potter’s Field before Washington Square gentrified in the 1830s.
For more on yellow fever in 1790s New York, you could do a lot worse than read the fifth chapter of this book. (Ahem.) There’s some great stuff on page 204, for instance, which references both the death of large numbers of young Irish in 1795 and later epidemics (the worst that decade being 1798, when 2,000 died; around 500 died along with James Jackson in 1799), as well as the medical rationale for burying yellow fever victims out of town. One physician even lobbied hard to end the practice of Christian burial in the city, especially the vault-style burials at Trinity Church, which he believed were polluting the atmosphere above ground with pestilential miasma and generating the almost annual epidemics.