The Creepiest Playground in Inwood’s History

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1925 Photo of George Hadley’s Grave

Not long ago, a descendant of George W. Hadley contacted me.  She was working on her family tree and had seen her ancestor’s name in a post on this website.  I told her that George Hadley had been buried in an old cemetery on 212th Street east of Broadway, but that the graves had all been moved to a plot in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. About a year earlier I made a trip to Woodlawn to see the monument to Inwood’s founding fathers. I even sent her a photograph of the new marker bearing Hadley’s name.   Still, I was curious and did a bit more digging. What I discovered was a scene right out of Poltergeist; with children using the burial site as a playground. What follows is a report from a 1921 edition of the New York Evening Post that might not be for the faint of heart.

New York Evening Post Headline, June 21, 1924

The text of the article reads: “A graveyard for a playground! Children romping over age-worn tombstones and digging up for their playthings the skulls and crossbones of the early settlers.

This situation, condoned by mothers in the Inwood section because “there is no other place for them to play” came to light today on 212th Street.

The graveyard is the old Nagle burial ground. Once in its soft sandy soil under marble tombstones were buried such aristocrats as the Vermilyeas, Sages, Chapmans and Hadleys, pioneers of north Manhattan. Today these stones may still be found, some bearing dates as far back as 1814. Some are under tangled masses of underbrush. Others form hobby-horses for restless youngsters.

Skulls Carried on Parade

There is no definite information on the point of the number of pioneers who still are buried in the cemetery. Recently, for instance, some of the bones were carried “on parade.” Children had unearthed them, put them atop rude poles and were holding a ghastly saraband of their own.

This spectacle so aroused Arthus Coleman, janitor of a nearby apartment in which sixty-six children live, that he telephoned the Health Department to determine what could be done about it.

“It’s not in our jurisdiction,” came a voice at the other end, according to his recollection. And then the receiver clicked, indicating the complaint wasn’t wanted in tat city department.

“The children have been playing in the graveyard ever since I can remember,” said Mr. Coleman today. “Sometimes the policeman on the beat chases them out, but they go right back the next day.

“When the children aren’t in there, the mothers are, hanging up clothes.  I don’t know who owns it, but I understand it is owned privately. I understand that some of the best old families in this section are buried there.”

The Real Estate Directory of Manhattan lists the property as belonging, since 1878, to Jane V. Claflin et al., Westport, Mass.

Among the tombstones decipherable today are the following:  Robert B. Chapman, died 1865; Eliza Titus Chapman, died 1869, Jacob Vermilyea, died 1828; Rebecca Vermilyea, died 1828, Joanna, wife of Gardner A. Sage, died 1842; Emily, wife of William H. Sage, died 1844, Joseph Clement, died 1814,  Christiana, wife of Robert W. Chapman, died 1867, George W, Hadley, died 1859 at eighty-one years old; and Mary, wife of George W. Hadley, died in 1880 in her one-hundreth year.

New York Evening Post, June 21, 1924

Bones Thrown Into River

The names mean nothing to the children who were found there at play today.

“Wait’ll we get some bones,” said one of the boys who were plating there.  “The men took away some and throw ’em in the dump near the Harlem River. Pleanty of bones, though.  I’ll get a shovel and we’ll dig some.”  His enthusiasm subdued only when hs suggestion was refused.

“Oh, c’mon, let’s,” another, even younger boy pleaded.  “It’s a cinch, mister.”  Deep holes in the ground indicated other demonstrations had been given.

A group of girls about the same age seemed willing to participate.  the children joined in the search for bones that might be on the surface, scurrying through a maze of quilts, towels, and clothing which waved little majesty over the dignified tombstones.

Mothers of the neighborhood know of no way to stop the procedure.

“It isn’t very nice, is it?” said Mrs. Thomas E. Alwaise, mother of three, whose apartment overlooks the plot. “But there isn’t any other place near here except the dangerous street and the dump lots.  They’ve been playing there six years that I know of  and nobody pays any attention to it unless they dig up skulls.  Then they get spanked–some of them.  Thank goodness, mine are too young to dig,”

Mrs. F.J. Handechuch, another mother of two, who lives near the graveyard, said:

“Why it’s been going on for years.  The police pay no attention if they don’t catch the children parading with skulls on sticks. Only the other night my husband went out and stopped the boys from digging up a grave over there,” she said, pointing to a spot not fifteen feet from her sitting room window.  “He didn’t like the idea of digging up graves and, besides, he didn’t want them to leave such a deep hole for the smaller children to fall into.”

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1 COMMENT

  1. […] If current Inwood residents were transported back to the 1930’s they might find the area a bit strange, if not spooky.  Ramshackle homes and ancient mansions stood next to newly constructed apartment houses.  An “Indian Princess” held court beneath a dying tulip tree in Inwood Hill Park.   The hulking remains of long abandoned asylums still lined the ridge of Inwood Hill.  Children, lacking playgrounds, found entertainment in condemned cemeteries. […]

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