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10 Surprising Secrets from NYC's Past

Posted on December 02, 2015

Beneath the ever-changing surface of New York City, there are many stories that have been overlooked by the march of time. We spoke with some of the city’s biggest history buffs—including folks from the New York Historical Society, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, and elsewhere—to learn about some of the most interesting bits of Gotham history.


The African Burial Ground National Monument, located near City Hall, memorializes a site where free and enslaved Africans and African-Americans were buried for over a century. After the site closed to burials in 1794, the bones were more or less forgotten about until excavation began on a federal office building in 1991, and shovels began striking skeletons.

Today, there's more to the area than meets the eye. “The African Burial Ground memorial actually marks a very small area of the burial ground,” Young says. “Many of the surrounding buildings were actually built on top of the burial ground in the 19th century, including America’s first department store, owned by A.T. Stewart, at 280 Broadway, which is still there.” (The building, anyway.)

While the site contains the reinterred remains of more than 400 people, some 15,000 men, women, and children are estimated to have been buried in the cemetery’s grounds, which once covered more than 6.6 acres. The memorial itself extends just over a third of an acre—which means there’s still plenty of bodies around.

And this isn't the only recent discovery of human remains in New York. This November, construction workers digging a water main under Washington Square Park discovered a pair of burial vaults dating back to the early 19th century. Dozens of coffins and skeletons, likely belonging to the Cedar Street Presbyterian Church that once stood nearby, were uncovered. Though archeologists are working to learn more about the remains using high-resolution photography, no one will be disturbing the vaults, for a water main or otherwise.


The Statue of Liberty used to be dark brown. For the first two decades after it was erected in 1886, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s masterpiece was the color of the hammered copper "skin" of the statue. Over the years, it naturally turned green as a result of age and harsh weather conditions. By the time color photographs could accurately capture Lady Liberty’s color, she had turned the familiar hue we know today.

Read the other 8 secrets at Mental Floss..

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