Paula S. Lemire, July 2017

In 1868, the City of Albany removed “the neglected dead” from the State Street Burying Ground. The mass disinterment was a step towards the creation of Washington Park. The old Burying Ground had been in use from around 1800 until it was closed by law in 1867 “for the keeping, burial or deposit of human remains.” Prior to the closure, new burials there had dramatically declined with most new interments now taking place at newer cemeteries like the Rural and its later neighbor, St. Agnes.

Before the Common Council contracted one A.J. Phillips to exhume and relocate the remains from the Burying Grounds, some families had privately removed the graves of loved ones to new plots at Albany Rural Cemetery.

But just how many graves were removed to make way for Washington Park?

Almost all modern accounts of the Park's sepulchral past cite a figure of 40,000 bodies, but I have long suspected that total was far too high.

What might be the first reference to a total of 40,000 comes from the Albany Chronicles compiled by city historian Cuyler Reynolds. The Chronicles were published in 1906, nearly forty years after the mass disinterment. The total appears twice in the volume, once in a photograph caption and once in an entry which reads, “Rural cemetery interments number 78,081 (40,000 of which were brought from burial-ground, site of Washington park).”
The source Reynolds used for this figure is unknown. Reynolds' Chronicles is a valuable resource, but it is not without errors. It's possible that the figure “40,000” was the result of a mistake in transcribing an older, handwritten source.
Whatever the origin of the number, the figure has been repeated many times over the years. A 1951 “pictorial review” on the history of Washington Park by C.R. Roseberry mentions “in order for Washington Park to serve the living, 40,000 dead people had to be moved elsewhere.” Presumably, such articles were written using Reynolds' Chronicles as a source.

In more recent times, various mainstream media, official sites, blogs have referenced the 40,000 graves that once occupied the popular park. 

A few examples:

albany.orgWashington Park was originally a cemetery, the State Street burial grounds. When Washington Park was designed, approximately 40,000 bodies had to be transferred to the Albany Rural Cemetery in the 1840's.

wgna.comThat’s right, our beloved Washington Park used to be a cemetery. In fact, it was a HUGE cemetery....After decades of decline, the State Street Burying Ground was officially deemed an unacceptable space for a cemetery. Soon after, as many as 40,000 graves were exhumed and displaced to the Albany Rural Cemetery.

bellamorte.netFollowing the establishment of the cemetery, over 40,000 bodies were transferred from the State Street Burial Ground – the site of modern-day Albany’s Washington Park.

However, I recently had a chance to read and transcribe a very interesting document in the library at the Albany Institute of History and Art which finally contradicts the 40,000 figure.
The Report of The Committee On Removal of Old Cemeteries In Albany – 1868 contains some very interesting contemporary details on the special committee tasked “to disinter, remove, and reinter the remains of the neglected dead.”

Mostly notably, it includes the following observation on the number of graves to be removed:

Your committee, from what they believe to be accurate information, and from their own observation, estimate that the number to be removed will be from 11,000 to 14,000. Basing their calculations on that estimate, your committee have ordered 8,000 boxes in which to deposit the remains to be made. They deemed it advisable not to order a large number than that at present, thinking it safer to be largely under their estimate than to be anything over. The price of each box is one dollar, which your committee think is very reasonable.

In the end, nearly 950 additional boxes must have been ordered as the final cost for boxes was $8947.00 Even allowing for multiple remains in some boxes (it was not unheard of to occasionally place remains together such as a mother and infant or several young siblings), it still would be very unlikely the total could approach 40,000.

Also, the Report specifies the dimensions of the new graves to be opened in the newly purchased “Church Grounds” lot as 2 feet 6 inches by 4 feet or 10 square feet. To accommodate 40,000 graves of this size, a lot of 400,000 square feet or over 9 acres. Yet the Church Ground lot purchased to receive the “neglected dead” measures only an acre and a half.

There is also the issue of time. The committee noted that the contractor, A.J. Philips, was averaging removals of 100 to 150 bodies a day. At that rate, it would have taken between 266 and 400 days to complete the transfer. A.J. Philips had begun the process around August 1868 and, by late October, had completed the work. That time frame is much more in keeping with 10,000 to 14,000 graves.

Even if we allow a extremely generous estimate of unmarked graves encountered after the work was begun and include graves we know were removed by families to double the amount of transferred graves, it would only account for a little over half of the supposed 40,000.

The idea of 40,000 bodies formerly occupying what's now one of Albany's most popular public green spaces does have a certain grim flair to it and certainly makes for good copy, but it isn't supported by historical evidence.

See also:

The State Street Burying Grounds, the Church Grounds, and other early cemeteries

The Burying Places

The Garden Gravestone

Jeremiah Field and The Headstone That Was Not Lost

Albany Rural Cemetery - Beyond The Graves on Facebook

The Church Grounds (Section 49) at Albany Rural Cemetery