May 24, 2019
If you’re not paying attention, you’ll miss it. Tucked onto a little triangle of land where Broadway crosses Fifth Avenue in NoMad, there stands a 51-foot obelisk, marking a little-known landmark called Worth Square. Between the lush trees of Madison Square Park, the towering Flatiron Building and the surges of traffic at Broadway and Fifth Avenue, there’s a lot these days to distract the eye away from this nearly forgotten piece of New York history. But it is a part of our history, and an interesting bit of history, at that. Let’s explore a few fascinating facts about this NoMad landmark.
Worth Square is an actual grave.
Beneath the obelisk monument of Worth Square lie the remains of General William Jenkins Worth (1794-1849), a decorated war hero recognized for his exploits in the War of 1812, Second Seminole War, and Mexican–American War. (His name is better remembered by his namesake city, Fort Worth, Texas.) His is only one of three private graves on the Isle of Manhattan. The second, and most famous, is Grant’s Tomb in Riverside Park. The third private grave—and the oldest—belongs to a five-year-old boy named St. Claire Pollack who died in 1797. His grave, enclosed by a fence, lies not far from Grant’s Tomb and has somehow survived the city’s ongoing evolution around it.
Worth Square is the second oldest monument in New York City.
The Worth Square monument was erected in 1857. The only older monument is the George Washington equestrian monument, created a year earlier, which sits in Union Square Park.
Worth Square used to dominate the landscape.
When the monument was first erected, the surrounding area was peaceful and serene, and the 51-foot obelisk the tallest object in the near vicinity. Now, thanks to “monumental” growth and development of the city around it, Worth’s grave sits at the busy intersection of two of the world’s most famous streets, and the monument itself is dwarfed by the buildings surrounding it.
No one really knows why General Worth’s grave is here.
Worth was born in Hudson, New York, but he had no notable connection to NYC. Worth was originally buried in Brooklyn, but his body was moved here and the monument dedicated with great fanfare, with many considering the dedication one of the most grand funerals in New York City history. The reasons why he was singled out to be honored with a memorial in the heart of Manhattan, especially when many other war heroes had greater ties to the city, remains a matter of conjecture. One theory is that it was a political favor from Zachary Taylor, who had been Worth’s superior during the Mexican-American War and was President at the time of his death.
General Worth’s legacy is not squeaky clean.
Worth was considered a brilliant war strategist, and some of his tactics are still taught at West Point, where he served as Commandant of the Corps of Cadets.
But he also pioneered some practices that the Geneva Convention would frown upon today, including the deliberate targeting of civilians and the use of starvation as a tool of war.
Whether or not you’re a history buff or war history enthusiast, Worth Square remains today as part of New York’s “hidden history”—one of many little gems tucked into the mosaic of our ever-changing neighborhood. If you’re out and about, perhaps getting ready to enjoy a picnic lunch in Madison Square Park, stop by Worth Square on your way there and take a look.