A potter’s field is a place for the burial of unknown, unclaimed, or indigent people. The term traces back to biblical times, as it is believed that the first potter’s field was purchased by the high priests of Jerusalem with the coins that Judas Iscariot received for identifying Jesus. They purchased this land for the burial of strangers, criminals, or poor people who could not afford a proper burial. A stigma is associated with burial in a potter’s field, since without a tombstone or record of who was buried, the deceased would not be remembered or have a proper burial.
In Baltimore, Old Potter’s Field was located on the eastern side of the city between Broadway and Orleans Street, where Johns Hopkins Hospital is located now. In the early 1790s, the Baltimore town commissioners were reviewing the streets as part of the negotiations with the State of Maryland for a charter of incorporation as a city. This is when they discovered that the poor had been burying their relatives beneath the town streets. Therefore, it was decided that Baltimore needed a potter’s field. According to the Maryland Historical Trust, the city purchased the piece of land from David Williamson, and the Old Potter’s Field opened on April 15, 1793. In 1801, the Vestry of St. Paul’s Episcopalian Parish purchased five acres from Williamson to establish the Christ Church burial ground. This cemetery was adjacent to the west side of Old Potter’s Field.
On the north side, the Maryland Hospital opened in 1800. Eventually, Old Potter’s Field would extend north and occupy part of the hospital’s grounds. In 1826, the state purchased the hospital and changed its name to the Maryland Hospital for the Insane. According to the Maryland Historical Trust, the asylum moved to Spring Grove near Catonsville, Maryland in 1872. In 1873, Johns Hopkins purchased the property which would become The Johns Hopkins Hospital.
By 1826, Baltimore’s Old Potter’s Field was no longer used as a burial ground and by 1832 the city was renting out the property behind the hospital, including the remainder of the graveyard. There were no burials recorded between 1834 and 1840, so it is likely that a new burial ground for the indigent had been established, as an 1822 plan of the city shows a “potter’s field” northeast of the Old Potter’s Field.