Digging Hart Island, New York’s 850,000-Corpse Potter’s Field
Doc Searls Weblog 2013-09-23
Visitors to New York’s Orchard Beach (at the top of the photo above) probably don’t know that the low wooded island facing them in Long Island Sound will, at the current rate, top a million buried human bodies in the next few years, if it hasn’t done so already.
The site is Hart Island (aka Hart’s Island), and it is New York’s Potter’s Field: where the city’s unclaimed and indigent dead are buried by inmates employed by the Department of Corrections, which also controls the island. Visitors are not welcome.
I knew nothing about Hart Island until I found myself looking at the picture I shot of the place, above, while seeking information about something else. The stories of the place are fascinating, though bleak. So I compiled a list in a Fargo outline, which I’ve arranged below.
One item I’ll pull out of the list to start with here is The Hart Island Project, by Melinda Hunt (@hartisland) and a team of collaborators. Melinda has been leading a steady effort to open up the island and to humanize and modernize the records kept of persons buried there. Dig:
- Hart Island. An amazing and much-sourced photo essay by The Kingston Lounge: Guerrilla Preservation and Urban Archaeology. Brooklyn and Beyond.
- Melinda Hunt on the Hart Island Project.
- Access to New York’s Potter’s Field. To the Editor of the New York Times, by Melinda Hunt.
- Hart Island: At New York City’s Potter’s Field, Identifying The Dead And Finding Closure. By Ula Ilnytzky in Huffington Post.
- Hart Island Burials In New Online Database; NYC Potter’s Field World’s Largest Municipal-Run Graveyard. By Amy Zimmer in Huffington Post.
- New Yorker helps people track down loved ones who died unknown. On CNN.
- Artist uncovers tales from New York burial island. Adam Geller, Associated Press. (In SFGate.)
- Rapid City woman haunted by Hart Island burial ground. By Mary Garrigan, Rapid City Journal.
- Hart Island Tour June 15, 2000. By The New York Correction History Society.
- Island of the Dead. In Google Sightseeing.
- Abandoned Island That Contains 800,000 Nameless Bodies. Amazing Facts.
- Manhattan in Middle Age. By Elizabeth Gumport in This Recording. It’s about the novelist Dawn Powell, who wrote, “New York is my city because I have an investment I can always draw on â€“ a bottomless investment of twenty-one years (I count the day I was born) of building up an idea of New York â€“ so no matters what happens here I have the rock of my dreams of it that nothing can destroy.” She is buried in Hart Island.
- The Death of Yafna Garcia and Visiting Mille’s Burial Ground. By Chris Arnade Photography (@Chris_Arnade) . Excerpt: “Case #97 of the Bronx Medical Examiner. Cause of Death: Bacterial Endocarditis of tricuspid valve due to intravenous drug abuse. This information had not made it back to either Millieâ€™s family or friends. In early April they still continued to talk of raising money for a funeral. That was not going to happen. Millie was already buried. On March 21, Millieâ€™s body was shipped from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner to City Cemetery on Hart Island. Inmates from Rikers Island placed her body in a wooden box made by other inmates. She was placed in a massive trench (70â€™ x 20â€™ x 6â€™) joining roughly one million others that lay beneath an empty field on a small island two miles from the shores of the Bronx. Many of her siblings do not know she is dead. Those who do know donâ€™t realize they cannot bury Millie on their terms. It is unlikely they will ever be able to pay their last respects. Hart Island is run by the Department of Correction and clouded in security and secrecy. It is close to impossible to visit. Family, after showing many documents, can fill out paperwork and hope. If they are accepted they can only get to the island via a ferry that leaves once a month. Her grave is unmarked: They wouldnâ€™t be able to find it, anyway.
- Hart’s Island. By God’s Acre. Pull-quote: “When I first heard of Hart Island I was both appalled and excited in equal measure to find a place that I had never heard of and which seemed both illicit and intriguing. However, the more I read about Hart Island the more it became for me symptomatic of the anonymity of the Western world. We live and we die before being swept away in the morning like so much trash. The beautiful baby that is momentarily caressed in the arms of its mother is cast aside in later years and is laid to rest like garbage. Hart island is a loathsome and horrid place and somewhere that I expected to find in the genocidal annals of European history rather than in the land of the free.”
- Trailer for “Hart Island: An American Cemetery”, by Melinda Hunt.
- The Sad Demise of Bobby Driscoll, child actor and the voice of Peter Pan in the Disney animated classic. Buried at Hart Island.
- Lost Boy: The Bobby Driscoll Story. A YouTube video for a Kickstarter that came up short.
- Bobby Driscoll on Hart Island. Another YouTube video. Caption: “from his daughter hoping her voice is heard.” Her voice is in text. Gotta watch it.
- Finding Names for Hart Islandâ€™s Forgotten. By Cara Buckley in The New York Times.
- Searching for Names on an Island of Graves. By Sewell Chan in The New York Times.
- Sketching Lives Long Buried and Forgotten. By Andy Newman in The New York Times.
- Hart Island is NYC’s Public Burial Ground. By The City of New York Department of Correction. Searchable Database. http://www.correctionhistory.org/html/chronicl/nycdoc/html/hart.html.
- The City Life: Piercing the Mystery of Potter’s Field athomesense.com)
- New York City Introduces Online Database for Its Potter’s Field eogn.com)
- Green-Wood Cemetery and Hart Island Potter’s Field artassemblyrequired.org)
- New York City’s Secret Island Graveyard cssewell71.wordpress.com)