For more than 140 years, Hart Island, part of the Bronx, has served as Potter’s Field for New York, the city cemetery where the indigent, and others, are buried. Covering 101 acres in at the western end of Long Island Sound, the site is the final resting place for more than 800,000 souls and is the largest tax-funded cemetery in the world. New York City’s Department of Correction runs the island, and visitation is restricted to those who can document that a family member is buried there. Inmates from Rikers Island perform the work of clearing fields and burying the dead.
Artist Melinda Hunt has studied and chronicled the island for nearly 20 years, producing a book of photographs, a film documentary and a series of drawings of the dead, among other works. She has also used New York’s Freedom of Information Law to get public burial records from 1985 to 2007 and has made them available on The Hart Island Project website. WNYC spoke with Hunt about the history and mysteries of the island. An edited transcript:
WNYC: You are an artist first and foremost, so how is it and why is it that you’ve devoted so much time over so many years to the Hart Island Project?
Melinda Hunt: Well, I first got started on the Hart Island project as an effort to revisit the location of Jacob Riis’ first photographs. When he first acquired a camera in the 1890s, the first place that he went was Potter’s Field. And I was very interested in what Hart Island today looked like, since it’s not visible to most of the general public. So I applied to work with Joel Sternfeld, a prominent photographer, to re-photograph Jacob Riis’ first images at the same location using the same technology, the large format camera. It took about six months for me to gain access, and during that time I went to the public library and I looked up every single article written about Hart Island going back to 1868, when the city purchased Hart Island. Interestingly enough Hart Island was part of New York before the Bronx [was], before Queens and before Brooklyn. It was actually part of New York County.
Yeah, because those boroughs only became coalesced into New York City in 1898.
Yes, Hart Island first went into public use during the Civil War and was used at the end of the Civil War as a Confederate [internment] camp and many, many Confederate soldiers died of exposure and were buried on Hart Island and have subsequently been moved. But those were the first burials. And the city took it over in an effort to extend the penitentiary on Blackwell’s Island as a boy’s workhouse. And part of the effort was to reform young men through hard work. And part of that hard work was burying the dead.it
When you started this, did you ever envision that you would be filing Freedom of Information Act requests and building up a huge database and really taking this on as such a long-term project as it’s become? And also approaching it in a lot of different ways – from a movie to the drawings to the website and everything else?
I was taught that I should always look for primary documents and to tell my own stories as best as possible based on primary evidence. So with those lessons, I felt that I really needed to try to understand the space, because I had been through immigration myself – I grew up in Canada and I’d acquired citizenship in 1990. This to me was sort of the first act of citizenship, was to try to show something that was really invisible and that affected quite a number of people – there are over 850,000 burials. That’s my estimate, which is a bit conservative. So I had spent time at the public library and had gone through all of the records that were available regarding the burials at the Municipal Archives in Manhattan. And the records were astonishing in the detail and in the picture that they gave of what happens to New Yorkers who arrive and really don’t have any connections.
At each stage something very new appeared. It appeared through the documents and it appeared through people coming to me with stories and questions that were unanswered. And they were interesting questions to me as an artist. I just thought these were important unanswered questions. So I sought a variety of media to see if I could show or understand through the process of making art what it meant to have so many people disappear and what it means in a democracy to have citizens denied the right to visit an actual grave and to know where people go.
Who are these New Yorkers that are buried there? I think the impression that most people have is that they are homeless, they are indigent, but that’s not all of them, right?
No, as a matter of fact, if you donate your body to medicine and you don’t specify that would you like for your family to receive the remains back after research is conducted or the medical school has finished with your body, then you ultimately end up on Hart Island. It’s virtually everyone’s babies – if you have a stillborn or whatnot. The social worker will give you options, but it's not clearly explained what a city burial really means. So what happens is a mother will carry it around for 50 years that she doesn’t know what happened to her baby. And often it’s a sibling that goes looking [for the buried].
How many times have you been out to the island yourself?
Well, starting in 1991 I went out there maybe every other month for about three years. And so I’m kind of the last person who had access.
What’s it like on the Island? You take a ferry to get there – most people can’t get there, right?
Not legally. Lot’s of people do go there illegally. But the Department of Correction’s reason for not wanting there to be public access is security – their job is to lock things up. But in fact it’s not very secure.
I thought it was going to be this really dark place before I went there. And I found it’s the last undeveloped 100 acres in New York City. And it’s out in the Long Island Sound, it’s a bird sanctuary and it’s really quite beautiful. It felt like this open-air cathedral; it’s a very powerful place because every inch of the island is burials. So you just get out there and you think, wow, there’s 850,000 people here. I’m walking on this ground and it feels like hallowed ground. It’s an experience like going into a great cathedral, where you just know these important historic events have taken place there.
This isn’t just history – it’s been used as Potter's Field for more than 100 years, but it’s still actively being used. We have, is it about 2,000 burials a year?
I don’t know currently because we have requests out for the current records. The medical examiner since 9/11 – the forensic science it quite a bit further along in terms of being able to identify people. But when I started the project the numbers were very high from crack and AIDS. And infant mortality was very high. So the current numbers I am not sure of – the medical examiner has those – but the numbers do fluctuate. And what’s probably more important is that the system is very fragile. Because corrections officers enter the information and they are not really trained in archival practices there are a lot of mistakes. The records are still handwritten in ledger books just like they were in the 19th century. So there is tremendous possibility for error. Although the medical examiner their system is completely digital. But once the body is released to the Department of Correction, there is no accounting for what actually happens to the body and particularly babies – or for anyone who the papers are signed by family – it's very unlikely that the medical examiner will call back a body under those circumstances. And so we really don’t know what’s going on on Hart Island because there’s no oversight.
Melinda Hunt's sketch of Kazimierz Szymanski, an immigrant from Poland who was buried at Hart Island in July 1998.
Why is the island run by the Department of Correction?
Well, nobody quite knows except that the city administrative code, which goes back to the first half of the 20th century, assigns the burial of the dead to the Department of Corrections. Now that goes back all the way to the African burial ground, where inmates in the city jail, which was at City Hall Park, the jail, the almshouse and the workhouse were sort of all one institution. And so inmates in the jail buried the dead. And that tradition was carried on through nine successive Potter’s Fields and remains in place. Here we have a city where everything else has changed but we still have this sort of Dickensian process. Interestingly enough, when I interviewed the inmates in the 1990s, most of them were young inmates convicted of misdemeanors like turnstile jumping and graffiti, that kind of thing. Basically I found them to be young men who didn’t have the resources to pay $1,000 bail to avoid going to prison. And they viewed it, when I interviewed them, as rehabilitation. For all of the inmates, it’s a very powerful experience – and for some of them it really is a kind of wake-up call, that I need to turn my life around or I am going to end up here. The inmates who do this have the most powerful response to it. It’s something they never forget. There was a beebop jazz musician named Sonny Clark who claimed that he had done time in Rikers Island and worked on the burial detail on Hart Island and it was the inspiration for his innovations in jazz piano. So it can be a kind of liberating experience because you're sort of looking death in the face and then you get out and it moves you forward. So it’s not all dark, but it’s very, very powerful. As an artist, those kinds of things tend to be very good material for storytelling. So I’ve stuck with it over the years because it’s just so interesting and the people who show up have such good stories. And each of these lives, it seems to me, is worth celebrating because these people in a sense are loved or I wouldn’t be hearing about them.
If you wind up on Hart Island I think the assumption is maybe that you don’t have those connections – the loving family – so that is an unexpected part of it, too.
Right. I think Potter’s Field is inextricably linked to this fear – our deepest fear – that our individual life doesn’t matter. That may be true for some people, but it’s not true for a lot of people who come to me. Most of the people buried on Hart Island, something happened that disorganized them or their families. It wasn’t planned and they had to make a quick decision.
You’ve raised a few points today that give me the sense that the history and the story of Hart Island does really reflect the broader history and trends that have affected New York City overall. Can you talk a little about that?
Yes, the Potter’s Fields traditionally have been filled during periods of epidemics. Certainly yellow fever -- what is now Madison Square Park was a much larger Potter’s Field that was filled in three years from 1794 through 1796. And then the same thing happened in Washington Square and those burials are still there. So there’s this sense that burials are a waste of space in New York City, but in fact the bodies saved green space for future generations. So the history of the city and the growth of the city and the population patterns are all reflected in the Hart Island burial records. One thing that I did notice in going through the Municipal Archives records is the tremendous number of burials resulting from the 1918 flu epidemic. There were over 20,000 burials in 1918; it sort of overwhelmed the system at that time. And then when we get into the AIDS epidemic where a large number of young people are dying quite quickly, that sort of has a public health effect on the city because there was a lot of stigma attached to AIDS and prior to the AIDS epidemic cause of death was also listed in the burial records. Now cause of death is not listed at all. And apparently the problem with that is that the inmates and the corrections officers were afraid to handle the bodies of AIDS victims. So then they removed all of that information. So what you have is this system that is quite sensitive to any little thing that comes along. And the corrections officers have to adapt to it. They have to get the bodies in the ground and they have to keep up with the burials. And if the weather gets bad and if the ferry doesn’t operate, then there’s a backlog and all of this paperwork has to be done and they are not really trained. And the corrections officers I interviewed basically said it’s sort of an oral tradition; that they are taught how to do it from the previous burial detail or captain and there isn’t really a protocol that’s written down. And there isn’t really a map of Hart Island of where the burials are. So for instance, for a grave of 150 adults, there’s a marker with a number, but the Department of Correction isn’t there on weekends so if kids come over in kayaks and they are tooling around on Hart Island and they move a marker then the whole grid is lost.
Do you feel, when you’re doing your drawings, that there’s a macabre aspect to it?
There is a macabre aspect to it because the prison system is involved, I think. But there’s a celebratory aspect of it in that this person has been found and the family is very happy about that. Not just family but friends, often. My database is open to everybody, whereas only immediate family members can get access to a death certificate. There’s a sense of celebration, in the same way that when you got to a funeral, yes it’s dark but you’re also looking at a life and celebrating that person. So that side of it in a way is intensely positive. There’s both sides to it. A lot of people say, Oh, how can you work on this depressing thing? And I’m like, Well, only nice people show up, actually. I get people who have already in their own minds resolved that they care about this person enough to go locate them. So that side of it is very positive because people have come to grips with something that’s painful and are moving through it. Each of these lives seems worthwhile and, in a sense, adds to this very colorful, diverse city, which is New York. I mean, that’s what we love about New York. And all the burials are the same so there’s a democratic side to it—everybody’s treated the same once they get to Hart Island.
|FROM THE WNYC ARCHIVES: A VISIT TO HART ISLAND|
For centuries, dying poor meant burial in common and often unmarked graves. Cemeteries like these are found in out of the way places around most major towns and cities. To local residents, it’s simply “Potter’s Field,” a term from the New Testament story about what was done with 30 pieces of silver that Judas received for betraying Jesus. The elders in the synagogue decided that since the silver paid for blood, it should not be put in the Treasury. So they bought the potter’s field outside the Temple to bury strangers in. Andy Lanset reports that in New York, Potter’s Field is a small island across from the Bronx where the city’s poor and the city’s strangers find their last resting place.
Produced by Andy Lanset for NPR’s Special Audience Module Service and originally aired on WNYC in 1986