HOST INTRO: Nearly one million New Yorkers are buried in mass graves on Hart Island. Just off the Bronx, it’s where the city has sent its unclaimed dead and many of its stillborn babies for over a century. The Department of Corrections runs the island, ferrying inmates there to dig mass graves. For years, the DoC has treated the island like a jail, making it hard for families to visit the graves of their loved ones. A new bill in the City Council could change all of that. Chris Mathias reports. (00:28)
Just north of the Bronx, on City Island, there’s a road that dead ends at a dock on the Long Island Sound.
AMBI: Sound from the dock.
A tall, chain link gate blocks entrance to the dock. It’s grown over in parts with gnarled vines. Signs on the gate give ominous warnings. No trespassing. Violators will be prosecuted. New York City Department of Corrections. This dock is the only way to get to Hart Island.
On a cold, windy morning, a white bus drives up to the gate. A guard opens the gate
AMBI: Gate opens.
and the bus drives through to the dock.
AMBI: Bus drives through, fade under narration.
Inside the bus are about 10 inmates from Rikers Island, the city’s largest jail. The bus is ferried for 10 minutes across the water to Hart Island. There, the inmates will spend their day burying bodies in a mass grave.
This is also the one day a month that the Department of Corrections allows visitors to Hart Island. There are a limited number of spots on the ferry, and you have to sign up in advance. The trip is heavily supervised.
THOMPSON: Good mornin’.
ME: Good mornin’.
THOMPSON: May I see your ID?
AMBI: Fade ambi of dock under narration.
That’s Captain Martin Thompson. He’s the DoC official in charge of the Hart Island detail. I show him my ID and walk onto the dock.
As you approach it on the ferry, Hart Island is bleak and desolate.
AMBI: Sound of fog horn
AMBI: Bring up wind from the ferry, fade under narration
Rocky shores lead up to fields of brown grass. Hollowed out buildings are ruins from the island’s grim history. During the Civil War, Confederate soldiers were kept here as prisoners. The island also had its days as a lunatic asylum, and a city jail with 1000 inmates. But these days, Hart Island is only used as a Potter’s Field.
Once on shore, the guards take us to a small gazebo. I see something in the distance
ME: I notice a van over there, is there burials going on over there?
Captain Thompson tells me the van is from the medical examiner’s office. The van arrives almost every day . Inmates unload pinewood coffins. Inside the coffins are the city’s unclaimed dead. Many died homeless or poor. Many were stillborn or newborn babies. About 125 coffins arrive here each month. Every coffin is engraved with a number to keep track of where each body is buried.
One burial plot can hold 150 adult coffins, stacked three deep. A separate trench of the same size holds 1,000 infants. Once a trench is full, it’s covered with three feet of dirt and marked with white, PVC pipes stuck in the ground.
The city won’t let you near these gravesites though. Only the gazebo.
Back by the dock on City Island, I met Elaine Joseph. Her daughter’s body is buried on Hart Island. Her daughter, Tomika, was born prematurely at a Manhattan hospital in 1978 and died a few days later. Elaine wasn’t there. She was stranded at home by a blizzard. After days of grieving, she was told her daughter’s body was given to the city for burial, but no one knew where she was buried.
ELAINE: She never left my mind, not for one day, not for one moment, but as years went on, I kept listening, trying to figure out how to locate her.
30 years went by.
ELAINE: Then I was watching a news program and I saw a story on Hart Island and a woman named Melinda Hunt.
Melinda Hunt founded The Hart Island Project to help families with loved ones buried on Hart Island. There are many women like Elaine, Hunt says. Women who, while overcome with grief, didn’t know what it meant for the city to take care of their baby’s body.
HUNT: They’re not told what letting the city take care of it means. They’re not told it’s a mass grave. They’re not told that they can’t visit.
Hunt was able to arrange two visits for Elaine to the Hart Island gazebo. She was escorted by guards, and wasn’t allowed to visit her daughter’s gravesite. The city, she said, had turned her daughter into a prisoner.
ELAINE: And this is a baby girl! She was not a criminal! I mean maybe there are some criminals out there but none of these babies were criminals. They were all newborns and stillborns. They didn’t do anything wrong.
The DoC refers to Hart Island as a “secure facility.” The gravedigger inmates, it says, are a security threat to visitors. That’s why the DoC treats Hart Island like it’s a jail.
And it’s why Elaine and Melinda support a bill that would transfer jurisdiction of Hart Island from the Department of Corrections to the Parks Department. Hart Island would become a park.
City Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley introduced the bill last month. She envisions a public memorial for all those buried on the island, and regular ferry access for visitors.
CROWLEY: I do think that it should be a place where not only family members but the general public can come out and visit without feeling like they’re going to visit a jail.
Last December, the Department of Corrections granted a request by Elaine and 8 other women to visit their babies’ gravesites.
Elaine was the first to go. On a frigid day this past February, she stepped off the ferry onto Hart Island. After over 35 years of waiting, she walked to her daughter’s gravesite.
ELAINE: I said to myself that I wasn’t going to break down and cry when I got there.
That’s when she noticed that Captain Thompson, the DoC official, had done something special.
ELAINE: When I saw that, I lost it. i really lost it. Those flowers were left there for me, for her, to symbolize her grave, her and the 999 other babies that were buried with her.
It’s an experience Elaine hopes more relatives of those buried on Hart Island get to have.
Hart Island wouldn’t be the first Potter’s Field to become a park. Washington Square Park, Madison Square Park, Randall’s Island were all Potter’s Fields before they were parks.
Chris Mathias, Columbia Radio News.