Hart Island: 1900

hart's island open trench jacob riis
Laborers loading coffins into an open trench at the city burial ground on Hart’s Island, c. 1890, Jacob A. Riis https://collections.mcny.org/Explore/Highlights/Jacob%20A.%20Riis/?gclid=Cj0KCQjwy6T1BRDXARIsAIqCTXoo4zKXrtfdt_L9PWnQKBnuj5O1hkVxPkcOMapfHsbz8Xu9-pGirccaApeZEALw_wcB&gclid=Cj0KCQjwy6T1BRDXARIsAIqCTXoo4zKXrtfdt_L9PWnQKBnuj5O1hkVxPkcOMapfHsbz8Xu9-pGirccaApeZEALw_wcB

The unwanted, lost and unidentified dead of New York are still buried in the same Potter’s Field on Hart’s Island. Modern descriptions of burials on Hart Island are an eerie echo of the story below.

BURIED IN POTTER’S FIELD

The Grewsome Trips of the Fidelity

Her Daily Cargo of Pauper Dead

Scenes at the City Cemetery, Hart’s Island. [sic]

Among the boats that may be seen on the East River any day is a small craft bearing the name Fidelity. People to whom the various vessels are only slightly known see nothing peculiar about the boat, because she is like hundreds of little vessels on the East and North rivers used for conveying freight and passengers between points where the larger vessels do not make landings. But to the river men and to the people who spend their time near the east waterfront the little boat is known as “the deadboat.”

She belongs to the city, has a crew of four deckhands, besides a mate, an engineer and a fireman, and is commanded by Captain Edward McEvoy. This boat makes the tour of the city institutions on the East River daily and collects the bodies of the dead and takes them to the Morgue. Randall’s Island, Ward’s Island, Blackwell’s Island and the Harlem Hospital all contribute to the grewsome cargo which is landed every evening at the Morgue, where the bodies of the homeless and the friendless are also taken.

“We have dull and busy seasons,” said Captain McEvoy, “but we can usually count on about two a day from Randall’s Island, about three a day from Ward’s Island, and Blackwell’s Island gives us about ten a day. The North Brother Island dead are taken care of by the Health Department; the Harlem Hospital, at One-hundred-and-twentieth-st., is good for about three a day.”

THE FIDELITY’S CARGO

All the bodies as they come aboard are handled by the deckhands and are piled on the after deck, covered with tarpaulins, and when the Fidelity steams down the river with her load for the Morgue, passengers on passing vessels would never suspect the character of her cargo.

Twice a week in the winter months and three times a week during the warm season the Fidelity makes a trip to Hart’s Island, where the bodies from the Morgue which have not been claimed or identified are buried in Potter’s Field, or, as it is officially, the City Cemetery.

“It’s all the same after you are dead,” said a man who had made the trip, “but if you want to know the advantage of passing away among friends make a trip to Hart’s Island on a burying day.”

The boat’s load, which varies in size from thirty to one hundred boxes, stands on the dock and in the hallways of the Morgue, ready to be taken away early in the morning. Every box is furnished with a card which contains the name, age, sex, cause of death, etc., of the subject, or, where the name is unknown, a number corresponding with the one on the Morgue records, by which everything that is known on the body may be ascertained. The marks on the box also show whether the person was a Catholic or a Protestant, when that fact may be ascertained.

“How many ye got to-day?” the deckhand asked one of the Morgue helpers who assist the regular attendants for their board and what they can pick up from undertakers in the way of tips for helping with the claimed bodies.

“Oh, it’s a small day. Ten big and twenty-seven little ones.” That meant that there were ten large coffins and twenty-seven coffins with children’s bodies to be taken away. The cargo was taken on board with less care and ceremony than would have been devoted to a like number of boxes in the hands of a transportation concern marked “Handle with care,” the boat moved away from the dock, which was littered with old and broken coffins, and the trip to Potters Field began.

AT HART’S ISLAND.

The distance to Hart’s Island is about fifteen miles, past the City Hospital, Penitentiary, Almshouse, Maternity Hospital, Insane Asylum, House of Refuge, Idiots’ Asylum, Infants’ Hospital, North Brother Island and about six miles beyond Fort Schuyler, on Throg’s Neck and Willets Point. At the landing there were several officials in the uniform of the Department of Correction and three men in convict’s stripes.

“Didn’t expect you to-day,” one of the officers called in greeting to the captain, “you had such a big load yesterday.”

The boat was made fast and the bodies, which had been transported by the Charities Department, were transferred to the custody of the Department of Correction. The three convicts loaded the boxes into a wagon and it started on its first trip to a trench about one hundred yards from the landing.

John Bopp, the Superintendent of Potter’s Field, who has been in charge of the place for thirty years, and in spite of the nature of his work and the surroundings, retains a cheerful disposition, said:

“We have about fifty convicts here, who are detailed from the Workhouse, but some of them object to handling the coffins, so we select three men who are willing to take the job and give them a ration of whiskey after every load has been disposed of. These men have to do no other work, and, while they think they have ‘a graft,’ the other convicts, although they envy them the whiskey, call them ghouls.”

The wagon brings the bodies to the open trench, which is 45 feet long, 15 feet wide and 7 feet deep, and into this the boxes are placed after Frederick Bartels, the assistant superintendent, who is serving his seventeenth year at the Field, has scratched the number on the box with an instrument called a scriber. The long ends of the trenches run east and west, and the bodies are placed in them facing north and south, heads to the edge. A row of twenty-five is placed at each side of the trench, and on this layer of fifty a thin covering of earth is placed until more bodies are received, when the trench is “tripped” by the convicts. This is the term for the process of taking the earth off the boxes before the next layer is put down. This is repeated until the trench holds three layers, or 150 bodies, when it is covered with earth, and built up about a foot. When this has been done a new plot for 150 bodies is laid out and numbered. A record is kept of the place occupied by every box, and the books which are kept by Mr. Bartels show all particulars necessary for identification in case a body should be claimed by friends or relatives.

All the coffins marked with a cross are buried in the Catholic plot, on the north end, and separate trenches are devoted to nameless children, unidentified bodies and boxes from the colleges, of which latter there are nine or ten every week.

The records show that since the City Cemetery was founded, in 1869, 110,751 bodies have been buried there. Last year’s contribution was 4,377, of which 1,829 were credited to the “Outdoor Poor,” 362 to Bellevue Hospital and 435 to the Foundlings. There is a special plot for soldiers’ graves, in which about forty bodies are buried, the last being two victims of yellow fever, who contracted the disease in Cuba and died at North Brother Island. This plot is marked by a handsome monument and is decorated every Memorial Day. Several attendants who died on the island are also buried in separate graves.

One enclosure contains the bodies of two little children whose mother asked that they might be kept separate from the others so that she might know where the little ones were laid away, and near the south end of the field is another child’s grave, the existence of which is unknown to the little one’s parents or friends. Some years ago, so goes the story, a man was going abroad with his family, and as they boarded the ship an attendant noticed the deathly pallor of the infant in the mother’s arms. Examination showed that the child was ill, and before the vessel sailed the child was dead, and the body was left for burial. The story reached Potter’s Field before the body arrived there, and in the hope that the names of the parents might be learned a separate grave was made of the body, but all efforts in that direction have failed….

“The men who work in the trenches where the bodies are laid away have a grewsome job,” said an officer of the Department, “and one for which the ‘drunk and disorderly’ on the island don’t envy them; in fact, being put in this gang is by no means a mark of distinction, and yet they see less mourning than the men who work in a private cemetery. There relatives and friends stand about the open graves and weep for those who have passed away. Here the bodies come, are carted to the trench, lowered and covered with earth, and that is all. No one knows, no one cares; a hundred and fifty make a trench full, and then a new hole is dug. Men grow accustomed to all kinds of work, and there’s probably no convict gang in the New-York institutions where there is less of the blues than among the helpers at Potter’s Field.”

New York Tribune 1 April 1900: p. 6

Note: This is an excerpt from The Victorian Book of the Dead. In the book it is preceded by a look at the New York Morgue in 1868.

 

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead.

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