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The following essay is from the book Hart Island ©1998 Scalo. It accompanied an exhibition of photographs and multi-media art works including written testimonials by Riker's Island inmates who perform the daily burials. The book was a collaboration between Melinda Hunt and Joel Sternfeld over a three-year period from 1991-1994. At that time, the Department of Correction granted access to journalists and researchers but not to families or friends of the deceased.

Early in 1994, Melinda Hunt began arranging for family members who asked for help to visit Hart Island. This effort continues today with visits to infant grave sites for women starting in 2014. Maps were acquired through Freedom of Information Law in 2013. These are being integrated with plot locations listed in the Hart Island Project database. In 2014, the Traveling Cloud Museum will provide location based storytelling.   


"If only I could talk to each and every person who returns to claim a body, to know what's inside that heart, what led them back, the long road they surely must have navigated to find who? A sister, a son, and all the unfinished business, the words never said. The silence. What does that voyage back, the search, mean for that person?"

Visitor's statement, Hart Island Project Exhibition, Lower Eastside Tenement Museum, New York City, 1997.

     On the evening that my mother died, I told my three-year old daughter, Emily, that her grandmother was no longer alive. Emily wanted to know where she had gone. She thought for a moment and then said: "Nana is on a boat crossing a river." The next morning, Emily awoke and told me: "Mommy, Nana reached the other side of the river and they have a bed for her."  

     The images that my young child conjured have ancient roots and fill ancient needs. They point to the importance of allowing grieving to take place and to reach completion. Forming an image of how and where people go after death is part of a personal mourning process. We transport the bodies of our loved ones to places that we can return to outside of our daily activities. This is a human ritual. Perhaps it is even pre-human since Neanderthals are known to have buried their dead. At very least, it is a basis for commemoration and linked to many past and present art forms.

     New York is the only major American city to maintain a separate public burial ground for its strangers, for those who die alone and unclaimed or for whom nobody is willing or able to afford a private funeral—a potter's field. The term "potter's field" refers to land purchased for the burial of strangers just outside of town and comes from a passage in the Bible:  

"So Judas flung the money into the temple and left. He went off and hanged himself. The chief priests picked up the silver, observing, 'It is not right to deposit this in the temple treasury since it is blood money.' After consultation, they used it to buy the potter's field as a cemetery for foreigners." [1]  

     Since its purchase in 1869, three quarters of a million people have been buried on Hart Island making it the most dense cemetery in America. This public burial ground is difficult to visit because it is administered by the prison authorities. Inmates serving short-term sentences are bused in from nearby Riker's Island to perform the daily burials.

     The Hart Island Project is a journey to this forbidden burial ground. The path proceeds through the front office of the New York City Department of Correction, the only route available to anyone trying to locate family. Those who make the trip to Hart Island usually leave feeling unsettled. They have visited a part of America which is more unacknowledged than unknown. They have seen a remnant of pre-Revolutionary New York which denies sentiment.

     Hart Island is a place outside the vision and minds of most New Yorkers, even those who have family buried there. It represents the ultimate melting pot, a place where individual lives are blended beyond recognition. Current practice is to leave people buried twenty-five years; a period of time which is inadequate for many families to revisit misfortune. A journey to Hart Island generally takes place in the later years of life when people are more inclined to reflect and sort through the fragments of their personal histories. Yet the trip leads to a past more distant than our own. Found on Hart Island are fragments of American history which have simply been abandoned.  

    The Hart Island Project is about revisiting these fragments in photographs, stories, documents, installations and public art. It parallels the experiences of many people in search of their beginnings in America. The project began seven years ago at the confluence of three major events in my life: naturalization, the death of my mother, and the birth of my second child. Strangely, I was most unprepared for the first of these: citizenship.  

    Having grown up just over the border in western Canada, I experienced none of the cultural prejudices that many immigrants endure. I pass as American. I am educated in America. Yet, I had trouble considering myself an American and accepting that my children would unquestionably identify with their birthplace. It didn't seem to matter that some of my ancestors had lived here.   As an artist, my impulse was to dive down and explore the depths of my new culture. The act was a near drowning. I discovered that the melting pot, for which America is well known, has a murky bottom. This bottom, rarely visited, was difficult to navigate, to photograph and to exhibit in America. My own awkward assimilation left me feeling strangely connected to the landscapes of the potter's fields. There is a well-known cliche about Canadians having special connections to landscapes. Mine has a certain twist. To balance my perspective as an outsider, I invited Joel Sternfeld to collaborate bringing his deep understanding of the American landscape and its people.  

    What intrigued us about Hart Island is how the natural landscape seems to completely mask almost 140 years of burials. Each mass grave of 1000 children or 150 adults disappears from view within a season. Small, white concrete markers barely interrupt a view of the Long Island Sound framed with successive bridges and crowned by the Manhattan skyline.  

     Hart Island is the product of a long-standing system of public burials dating back to the British colonial period. It is New York's ninth potter's field. Located in the remote waters of the Long Island Sound, the island was originally 16 miles from the city limit. It compares with each of the earlier potter's fields which were always located on the edges of the expanding city. Each, in its day, was situated near to Bellevue Hospital, the location of the city morgue and the primary place where recent immigrants and the poor received medical attention.  

     A few of these early potters fields remain in the public domain as smaller parcels of land now known as Madison Square Park (1794), Washington Square Park (1797), Bryant Park and the Public Library (1823). Except for the last potter's field in Manhattan, located at the current Waldorf Astoria Hotel (1836), no records exist of the bodies being moved elsewhere. At all other sites, parks were created after the cemeteries, parade grounds, and the reservoir closed. Once the city expanded beyond 50th Street, the East River became a more convenient route for transporting the bodies. Potter's fields opened briefly on Randalls Island (1843) and Wards Island (1846) before moving much further out to Hart Island.  

    Each of the potter’s fields were founded at the remote, rugged, and almost rural edges of the city in their day. Each burial ground was filled with recent immigrants, victims of disease and poverty and children. Burial records indicate a remarkable consistency in the proportion of burials due to infant mortality. Close to fifty percent of the burials are children under five. As each potter's field became full, a new natural setting was selected.  

    Visually, Hart Island retains much of the natural beauty of a nineteenth-century rural cemetery with few headstones and monuments interrupting the landscape. The island was acquired by New York City during a movement to de-urbanize cemeteries. While this rural setting conformed to a Victorian ideal of returning to nature at the completion of a life cycle, health hazards associated with the overcrowded cemeteries in Manhattan were a further incentive for moving the cemeteries to more remote places. However, the purchase of Hart Island for the purpose of maintaining a burial practice confirms a deeper social pattern of hiding that which is socially undesirable in the undeveloped fringes of the city.  

     Beginning in eighteenth-century New York, the Crolius' Pottery was located just north of the palisade which defined the edge of the British colony on Manhattan Island at the time of the American Revolution. By coincidence, the site was called Potter's Hill. It falls within the domain of the recently re-designated African Burial Ground. New York City historian I. N. Phelps Stokes refers to the "negroes' burying-ground" as becoming "subsequently a potter's field, and a bury-place for dead American prisoners, as it was during the Revolutionary war."[2] In his index Stokes sites the first potter's field in association with the almshouse located at City Hall Park just south of Chambers Street.[3]   Criminals, the mentally ill, orphans and the poor all shared space in the almshouse located in what is now City Hall Park between 1736 and 1797. This almshouse eventually separated into poorhouse, workhouse and gaol just prior to the American Revolution. The sick were removed from the almshouse and sent to Bellevue Hospital in 1794. The prison and potter's field both moved to Greenwich Village in 1797. After City Hall was completed in 1812, the almshouse moved to Bellevue.  

     Each of the subsequent eight potter's fields retained this relation to the prisons, workhouses and poorhouses of their rime. Most were also connected to public hospitals, mental institutions and homeless shelters. By the mid-nineteenth century Blackwell's Island housed the penitentiary, the workhouse, and the almshouse. Extensions of these institutions were started on Randalls Island, Wards Island and Hart Island. Each re-location was further from the city center.   Hart Island was first used as a cemetery during the American Civil War (1861—65). The island was a training camp for Union soldiers and, by the end of the war, a prison for captured Confederates. Both Union and Confederate soldiers were buried on Hart Island. A small fenced area and monument at the center of the island marks the former location of the Union cemetery. The bodies were moved to a military cemetery in 1941. Confederate soldiers who died on Hart Island were buried anonymously setting a precedent for the potter's field which was established after the end of the Civil War in 1865.  

     Soon after the purchase of Hart Island in 1869, the first civilian burial, of Louisa Van Slyke, took place and an extension of the House of Refuge, the prison workhouse for delinquent boys on Randalls Island, opened. Hospitals and barracks, erected during the Civil War by the Federal Government, were turned over to the city. Some of these buildings were moved to Randalls Island, to Wards Island (the potter's field preceding Hart Island), and to Blackwell's Island. Land at the southern part of the island was used to house victims of the yellow fever epidemic of 1870. A women's extension of Charity Hospital and the insane asylum from Blackwell's Island opened later in the century on Hart Island. An entry in the New York Times records the purchase of Hart Island and the beginning of the boys workhouse:  

"The Department of Charities and Correction have bought from Mr. Edward Hunter, Hart's Island, in Long Island Sound, and about sixteen miles from the City, for the purpose of establishing there an industrial school for destitute boys, who may be too large for the school on Randalls Island... There are at present in the school about fifty boys, who are receiving the rudiments of a plain education, and will speedily be initiated into sundry trades. The buildings yet remaining would contain several thousand persons, and are ample for all that the school may yet need."[4]  

     The workhouses of Hart Island evolved out of prison reforms first implemented at the House of Refuge built on the site of New York's second potter's field located at Madison Square Park in Manhattan in 1825. In the 1800s New York State was a leader in enlightenment-influenced penal reforms. During this period, penitentiaries for long-term rehabilitation were built upstate at Sing Sing and Auburn and at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. The prison reform movement led to the reduction of the number of punishable capital crimes from twenty-six to one. First degree murder remains the only capital crime in America today.  

     The House of Refuge at Madison Square Park consisted of several buildings confined within the stonewall of the old public arsenal erected on the grounds of the second potter's field in 1807. In its day, the original House of Refuge at Madison Square Park was considered a model of prison reform. It marked the beginning of a system of prisoner classification. For the first time, delinquent children were confined in separate quarters from adult convicts. The goal was to educate and reform children before they became hardened criminals. The importance of the House of Refuge is emphasized by noted visits from Alexis de Tocqueville and Charles Dickens.  

     The facilities at Madison Square Park were in operation until they burned in 1836 and 1838. Following the fires, a second House of Refuge opened at Bellevue Hospital at 25th Street on the East River. It moved to Randalls Island in 1854. The Hart Island reformatory accommodated the older boys from the House of Refuge who, previously, had had no place to go but to the penitentiary. This workhouse had a productive shoe shop which remained active until the last institution, Phoenix House, moved out in 1976.  

     Our first photography on Hart Island was of unused women’s shoes strewn amidst decaying foliage, the residue of vandals. Another image, titled Correction officer’s garden, shows an inmate at work in a garden adjacent to the prison facilities where vegetables are grown for meals prepared on the island. Interestingly, these images compare with a description of the first almshouse at City Hall Park that Stephen Jenkins described as having been:  

“furnished with spinning-wheels, leather and tools for shoe-making, knitting needles, flax, etc., for the employment of the inmates. All Paupers were required to work under penalty of mild punishments, and parish children were taught the three “R’s” and employed at useful labor. The house was also used for the correction of unruly slaves. A vegetable garden was laid out near the house and the inmates cultivated it for the use of the institution.”[5]

     Hart Island was therefore a reform-oriented extension of the penal, welfare and healthcare systems. The burial ground is like a dark undercoat of a history painting about Hart Island. This primary surface can be seen poking through thick, freshly applied foliage that is frequently scraped away and repainted. Physical shapes of old wooden barracks can be seen at the top of a hill over-looking the burial ground. They are haunted by old men, prisoners living out the rest of their lives in a strange penance of observing the daily burials. At the center of the canvas emerge some of newer buildings which house the youthful gravediggers. Boys and young men, petty criminals and drug addicts, sick and infectious or simply poor and homeless occupy the newer buildings. All are participants in reform programs which have come and gone between 1869 and 1976. The punishment is mild but he backdrop is haunting. 

    Debate was ongoing over whether the potter’s field fit into evolving visions of what constitutes rehabilitation. In 1899, there were plans for the federal Government to resume control over Hart Island, condemn the barracks, and build new fortifications.[6] However, an alternative proposal for building a new reformatory won approval instead. By 1904, it appears that an expanded boys workhouse would be instituted and there is some question about its relation to the potter’s field.  

“The new institution…is to be used exclusively for those between the ages of sixteen and thirty committed by the court in this city. The committee finds that to attain the objects of an ideal reformatory the present facilities on Hart’s Island are insufficient…. The Committee urges that the trades chosen for instruction be such as will fit the inmates for useful occupation when released. In erecting new buildings it is suggested that the conventional prison type of structure be avoided as much as possible, and that the work of remodeling existing structures the labor be carried on by inmates themselves under competent instructors. The advisability of removing Potter’s field from Hart’s Island also is recommended.”[7]

    The existing layout of abandoned buildings on Hart Island corresponds with this description. The reformatory was developed as a campus at the center of the island with the potter’s field and barracks on the north end. The Civil War barracks with elderly inmates remained until almost 1930. Photographs by journalist Jacob Riis from the 1890s show teenage boys in the trenches alongside young adults.[8] Building on Hart Island continued until the chapel was completed in 1931 with a slate roof and stained glass. By this time, the reformatory was a virtual village consisting of two-dozen buildings connected by paved streets. Because the inmates were not “hardened criminals”, the facilities are completely unlike the cell blocks of a penitentiary or jail with enclosed corridors.  

     This open plan lent flexibility for the workhouse to serve multiple and simultaneous functions throughout the twentieth century. In the early part of the century, tubercular inmates were quarantined on Hart Island. However, their confinement was not always in the company of other infected patients. Incarceration on Hart Island could result from mental illness, homelessness, infectious disease, substance abuse and delinquency. The blending of Hart Island residents was source of constant evaluation and frequent criticism. It recalls the mixing of inmates at the almshouse at City Hall Park.  

     As early as 1915, barely a decade since its conception, Hart Island reformatory conditions are described as chaotic:   "As a result of its investigations the Grand Jury reported that boys suffering from chronic and contagious diseases, and mental defectives, were mingled with healthy inmates of the institution and allowed to use even the same towels, razors, and soap. Tubercular inmates sleep in the same dormitory with other boys, it was found."[9]

   Some of the disorganization resulted from Hart Island frequently becoming a pilot site for new initiatives bought about to address pressing social issues. Hart Island was considered an ideal testing ground for rehabilitation because of its isolated location and natural environs. Homeless shelters, narcotics and alcohol rehabilitation programs that are now found in neighborhood facilities were piloted on Hart Island. Initiatives such as the "six point" program for alcohol rehabilitation begun in 1952 and Phoenix House opening in 1967 signaled major changes in the public health treatment of substance abuse. Even today, Phoenix House is a model program for drug addicts in which disciplined abstinence is enforced by former addicts. Other programs on Hart Island ended when their eras came to a close such as the tubercularium, the disciplinary barracks in World War II and the Nike missile base (1955) from the Cold War period.  

    The physical scale of the programs on Hart Island, however, never grew much beyond that of the still standing reformatory. The building of a comprehensive city prison on Riker's Island beginning in 1927 curtailed further expansion of the Hart Island prison. Inmates from Welfare Island[10] as well as Hart Island were transferred to Riker's. Welfare Island became home to sick and aging inmates who were confined in the old Blackwell's penitentiary instead of the Civil War barracks on Hart Island.

     Starting in 1928, the Hart Island reformatory became a safety valve for prison overcrowding. Prison programs that were peripheral to the central function of the penal system were relegated to Hart Island. During the Second World War Hart Island was used as a disciplinary camp for 2,800 Naval, Marine and Coastguard troops. German soldiers who were arrested off the coast of Long Island were sent first to Hart Island. At the end of the Second World War, a thirty-foot peace monument erected by the inmates signaled that the tension of prison life had diminished on Hart Island.  

     Journalism about the island after the war covered more trivial issues such as performances by the Hart Island Prison Orchestra.[11] Baseball games between the Hart Island Wildcats versus the Nike Missile Base team received press attention because 2,000 bleachers from Ebbets Field had been donated to Hart Island. Additional sentiment was attached because the bleachers were mounted on railroad ties from the dismantled Third Avenue Elevated Train.[12] Hart Island's image as a reformatory was softened to the point of satire when the city established a "Traffic Safety Training Program" between 1957 and 1959.  

     In 1966 the Department of Correction left Hart Island. It seemed as though the burials might cease because operation of the ferry had become unfeasible. Early in 1967, however, New York Stare decided to spend three million dollars to renovate the workhouses for a home for drug addicts. Phoenix House was administered by former drug addicts who conceived of hosting "drug-free rock-tests" and rodeos during its tenure from 1967 to 1976. Drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs moved to community clinics and hospitals following the passage of the Community Mental Health Centers Act in 1963. The age of the Hart Island reformatory draws to a close as "de-institutionalization" accelerates in the late l960s.  

     The last attempt to establish a resident penal program on Hart Island was in 1982 when the Department of Correction tried to institute a program of short-term sentences, for "quality of life" offenses.   "These would be three-card monte players and small-time drug dealers, graffiti vandals and turnstile-jumpers, motorists who habitually run red lights and landlords who persistently harass tenants."[13] Trailers were set up in a compound enclosed with razor wire, facing the potter's field. The program failed, however, because the municipal courts did not convict anyone. Now the trailers temporarily house inmates working on the burial detail during their meal and rest times. The correction officer's garden is part of this compound.

     Besides the obvious economic advantage of prison labor, rehabilitation is the principle justification for prison inmates continuing to work on the Hart Island burial ground today. The job is voluntary, modestly paid and considered a bonus for good behavior. One of the inmates that I spoke with in 1992 referred to the burial detail as "the best rehabilitation I've ever had."[14] Another wrote of the potter's field as inspirational:  "To me Potter's Field is a sacred place where hundreds of people are laid to rest, yet it is a very scary thought to be buried and have nobody know where you are or not care where you are. It makes me thank God that I still have a chance to make a change in my life before I end up in Potter's Field."[15]

    Left abandoned on Hart Island are workhouse structures which document tides of social change less visible elsewhere in the city. With their decay, Hart Island becomes the least developed large section of real estate in New York City with a total of 101 acres. Although plans for developing the island as a casino, marine laboratory, power plant or sailing school have arisen over the years, most are opposed by residents of City Island, the location of the ferry slip. For small businesses, the cost of running a ferry is prohibitive. Larger businesses encounter City Island residents who are against anything that would increase neighborhood traffic. The only private development that even came close to completion was the "Negro Coney Island."  

     In 1925, a black man named Solomon Riley tried to open an amusement park at the southern tip of Hart Island where he owned four acres. He was forced to sell the land after constructing a bathing pavilion, cottages, a dance hall and a boardwalk because city officials thought his park might corrupt the reformatory environment. The inmates might gain access to contraband and escape boats. Racial issues were cited as influencing the decision to deny Mr. Riley a license:  

"While affirming that there is no question of racial prejudice, officials of the association declare that the presence of a resort of this kind on Harts Island, under the very windows of the prison dormitories, has created an extremely awkward situation.[16]

     Arguments regarding the security of the prisoners also suggest the reverse: that African Americans from Harlem might be corrupted through potential contact with inmates. In June 1925, the president of the Parks Conservation Association, William Bradford Roulstone, issued the statement:  

"I am informed that one or two of the members of the City Administration were disposed to head off this 'Coney Island' development... because its operation would not only make trouble between the visitors to the resort and the inmates of the juvenile reformatory contiguous thereto, but could in the long run react upon the feelings and sensibilities of our colored people who might be tempted to visit the place."[17]

     The buildings of Riley's amusement park sat vacant and were eventually dismantled. When we photographed the site in 1992, it remained a forbidden place surrounded by chain-linked fence. None of the boardwalk or building foundations remained. Buried deep in the wooded area, however, there was one marker with an unusual number, "SC-B1, 1985".  

     Upon inquiry, we found that the marker belonged to a solitary grave of the first child victim of AIDS to be buried on Hart Island. Extra precautions were taken to bury the child in a separate and deeper grave. The forested isolation of this grave reminded me that this part of the island had also been used as a quarantine for yellow fever. The yellow fever burials at Madison Square Park and Washington Square had also been individual graves.[18] This AIDS grave seemed like a "tomb to an unknown child." It came to represent all children who were yet to die of AIDS as well as child victims of earlier epidemics. This burial was the essence of a potter's field: a removed landscape where the fearsome, the lonely and the unknown are buried out of sight.  

    We photographed the AIDS grave several months after making a diptych of an open baby trench. The image of a child stigmatized in burial was to me, a pregnant woman, an even more painful sight than the infant mass grave. It led me to examine the Hart Island burial records.  

     Until recently, the Hart Island burial records were stored in the warden's house on Hart Island. Many were lost in a fire that was set by vandals when the island was unoccupied in the late 1970s. I went through the records with the idea of recording the name of one child for each year that burial records exist. These became part of an installation with individual coffins each containing an embroidered blanket with one name per year.  

    The burial records show an ever-changing pool of immigrants, diseases and disabilities administered to by a range of institutions. It remains too mixed and varied to become the darling of any special interest group. Genealogists that I have spoken with claim that most families with immigrant roots in New York City probably have lost relatives buried on Hart Island. As one recently told me: "People come to me hoping to discover 'nobility' in their ancestry, but the missing people usually turn out to have had alcohol problems or mental illness and were buried in Potter's Field."  

     In New York City, the combined nine potter's fields have close to one million burials. An immense amount of history is associated with these places. Yet, there is almost no academic or institutional interest in the public cemeteries. Most of the writing about Hart Island takes the form of journalism documenting specific events. Distinctive in these accounts is the unanswered question of why such a place continues to exist. Most other American cities cremate the unclaimed and unwanted. If burials are provided they are in more accessible places. Chicago has a potter’s field with mass graves as part of a private cemetery. New York City offers burial assistance to families who organize an application. Nonetheless, the burials continue to number two to three thousand a year. Even with the twenty-five year time limit, the northern 45 acres of Hart Island named Cemetery Hill is full. Current burials have moved to the shallow grounds south of the workhouses.  

     New York City has a long-standing policy of respecting diverse religious practices. Many religions do not permit cremation. Until recently Catholics buried on Hart Island were placed in separate "consecrated ground." In 1913, "baby trenches" were separated from "adult trenches." Starting in 1935, "catholic babies" had separate trenches from "regular babies."  

     Incredible care and expense goes into conducting the burials. In 1990 the cost of flowers, tools, heavy equipment, parts to repair equipment, general maintenance equipment, fuel and inmate labor, at thirty-five cents per hour, drove the cost of each burial to $346. In addition, the city provides for free exhumation if family members claim a body within seven years of burial.  

    During the first fifty years of Hart Island burials, "unclaimed" people were buried in single graves. Only the "unwanted" whose relatives assigned them to a public burial were in mass graves. Today, all bodies are carefully organized into a grid. The ends of trenches are marked by a number pressed into a concrete block. Re-excavations require locating the designated body within this numbered scheme.

   Perhaps it is the abstraction of human lives into trench numbers and statistics that is most disturbing about the potter's field. I was impressed by the fact that the burial records from the nineteenth century contain full names, causes of death and countries of origin. In this century the names of babies up until 1940 are strictly female; each child's identity is linked exclusively to the mother. She is the person forever associated with the potter's field. After 1940, only surnames are listed. By 1955, the causes of death for children are uniformly listed as "confidential." By 1970, the category "cause of death" is left blank. That the island is prohibitively difficult to visit adds another level of removal.

    From November 1991 to December 1993, Joel and I traveled with the prisoners and the morgue truck on a small ferry from City Island to Hart Island. We made the journey once or twice each month to capture the seasonal changes. Each time it seemed like we were crossing the river Styx.  

     In February 1992, we received permission to photograph the prisoners performing a burial. Each inmate gave written consent to be photographed. In the course of the long exposures required for 8x10 inch negatives, we had time to talk with the inmates. Most were young first offenders, convicted of misdemeanors and serving the last part of their sentence. They were very interested to learn of and participate in our work. They struggled with the same moral issues that we were struggling with: Why are so many people buried this way? Why is no one witness to this except prisoners?  

    While our understanding of the place was abstracted into aesthetic, sociological and historical terms, the prisoners had no such defenses. Their experience of the potter's field was entirely spiritual and painfully close to their own circumstances. The inmates' understanding of Hart Island simply went deeper than ours.  

     Many of the prisoners knew about Hart Island because friends, relatives and other people from their neighborhoods had been buried there. Many viewed going to Hart Island as a way of reconnecting with their communities. They liked working outdoors and having the opportunity to do something productive. They had particularly strong feelings about the children's graves.   Having collected countless newspaper and journal articles and spoken with numbers of people prior to our visits to Hart Island, it was easy to recognize that the prisoners had a clear and personal understanding of the potter's field. For them, mourning and feeling productive had a healing effect. Documenting their views became as important to me as representing the island in photographs.

     In March 1992, I went to Hart Island with my colleague, Margot Lovejoy, to work with the prisoners on writing personal testimonials. The morgue truck was late, so we went on the ferry with the inmates and waited by an open trench. The burial detail on that day consisted of inmates who were on their first visit to Hart Island. It is hard to describe the overwhelming sense of anonymity and timelessness that comes from standing next to an open burial trench twenty feet wide, seventy feet long and six feet deep.  

     We waited a half hour in the cold for the morgue truck. I was a little hesitant to ask the prisoners to write down their first impressions of the island. But then they seemed relieved to have something to do. Their writings were fresh with the experience of being away from the chaos of prison life. Being in nature offered security as compared with Riker's Island or the streets of New York. They were flooded with thoughts about their own futures and the wellbeing of their distant families and loved ones. One prisoner wrote:  

"When approaching Hart Island you get, well I got a feeling of being cold, not a temperature cold, but an inner cold like someone on the island or something was calling or asking me something, but to sit back and think of the bodies that I'd be burying was nothing compared to thinking of myself becoming a Hart Island resident. Once I heard an older person tell a younger person that he had one foot in the grave and the other in a jail cell and here I am an inmate working in a graveyard. But one thing I've learned from Hart Island is that I don't want to die nobody with nothing or no one to care about me. Hart Island is the best rehabilitation I've ever had and is something I'll never forget. I guess it's the loneliest place in the world and I pray and will always pray for the lonely and lost souls of Hart Island."[19]

     The Department of Correction arranges for occasional visits by immediate family members of people buried on Hart Island. In 1994, I received a call from Vicki Pavia who had lost a baby forty years earlier. She had been a teenager at the time and her mother-in-law had pressured her to allow the baby to have a public burial to spare the family further expenses.   Vicki had been trying to locate her daughter for forty years. She had not known where to look until a friend referred her to the Municipal Archives. There she acquired a burial record indicating that her daughter’s grave was on Hart Island. She called me to find out if I could help her to find the grave and get her baby back. I had the unfortunate answer to that question which is: "No, because the graves on Hart Island are re-excavated after twenty-five years and your child has been buried longer than that."  

     Vicki wanted to know if she could visit Hart Island. I told her that I would try to arrange it. She told me that she had a heart condition and was no longer eligible for surgery. She wanted to go soon because she was becoming less able to walk. Vicki went to Hart Island with her son Joe who almost died of meningitis as an infant and was left blind. She took forty roses, one for each birthday that her daughter had been missing.  

     The process of burying people removed from public access has denied a complete mourning process to people from all over the country. New York has always been an immigrant city. The potter's fields are filled with people who are not just poor but who are without social connections. Like the inmates who are serving time for lack of a thousand dollars bail, the potter's field is full of people who are without an organized community. The visits to Hart Island lead me to wonder about commemoration. It was hardly surprising to discover small memorials created by the inmates. In particular, the offerings of food and small crosses, such as those in the photograph of the madonna with an orange, were noticeable personal gestures. Sentiment toward the children buried there was also apparent among the inmates. Charles Yarborough wrote:  

"I've been on Hart Island, working now for almost two months, and in my opinion the hardest thing I find about being, working, here is putting down the little ones, the babies. It's hard, when you think about it, you know. No one knows where they are, what happened to the kids. That makes me think about my kids, about what and how they're doing, you know. It's the kind of feeling you have to be there to see it, to understand. I think even the hardest ones on this island would feel something at this point. Think about it."[20]

     Each time I go to Hart Island, I think of my daughter Emily's version of the river Styx and wonder if the place might some day become less desolate and forbidden. In an urban child's mind a place of comfort might correspond with a familiar park. Young children go there everyday. Early in life, parks become sacred places offering a retreat from urban bustle. We plant trees in these places to commemorate people we love. We travel to our parks to remember certain things and to forget others. I began to think that it might be possible to acknowledge the burials within the old potter's fields that have already become public parks. With this idea, Joel, Margot and I began to design a public artwork intended to bring recognition to the nearly one million people buried anonymously in all of the city cemeteries combined. It was inspired by the prisoners' writings and a desire to place them in a public venue. We wanted to reconnect Hart Island with a larger community. Titled Just Outside the City this temporary artwork was sited for a small triangle at the corner of Broadway and Chambers Streets in City Hall Park. The purpose of the artwork was to commemorate all New Yorkers who were buried without distinction or ceremony in mass graves.  

     Just before it was installed in 1993, Just Outside the City was censored by New York City under pressure from a federally appointed African Burial Ground Steering Committee.[21] The committee clearly had ideas for commemoration which were not inclusive of voices from prison or of the diversity of people buried in mass graves on Hart Island. While the censorship of Just Outside the City was legally overturned in 1994, with help from the American Civil Liberties Union, it remains a forbidden project for funding.  

   The blending of historic interpretations is a key dynamic of American society. The relevance of the African Burial Ground to contemporary society is diminished by the limitations of a singular history. Hart Island is perhaps the finest illustration of how great numbers of individuals are excluded from the historic record.  

     It is my conclusion that the story of the potter's fields is not one that easily corresponds with anyone's vision of dignity. As I moved on to other projects over the past few years, including Circle of Hope, a commemoration of the potter's field at Madison Square Park in 1994, I keep returning to references associating the almshouse, the African Burial Ground and the history of the potter's fields.  

     Although it was not called "potter's field" there is clearly evidence of burials in the African Burial Ground and Commons Historic District associated with the almshouses and the American Revolution. All subsequent potter's fields were directly related to the almshouses and their spin-off institutions. As a result of major reforms to the penal codes following the Revolution, the potter’s fields became paired with reform rather than capital punishment. Nonetheless, prisoners and people on the fringes of society continue to be associated with an isolated public cemetery.  

     A journey to Hart Island reveals fragments of history that have never been woven into the fabric of American life. The story extends to a full spectrum of historic events from mothballs to mythic. The story of the potter's fields in New York City is not a singular history. It is a collection of stories which co-exist in a city with an ongoing tradition of Diaspora. It is not a quilt under which anyone wants to be laid to rest. Such a quilt would be nameless. Who would weave such an ugly quilt? The dull blend of scraps are instead thrown in a pot and boiled down in the hopes that a more useful social fabric might be woven by later generations.  

     This is the melting pot that the ancient inmates in the barracks above Cemetery Hill on Hart Island watched over. They saw a younger generation of men and boys struggle to pull themselves out of the trenches. They reflected on their existence outside the social fabric. They saw the numbers from yellow fever, cholera, tuberculosis and influenza. They must have wondered, as we all do, about the babies.   No one wants to view themselves or their ancestors buried among strangers. In an immigrant city, however, we continually find ourselves among foreigners, some of whom we would rather not know. The potter's field of Hart Island is not anyone's preferred eternal resting place. That it exists unchanged since the birth of this country speaks to a less visible part of the American melting pot. As an immigrant and an artist I have journeyed to its depths.


[1] Matthew 27:5-7, New American Bible. Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, DC Benziger, Inc., New York/Beverly Hills, 1970.

[2] Stokes, I. N. Phelps, The Iconography of Manhattan Island 1498-1909. Robert H. Dodd, New York: 1922. Reprinted Arno Press Inc., New York: 1967. Vol. 4, April 10,1696, p. 394.

[3] Stokes, I. N. Phelps, The Iconography of Manhattan Island 1498-1909. Robert H. Dodd, New York: 1928. Reprinted Arno Press Inc., New York: 1967. Vol. 6, Index, p. 337.

[4] "Purchase of Hart's Island," New York Times, February 27,1869, p. 8:3.

[5] Jenkins, Stephen, The Greatest Street in the World: The Story of Broadway, Old and New, from the Bowling Green to Albany. New York: G.P. Putnam & Sons and London: The Knickerbocker Press, 1911, Reprinted 1912. The three "R's" were reading, riting and rithmetic.

[6] "The Future of Hart's Island," New York Times. April 3,1899, p. 7:3.

[7] "Report on New Reformatory" New York Times. December 7,1904, p. 6:2.

[8] Riis, Jacob A., "2. The Potter's Field, the Common Trench." Photograph: Jacob A. Riii Collection. Museum of the City of New York, New York, NY, ca. 1890.

[9] "Criticizes Hart's Island," New York Times. July 14, 1915, p. 18:3.

[10] Blackwell's Island was renamed Welfare Island in 1921. After the penitentiary closed in 1935, Welfare Island became a prison for sick and aging inmates until the 1970s. Then it was renamed Roosevelt Island and developed as low-income housing.

[11] "Judge Bars Court to Jail Broadcast," New York Times. March 27, 1930, p. 9:5.

[12] "Stadium Opened for Hart Island," New York Times. May 27,1960, p. 33:1.

[13] "Haberman, Clyde, "City to Set Up Island work Camps To Punish "Low Level' Offenders," New York Times. May 13, 1982, p. 1:3.

[14] "Sutton, Derrick, Personal Writing Piker's Island Inmate an Hart Island, collection of the author, written April 3, 1992.

[15] "Marrero, Miguel AKA Boss, Personal Writing Riker's Island Inmate on Hart Island, collection of the author, 1992.

[16] "Warned Builder to Obtain License," New York Times. June 4,1925 p. 10:1.

[17] "Says Hyland Held up Hart's Island Sale," New York Times. June 9,1925, p. 23:4

[18] Furman, Gabriel, Journal Notes identifying names on markers from individual graves of those buried in the potter's field located at the current site of Madison Square Park in Manhattan, original document. Collection of the Museum of the City of New York, New York, NY.

[19] "Sutton, Derrick, Personal Writing by a Riker's Island Inmate on Hart Island, Collection of the author, March, 1992.

[20] "Yarborough, Charles Jr., Personal Writing by a Riker's Island Inmate on Hart Island. Collection of the author, June 23, 1992.

[21] Myers, Steven Lee, "Politics of Present Snag Remembrance of Past," New York Times. July 20, 1993, p. B1.


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