Mercury School Ship Memorial

(c. 1878)

When the City purchased Hart Island in 1868, part of the property was to be used for a workhouse and industrial school for delinquent boys from the House of Refuge on Randall’s Island. Additionally, a commercial ship, the Mercury, was to be converted to a naval vessel and used as a nautical school or “school ship” to teach the boys navigational skills. The school was managed by the Department of Charities and Correction from 1869 to 1875. The short-lived program ended in part due to lack of funds following the financial panic of 1873 and following the drowning deaths of two boys just off Hart Island, for which this memorial, the oldest on Hart Island, was dedicated. The memorial is located on the rise of “cemetery hill” overlooking the oldest part of City Cemetery. It was described in 1878 by The New York Times as “a shapely cross made by laying upon the ground white pebbles from the sea-shore…On each side of the stone cross is a little grave…In each of these lonely graves lies a little sailor boy. When the school-ship Mercury lay off Hart’s Island, not long ago, two of her little sailors died, and they were laid, messmates on ship-board, side by side in the grave, as if they had gone into that dismal pit hand in hand...” The cross now has white painted boards within the outline of white painted river stones. The memorial stands as a reminder of both the workhouse and the Mercury school ship program, and illustrates the connection between the burial process and the young men required to work in custody of the DOC.

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