24 March 2008

New York: Hart Island ledgers

The Bronx's Hart Island - home to New York City's potter's field - is in the Long Island Sound. The New York Times features an article by Cara Buckley titled "Finding Names for Hart Island's Forgotten."

The babies’ names are single-spaced, fill hundreds of pages, and seem to share little in common apart from the startling brevity of their owners’ lives. Baby girl Walburton, died Feb. 12, 1990. Age: 9 days. Baby girl Mieses, died March 19, 1990, 2 hours old. Baby boy Suazo, died March 20, 1990, five minutes after being born.

Their bodies were put into tiny pine coffins and buried together in a large grave on a lonely, grassy place called Hart Island, part of the Bronx in Long Island Sound. According to the burial ledger, the babies Walburton, Mieses and Suazo, and dozens more infants, are in babies’ trench “No. 51.”

Hart Island is home to New York City’s potter’s field, the place where hundreds of thousands of the city’s anonymous, indigent and forgotten have been laid to rest, tightly packed in pine coffins in common graves. Hart Island is managed and maintained by the city’s Department of Correction, and inmates dig and fill the graves — three bodies deep for adults, five deep for babies — and mark each trench with a numbered concrete block. The island is off limits to the public, though family members who can prove their relatives are buried there are able to arrange visits.

New York sculptor Melinda Hunt has devoted more than 10 years to assisting people to track down Hart Island's dead. Although the handwritten ledgers listing the names were generally inaccessible, Hunt obtained 50,000 records for every person buried there since 1985 through the Freedom of Information Act. She is hoping to use the thousands of pages to create an online database searchable by name or date of death.

Since Ms. Hunt began exploring the world of Hart Island in 1991, she said, hundreds of people have contacted her, desperate to track down relatives who went to New York City and seemingly vanished, or children who died at birth and were buried in haste because their families could afford little else.

The island's history includes a lunatic asylum, a tuberculosis hospital, a boys’ reformatory and a prison, but the cemetery for the unclaimed is estimated to contain some 800,000 dead since 1869. According to the Times story, another 1,500 arrive annually; half are stillbirths and infants.

In 1997, Hunt produced a year-long exhibit on Hart Island, gaining access to its history with photographer Joel Sternfeld. They published a book of photographs in 1998; and later a documentary was made. She became known as the resource for information about the burials, where the only markers are a numbered concrete block for each trench and a ledger entry.

She believes public visits should be allowed at least once a year, but the Department of Correction says security is an issue because inmates work there. Hunt says the need for Hart Island’s burial records to be databased is urgent, but the Correction Department doesn't have the resources. Thousands of ledger records were lost in a 1970s fire. She planned to apply to a state arts foundation for money to post the records online, and to collect the stories.

“People have the right to know where their family members are buried in the city,” she said. “I’m trying to show a hidden part of American culture that I think is important, that I think is overlooked. These are public records. They belong to the people of New York.”

Read more here.

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