paul la rosa

The island of New York’s unclaimed dead….

Back in the 1980’s, when I was a young reporter at the New York Daily News, an excited fisherman called the city desk one day to report on a mysterious island he’d come across up near the Bronx. There was no one living on the island, the man said. All he could see were wooden coffins. It was unreal and, if I were interested, he’d take me over.

The next day was drab and dreary. Rain threatened but I met this guy in the Bronx and we shoved off in his little boat for this island I was sure he’d imagined. He mentioned something about the tide being high and we had better make sure to get back in time or we’d be stuck there for nightfall.

If what he was saying was true, this was the last place I’d want to be stuck for the night. I already had a sense of foreboding since the island seemed so cold and lifeless.

But we set off anyway to explore the interior and I quickly saw that everything he said was true. I felt I had stumbled into a real life horror movie. There were long open trenches half filled with wooden coffins. Hundreds of other coffins were piled high next to the trench awaiting their ultimate fate.

A silent bulldozer stood idle, as did dozens of shovels. Looming above us was a giant cross and all around were abandoned buildings, some with no roofs, others missing walls. We were all alone. What was this place?

I looked at the papers stapled to sides of nearly every coffins. There were descriptions of the bodies–many of them babies–and dates and hospital names. I later learned I had stumbled across New York’s Potter’s Field. It was called Hart Island and it’s where the unclaimed dead go to be buried.

Burials then and now are done by a crew of inmates from Rikers Island, weather permitting. It is considered a perk because the inmates get a boat ride and a trip off their own island.

There were restricted signs all over the island that I ignored as I went around doing my research. Believe me, I kept one eye on the tide so we were not get stranded there overnight.

With some checking back at the office, I discovered that two city agencies were fighting over the burials and they were backing up. Hundreds of coffins were left out in the open air and half filled trenches remained unopened.

Not a lot has changed on Hart Island in the past 30 years. Two public agencies are still fighting over the island and the wooden coffins are still placed in trenches by inmates from Rikers Island.

What I didn’t know then is that no one is allowed to visit the island although a lawsuit resulted in the city being forced to allow some family to visit irregularly. (For the curious, it seems some family members have been able to track down loved ones well after the fact and do want to spend a few moments with their remains.)

“It seems so 19th century,” Councilman Brad Lander, told the NY Times this week. “It’s ghoulish to think of Rikers inmates being trucked over to bury infants who have been abandoned.”

That’s a pretty good way of describing the island that some think would be better used as a park although that sounds like a different horror flick. If you want to know more, be sure to visit this site run by filmmaker Melissa Hunt who has been trying for along time to allow the public to have more open access to the island. The eerie images and music remind me of the day I set foot there.

No one was there when I visited all those years ago. If someone is posted there to stand guard now, well, all I know is that’s a job I would not want.

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