Thursday, October 11, 2007

Hart Island

Ah, those mysterious places that we aren't allowed to visit...

In the May 5th, 1928 issue of The New Yorker I've come across a brief description of Hart Island. Known variously as a barracks, missile base, prison, and potter's field, this small New York City island is now off-limits to the public, except for occasional tours granted to historians and other really nosy people.

Here's what it was like in 1928, when people still lived and worked there.
New York's pauper dead are buried in a sandy hill on the north end of Hart's Island in Long Island Sound, a mile from Execution Light. They lie in big graves, tier on tier, unclaimed. It was blowy the day we went out there to see the field, and the low storm-swept island looked particularly weatherbeaten. Michael Breen, warden of the island prison, met us, smiling broadly, glad of a visitor.

Twice a week the boat comes up from Bellevue. The prisoners bury the dead, solemnly and without ceremony, one hundred and fifty to a grave, one white headstone for the lot. It is a beautiful spot--the sweep of the Sound, the restless clang of the bell buoy at the point. An incongruous spot, too, for directly across the water are the homes of the millionaires, Hearst's place on Sands Point, the broad lawns and grandeur of Great Neck.

On the cemetery hill are the frame houses which served as barracks in the Civil War. Now they house ancient prisoners who are too feeble to require iron bars for their detention: old beggars, cripples, panhandlers, old men who hang magazine pictures of beautiful girls above their iron cots. In the centre of the island are the dog-eared brick buildings where the regular prisoners live and work, making clothes, making brooms and shoes, snatching a little sleep on the sea-wall in the sun, between jobs. At the extreme southern end is a house formerly owned by a negro, who ran a negro resort there until a year ago when the City acquired the property.

But nothing much interested us except the field for the dead. Even the statistics seemed important--two hundred and sixty-six thousand persons in that small hill. Mr. Breen allowed us to look at the record books, and we glanced at a few entries: a baby found in the parcel room of the Penn Station, a man picked up in the Fifth Avenue sewer, page after page, six thousand a year. There is a single monument to honor them--a small cross bearing the inscription: "And He shall call His own by name."

As we stood there a gull wheeled and circled above our head. From the far side of the island the wind brought the smell of tide flats, the incessant sounding of the bell. And rather vaguely we heard the fine Irish voice of Michael Breen: "Thim horsechissnut trees will be all full o' blossoms soon--pretty as a picture!"
You want pictures? I do too, and here are some, taken on a 2000 history tour.

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