Monday, April 7, 2014

One million buried in mass graves
on forbidden New York island

A sailboat passes behind an abandoned building on Hart Island in New York, where each white plastic pipe near the building marks an infant mass gravesite, one plastic pipe per 1,000 babies, pictured on April 5, 2014A sailboat passes behind an abandoned building on Hart Island in New York, where each white plastic pipe near the building marks an infant mass gravesite, one plastic pipe per 1,000 babies, pictured on April 5, 2014
All this in the land of the free? OMG!!! -AK

08 April 2014 - 04H35
One million buried in mass graves on forbidden New York island

Most New Yorkers don't even know it exists. But a million forgotten souls are buried in mass graves dug by convicts on a tiny, forbidden island east of the Bronx.

Since 1869, still-born babies, the homeless, the poor and the unclaimed have been stacked one upon the other, three coffins deep, on Hart Island.

Corpses are interned in great, anonymous trenches. There are no tombstones. Small white posts in the ground mark each 150 adult bodies. A thousand children and infants are buried together per grave.

It is one of the largest cemeteries in the United States. And the least visited.

The men doing the digging are convicts from Rikers Island, petty offenders tasked with carrying bodies to their final resting place.

Nearly 1,500 fresh corpses arrive each year, says visual artist Melinda Hunt, who heads the Hart Island Project, which campaigns to make the cemetery visible and accessible.

The authorities say nearly a million people have been buried here since 1869.

It is forbidden to film and photograph the uninhabited, windswept island. Visits must be authorized by the Department of Corrections, which runs the island.

First used as a cemetery in the Civil War, Hart Island has variously served as a training camp, a prison for captured Confederates, a workhouse, a mental asylum and even a Cold War missile base.

The only jetty is closed to the public, hemmed in by railings, barbed wire and spikes. Notice boards warn people to keep out.

- Records long inaccessible -

For years, records of who's been buried where have been patchy and negotiating access has proved challenging.

Some have been lost, others burnt. Families sometimes cannot even find out if their loved ones were buried by the city.

"You have a right to know where a person is. It's very important not to disappear people. It's not an acceptable thing to do in any culture," Hunt said.

The Department of Corrections says it doesn't have the infrastructure to welcome visitors on an island where the buildings are dilapidated and abandoned.

Under pressure, however, the authorities have allowed a few visits since 2007, albeit within a gazebo far from the graves.

"You don't see anything," said Elaine Joseph, a 59-year-old nurse whose baby daughter died at five days old in 1978.

"They check your ID, and ask you to hand over your cell phone, any electronic equipment and they put it in an envelope and lock it and then you get to the island, they ask for your ID again.

"They treat you as a visitor of an inmate," she said.

In November, a small group of women who threatened to bring a complaint were given permission to visit specific grave sites.

Joseph became the first to go on March 14.

Once there, she broke down in tears.

"I can't say I found closure. When you lose a child, there really is never closure. There is a piece of you that is gone," she said.

"I did find solace in that there was water surrounding it and there was a lovely view."

She was even allowed to take a photograph.

Laurie Grant, a 61-year-old doctor who gave birth to a still-born daughter in 1993, hopes to be the next.

But on March 28, she waited in vain in the rain on the jetty.

Due to unwillingness or miscommunication, those who were supposed to ferry her across the water left before she even arrived.

- Public cemetery closed to public -

Over the years, Hunt said she has lost track of all the families she has tried to help, though estimates the number is at least 500.

Most were Americans, but there have been others from France, the Netherlands and Poland, and one Irish woman looking for a grandfather.

The Hart Island Project has so far managed to list more than 60,000 burials in the database.

A bill has been introduced to the city council seeking to transfer the island to the parks administration, but has not been taken up yet.

Joseph dreams of being able to return as often as she wants to what she calls "a public cemetery that the public is not allowed to visit."

She also dreams of flowers and a bench to honor her baby. "If I can put a marker on a bench, I'll be happy," she said.

Date created : 2014-04-08

Hart Island: An American Cemetery


Director: Melinda HuntCo-production:  Banff New Media InstituteMusic: Fred HerschRuntime: 66 minutes

Hart Island Video

Hart Island is America's largest cemetery where three quarters of a million people have been buried in mass graves on 101 acres of an island in the Bronx. Four families struggle to sort out how their relative ended up on Hart Island. They confront social stigma, outdated policies, police oversights and  complacency. They defy the assumption that no one cares about people buried in the potter's field.

At the end of a long journey through a labyrinth of city agencies: the NYPD, the Office of the Medical Examiner, and the NYC Department of Correction they locate a truth about how easily people become lost.  They struggle to perform the most basic grieving rituals: visiting a grave, spreading the parents' ashes, locating a body mistakenly buried, searching the records and seeking justice.

Each family represents a larger group of who is buried on Hart Island: infants, immigrants, victims of disease and epidemics and victims of crime.Their stories are separated into chapters within the Nineteenth Century poem by Walt Whitman,  "Leaves of Grass."  This poem is set to music composed by Fred Hersch and sung by Kurt Elling. It portrays the beauty and darkness of Hart Island that is unchanged since Whitman's lifetime.

Hart Island is the last undeveloped one hundred acres in New York City, a place abundant nature. Yet, it carries a primal fear of being forgotten. The burial place of three quarters of a million people, it represents a democracic as well as the looming flipside of the American Dream.

A rough cut was completed in 2002. Second cut completed in 2007.

About the Director
Melinda Hunt is an interdisciplinary artist  whose works include video, photography, installation, and public art. She graduated from Reed College in 1981. She received a M.F.A. in Sculpture (1985) from the Yale School of Art and a M.S. in Digital Imaging & Design (2007) from New York University.  She founded the Hart Island Project in 1991.  She published a book Hart Island (1998) in a collaboration with photographer Joel Sternfeld. She has received  awards from the Connecticut Commission on the Arts (1987), New York State Council on the Arts (1995, 2000, 2011) and Canada Council  for the Arts  (2008, 2009).

Additional Information
In 1991, Melinda Hunt began visiting Hart Island with Joel Sternfeld to photograph document the burials and the abandoned prison island. She worked with inmates to obtain testimonials of the process. In 1994, she began to negotiate with the Department of Correction in New York City to travel to Hart Island with relatives of the buried. In 1999 she took two people, Paul and Pat, whose common tie was two relatives buried on Hart Island. The documentary begins with this trip and continues with new interviews on the present website of families who make the journey to Hart Island.

In 2002, Arnie Charnick contacted Melinda about going to Hart Island to spread his mother's ashes. Arnie has chosen to bury his brother,  Ray, a drug addict who died of AIDS in 1997, on Hart Island. He wanted to reunite his family. By the time, permission was granted, Arnie's father had  died.

In 1982 Rose Lorincz was buried as Unknown White Female after her body was discovered floating in the Hudson River. She was disinterred twenty years later and her boyfriend was charged with murder. In 2005 he was convicted of aggravated manslaughter  in accordance with 1982 laws. Due to statute of limitations on old manslaughter laws he could not be sentenced. Phyllis, his sister tells the story of how she help him dump the body in the river and then turned him in after 20 years.

Interviews include: Tom Antenen, Deputy Commissioner, NYC Dept of Correction, Ken Jackson, Historian, Columbia University Peggy Cauldwell-Ott, Forensic Anthropologist, Alan Olson, former inmate, Patrick Walsh, retired Correction Officer.

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