Since 1869, an estimated 850,000 of New York’s unclaimed, impoverished dead have been interred on Hart Island off the coast of the Bronx. They are the city’s ultimate nobodies, collected and ferried over to the island’s 101-acre potter’s field to be stacked in pine coffins and buried by city-prison inmates.
Several years ago, when I was researching a story, I came across Melinda Hunt’s Hart Island Project, a fight to shed some light on the mystery — and hidden bureaucracy — that is Potter’s Field. Administered by the Department of Corrections, for years it was nearly impossible to find out whether your father or daughter or friend, whether because of poverty or fraud or mistake, was buried there. Worse yet, if you did find out, it was nearly impossible to get permission to visit the island, involving a long and tortuous trail of paperwork that many didn’t have the time or knowledge to pursue.
Because of Hunt, there is now a Web-based database where families can find out whether a missing person may have been buried there — and if so, where. It’s an example of how an injustice can perpetuate itself for generations because nobody, outside those affected, know about it — and about how one determined person can make a difference.