Searching for Names on an Island of Graves (NY Times)

Searching for Names on an Island of Graves

New York Times
November 26, 2007
By Sewell Chan

A 1949 list of babies buried at the Potter’s Field on Hart Island. (Photo: New York City Municipal Archives via Melinda Hunt)


New York City has agreed to turn over 1,300 pages of records that could shed light on the identities of some 50,000 people who have been buried over the past several decades at Hart Island, the city’s public burial ground in Long Island Sound.

The records are a missing piece of a puzzle that has obsessed Melinda Hunt, a sculptor, writer and filmmaker who lives in the East Village, for more than 16 years.

Hart Island, a 100-acre swath of land nestled between the Bronx and Queens, has been the final resting place for an estimated three-quarters of a million people since the city acquired it in 1869. It is actually the city’s ninth potter’s field; since the 17th-century paupers, orphans, criminals and mentally ill people who did not have other burial arrangements had been interred in a variety of locations in Manhattan, including parts of what are now Washington Square Park, Madison Square Park and Bryant Park.

From 1991 to 1993, Ms. Hunt worked with the photographer Joel Sternfeld to photograph the desolate landscape of Hart Island, with permission from the city’s Department of Correction, which runs the burial ground. The book of photographs was published in 1998.

“Hart Island is a place outside the vision and minds of most New Yorkers, even those who have family buried there,” Ms. Hunt wrote in the introduction. “It represents the ultimate melting pot, a place where individual lives are blended beyond recognition.” She noted that the city’s practice was to leave bodies at rest for 25 years, after which the bodies are moved to the side to make way for new ones.

But Ms. Hunt’s fascination with the island, and its haunting vista of anonymous grave markers, continued. She created a Web site, the Hart Island Project, and, with support from the New York State Council for the Arts, produced a 66-minute documentary film, “Hart Island: An American Cemetery,” that is scheduled to be screened on March 19, 2008, at the Anthology Film Archives.

The documentary examines the cases of four people buried at Hart Island: Rita Anne Alexander, a newborn infant who died in 1941; Mike Kilmurray, an Irish immigrant and city employee who died suddenly in 1994; Ray Charnick, a former drug addict and convict who died of AIDS in 1997; and Rose Lorincz, a murder victim whose body was retrieved from the Hudson River in 1982.

After The Times published an article in November 2006 about Hart Island that mentioned Ms. Hunt’s documentary project, she received a flood of e-mail messages and phone calls from people who believed they had relatives buried on the island. (In October of this year, Ms. Hunt also submitted a video for City Room about Hart Island.)

Last year, Ms. Hunt filed a request under the state’s Freedom of Information Law, seeking burial records about the four subjects of her documentary. At first she received no response, so she filed an appeal. Ms. Hunt finally found a lawyer, David B. Rankin, who voluntarily pursued the case on her behalf and broadened the request to include all burials since 1985. Meanwhile, Ms. Hunt met with officials from the Correction Department to plead her case in person.

And so, this month, the word came down: The Correction Department had 1,300 pages from ledger books recording burials since 1985. Assuming 38 lines per page — the number of lines per page in older burial books Ms. Hunt has examined in city archives — the records cover about 49,400.

Ms. Hunt, 49, a single mother who has two daughters, is asking the public for help to come up with the $325 she needs to pay the city for photocopying costs. She is asking donors to contribute to her cause through the New York Foundation for the Arts. Eventually, Ms. Hunt hopes to scan in the records and make them available, in searchable form, online.

Ms. Hunt said her interest in the island relates in part to her own immigrant experience. Born and raised in Canada, she arrived in the United States in 1977 and became a citizen in 1990. She said she is proudest of the fact that the Correction Department has opened Hart Island for limited visits by family members (previously, only researchers were allowed to set foot there) and has now turned over records since 1985 for public viewing (some microfilm versions of older records are available at the Municipal Archives on Chambers Street).

“The Department of Correction and I have worked together to reform the system,” Ms. Hunt said. “It’s a really good relationship.”