Hart Island in New York is a massive burial site for the poor and unclaimed. A mass grave cemetary, also known as a “Potter’s field”, Hart Island (sometimes referred to as Hart’s Island or Heart Island) is run by the New York City Department of Correction, and few living people, other than the Rikers Island inmates who dig the pauper’s graves, are allowed to set foot on Hart Island. Even for the relatives of the dead who are buried there, the New York City DoC grants visiting permission only rarely.
The term “Potter’s field” refers to land that is made of clay, from which potters would get their potting material, and, being good for nothing else, would be come a burial ground.
According to the City of New York Department of Corrections “New York City purchased Hart Island in 1868 to serve as its Potter’s Field — a place of burial for unknown or indigent people. It is the tenth Potter’s Field in the City’s history. Previous NYC Potter’s Fields were located at
the current sites of Washington Square, Bellevue Hospital, Madison Square, the NYC Public Library, Wards Island and Randall’s Island.”
Previous to its current role as a cemetary for the poor and unindentified, Hart Island had served as a TB quarantine site, a boys reform school, and even a prison camp during the civil war. However, since 1869, Hart Island has served primarily as a burial ground, with both the poor and the homeless, as well as unclaimed bodies, being buried there, along with amputated limbs. Bodies are buried in trenches, with adults going into one trench, and infants into another.
And nearly all in unmarked graves.
And this is where the Internet-based Travelling Cloud Museum comes in.
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Traveling Cloud Museum founder Melinda Hunt is on a mission to bring the nearly 1million people buried on Hart Island out of the shadows of anonymity, and to shine a light on their names, so that their friends and family can find them. The Traveling Cloud Museum does this by publishing what little information they have been able to glean from the records of the dead (they had to sue to get access to that database), and then people can go to the Traveling Cloud Museum site, and fill in information, and add stories about the deceased.
The database only goes back to 1980, and so covers only 62,231 of the dead but, at least, it’s a start.
In an interview with NPR, Hunt explains that “These stories are interesting because they’re a little more complex than, say, somebody who had a straightforward life and a perfect family and the way obituaries portray people, which nobody’s life really is.”
You can visit the Traveling Cloud Museum here.