By Thomas C. McCarthy
NYC Correction historian
If you look long and closely enough into NYC history, you’ll sometimes come across unanticipated yet intriguing, and even profoundly moving reoccurrences: echoes from the past. The histories of two East River islands help illustrate the point.
They were bound together for more than six decades by rituals of death performed on one isle by the living on the other.
One of those, now named Roosevelt Island but previously called Blackwell’s and later Welfare Island, is directly under the Queensboro/Edward I. Koch (59th Street.) Bridge. But it can be accessed on foot or in a vehicle via a bridge from Astoria’s Ravenswood section. The island also can be accessed by tramway from Manhattan and via the IND subway F train.
In the Nineteenth and much of the early Twentieth Century, the island was home to NYC’s penitentiary, workhouse, public hospitals, asylums, almshouses and similar facilities termed “charitable institutions.” For many decades they were operated by the Department of Public Charities and Correction (DOPCC). Let’s leave aside for another day the question of whether any large public institution is capable of being charitable and correctional.
The other island, named Hart, is the location of the municipal burial grounds known as Potter’s Field where the unclaimed remains of the city’s dead are buried by inmates from Rikers Island under supervision of Correction Officers. Let’s also leave aside for that “other day” the question of whether a name pronounced “heart” is sympathetically appropriate or bitterly ironic for an isle of Unclaimed Dead whose body count is approaching one million.
In the era when both islands were part of DOPCC’s domain, using the Blackwell’s penitentiary prisoners as work crews at Hart’s City Cemetery made economic and logistical sense to the dual-purpose agency’s commissioners. Many of the unclaimed bodies came from the agency’s own “charitable institutions” – on Blackwell’s, Hart and elsewhere throughout the city. A significant number of patients and residents of those facilities (if not most) wound up inside them because they had no kith or kin financially able and/or personally willing to support them in life during their need. So too in death these unfortunates had no one able and/or willing to claim their bodies.
In 1895/1896 reformers in and outside of government succeeded in splitting apart the dual agency, spinning Correction and Public Charities into separate departments. The law imposing the divorce provided that Correction operations were to be removed from Blackwell’s and relocated primarily on Rikers or Hart island.
Interestingly, one of the arguments voiced by advocates for busting up the big DOPCC bureaucracy was that the stigma of criminality attached unfairly in the public mind to the “deserving poor” in the charitable facilities because the facilities were being administered by the same agency that ran the prisons and jails housing the “undeserving poor.”
That some inmates from the correctional institutions served as groundskeepers and maintenance workers at – and even sometimes in the hospitals and asylums only strengthened critics’ demands that the criminal taint built into the physical proximity as well as the joint administration be ended and removed.
While enactment of the June 1895 law ended the joint administration six months later, right on the legislatively dictated schedule of Jan. 1, the actual removal of correctional operations from Blackwell’s took approximately four decades to implement. It required landfill expansion of Rikers and construction of the replacement penitentiary which opened circa 1936.
Even though on Jan. 1, 1896, the Department of Correction and the Department of Public Charities became separate agencies, DOC continued to bury the unclaimed dead from DOPC’s institutions in Potter’s Field. In fact, the legislation establishing their separation provided quite specifically for their collaboration with respect to the city Cemetery’s operation. It continues today with volunteer Rikers inmate work crews and assigned officers.
But, in our own era, reformers in and out government have resurrected the old “criminal stigma” argument, with a modern twist, to promote yet another spinning off of NYC Correction – its removal from Hart Island and City Cemetery operations. In this iteration of the stigma complaint, the objectionable taint stems not from any character defect or bad reputation imputed to the prisoners themselves. That they are convicted criminals serving misdemeanor sentences of a year or less is not the concern. Rather, it’s the constraining Correction presence and security procedures which are faulted. These are cited as making some visitors feel like they are regarded as suspects or criminals themselves and that the dead they came to be near are so regarded too.
Having escorted many families on City Cemetery visits and explained to them the historic origins of the Correction presence there, the response they expressed to me was one of closure, a sense of appreciation for the care and respect shown them and to their loved ones’ buried remains. More than a few said they were pleasantly surprised at what they encountered, given the negative impression sometimes conveyed in the media. The historian in me, of course, recognizes that such positive commentary is only anecdotal data and that perhaps those I escorted wanted to make me feel good about my efforts on their behalf.
So their positive statements hardly invalidate the subjective experience of others who may well have felt victimized by the setting. Perhaps they looked for their experience in a municipal burial ground for unclaimed bodies to be more like visiting private cemeteries of the claimed dead.
This is not mentioned to initiate pro and con discussion of Potters Field management but to spotlight how the Correction “stigma” argument recycled, with a difference, from the late 19th Century into the first decades of the 21st Century. It is the recycling of themes or echoing phenomena which emerges now and again in history that this observer finds so fascinating and seeks to share with the reader.
Consider also, for example, the reoccurrence on Blackwell’s and Hart Island of “old-soldiers-saluting-old-soldiers” on occasions not dictated by patriotic calendars and in ways not traditional.
That “old soldier salutes” echo on Hart seems fitting. Before Public Charities and Correction acquired the island in 1868, it had served as a mustering-in and training camp for Union forces, including the U.S. Colored Troops 31st Infantry Regiment, and later as a POW camp for captured Confederate soldiers. In fact, barracks and other structures vacated by the military were put to immediate use by the municipal agency.
The first of these historically note-worthy Blackwell’s/Hart “old soldier salutes” was tended by retired General James Bowen, then president of the NYC Board of Public Charities and Correction. He did so in the board’s 1869 annual report by announcing establishment of a “Soldiers’ Retreat.”
“There is a large number of volunteer soldiers in the late war, citizens of New York, who, from infirmities caused by exposure in the field, are unable to obtain a livelihood.
“Many of them have been compelled to apply to the Department for support.
“To such as who are unmarried, the Commissioners have assigned the east wing of the Inebriate Asylum, where they are organized in squads and perform such light labor as their wounds and infirmities will permit.”
Gen. Bowen identified with these “citizens of New York” who had volunteered in that “late war.” Previously, as president of the NY’s Metropolitan Police Board, he helped organize a half-dozen Metro PD-sponsored volunteer regiments which trained on Rikers or Hart Islands, not then part of the Public Charities & Correction’s domain. He himself served in the war as the Army’s provost for the Gulf region. Afterward, he served a decade at DOPCC.
An 1870 report described the Soldiers’ Retreat in more detail.
“Large numbers of them . . . are without pensions, while others who receive pensions for lost arms and legs have families dependent on them. The General [federal] Government has established hospitals in Maine and Ohio. But, if the soldier avails himself of the relief they afford, he is deprived of his pension and separated from his family for whom the pension may be the sole means of support.
“Many of the soldiers sought refuge in the alms-houses and hospitals of the Department as sick and destitute citizens of New York. The Commissioners have assigned them to [the Soldiers’ Retreat] until further provision shall be made for them by the State or General Government.
“There have been received at the Soldiers’ Retreat during the year, 511 soldiers . . . .”
An 1871 official report described their routine as quasi-military – bugle calls, daily inspections, light work details under “sergeants,” monthly furloughs, etc. The veterans were issued military style clothing distinguishable from the institutional garb worn by other men at the Asylum or Almshouse. The aim was clearly to promote esprit de corps, individually and as a team, despite the adverse circumstances.
Although the Retreat was situated on another of DOPCC’s islands (Ward’s), Gen. Bowen’s seeing to these down-and-out Civil War vets being kept together – thereby drawing strength, self-respect and consolation from the old soldiers’ camaraderie in their declining years – led eventually, almost inevitably, to keeping them together, at least for a while, in Hart’s City Cemetery, if their remains went unclaimed.
Deaths among Retreat residents on Ward’s Island — as well as among veterans in the agency’s institutions on Blackwell’s and elsewhere— figured into development of what became known as the Soldiers’ Plot on Hart Island. It was a separate burial yard of individual Civil War veteran graves within the larger City Cemetery where individual graves were rare. Most remains in the municipal burial ground for unclaimed dead were and are interred in trenches, each of which accommodates 150 or so coffins and is covered over when its coffin limit is reached.
By 1875/1876, Hart’s veterans’ graveyard within Potter’s Field held the bodies of a dozen ex-soldiers and sailors from the “late war.” Their graves were being decorated on patriotic holidays by members of the Reno Post of the Grand Army of the Republic.
Gen. Bowen’s “Soldiers’ Retreat” and its logical extension, the Soldiers’ Plot, combined to represent in the initial sounding of the old soldiers’ salute between Blackwell’s and Hart. GAR Reno Post’s attentiveness to the Soldiers’ Plot represents continuance of the theme.
The GAR was a Union vets national organization that would number nearly a half million by 1890. Its various community posts included racially integrated as well as mostly or all African American memberships. It also included posts with memberships predominantly of one national cultural heritage or another, and predominantly one service (navy, infantry, cavalry) or another.
The chief factor contributing to initiation of the Soldiers’ Plot on Hart – aging — probably figured also into the closing the Soldiers’ Retreat on Ward’s. So did the federal government finally opening its own such facilities. “During the past year a large proportion of these men have gained admission to National Soldiers’ Homes, the majority going to Hampton, Va., and Dayton, Ohio,” wrote the Retreat’s medical chief of staff announcing its closing in 1875. “A few soldiers in the Retreat too infirm to [travel that far] were consequently transferred to the Homoeopathic Hospital [also on Ward’s].”
Undoubtedly the prime mover behind DOPCC ordering a monument shaft installed in Hart’s Soldiers’ Plot, GAR Reno Post #44 unveiled with appropriate ceremonies the 14-foot obelisk on Memorial Day, 1877. The actual installation was carried out by the Army. Until the Reno Post’s own members passed away, they faithfully held Memorial Day services every year at the Civil War graveyard within Potter’s Field. Later the Reno Camp of the Sons of Union Veterans continued the tradition.
About two decades after the obelisk’s ceremonial unveiling, which had been attended by sundry dignitaries, military and civilian, another ceremony concluded at Soldiers’ Plot on Hart after having begun on Blackwell’s. It also drew a fair number of attendees. They were much less prominent but no less dignified, despite their canes, crutches, limps, and wheelchairs.
Most in attendance at that special military funeral arranged for Patrick McCarthy [I don’t have the honor of being related, so far as I know] were, like the deceased, Blackwell’s Island almshouse residents who had fought for the Union yet were not in federally-provided facilities for some reason.
Brig. Gen. James Rowan O’Beirne of the 37th NY Volunteer Infantry aka “Irish Rifles,” who had arranged the honor rites and the Hart Island grave burial for the almshouse Civil War veteran, vowed to discover the reason and to rectify or ameliorate the situation. He declared himself aware some of the almshouse ex-soldiers had applied to the federal refuges but been rejected and that others who had been accepted were returned or returned themselves. The retired brevet general also vowed to investigate those aspects as well.
A Medal of Honor recipient for bravery in battle, he had served as provost of Washington, D.C., played a significant role in the successful hunt for Lincoln assassination conspirators, later worked as a NY and Washington journalist and served as an Ellis Island immigration administrator. Active in GAR affairs as well as Irish heritage events, O’Beirne generated so much NY news print in his day with his various endeavors and exploits that the non-bylined but very moving Journal March 14, 1896 (three days before the St. Patrick’s parade) story of Patrick McCarthy’s funeral failed to mention that O’Beirne was a Public Charities Commissioner. Quite possibly the editors considered their readers already knew that.
Pursuant to the law mandating DOPCC’s split-up on Jan.1, 1896, Mayor William L. Strong had named on the preceding Dec. 21 the single commissioner of the new Department of Correction and the three commissioners to run the new Department of Public Charities. O’Beirne was one of the latter three.
The Journal old soldiers’ salute story provided all the touching details – the flag-draped rosewood coffin instead of a plain pinewood box; the body in a soldier’s uniform, not almshouse drab; a solemn chapel service with a choir and priest, instead of no rites at all; the first few pews filled with 28 almshouse veterans, several of them blinded, amputees or otherwise maimed; other almshouse residents in attendance, men on one side, women the other; and the tears flowing from eyes that had not wept in years, perhaps decades.
Atop the page and story available online at the Library of Congress, a powerful illustration conveys how six more able-bodied ex-soldiers, dressed in military uniforms, carried on their shoulders the casket, containing their comrade’s remains, to the steamer to Hart Island where the ceremonial volleys were fired over his grave.
Three years later a fictional short story entitled “A Burial by Friendless Post,” written by Robert Shackleton, was published in Scribner’s Magazine. It bore an extraordinarily striking resemblance to the unattributed NY Journal story cited above. A case of art imitating life . . . and death?
Although another “old soldiers’ salute” instance in Blackwell’s/Hart Islands history took place the Sunday before Memorial Day 1916, it wasn’t what one thinks of as a traditional holiday commemoration. That was when more than a thousand persons took part in ceremonies attending the disinterment of the remains of six from Potters’ Field Soldiers’ Plot and their reburial in Old West Farms Soldiers Cemetery, the Bronx.
The graveyard, at 180th St, and Bryant Ave., south of the Bronx Zoo, began as a private cemetery owned by the Butler family. Its earliest burials were the remains of War of 1812 soldiers, both among Butler kin and close neighbors. That early trend continued through the nation’s various wars. On patriotic holidays so many graves would be decorated, the little graveyard took on the appearance of being a national cemetery. Soon it also took on the character of being one as well when the community started making it the site of its patriotic observances.
Eventually, a community committee took over running the cemetery as a soldiers’ burial ground and actively sought to bury the remains of those veterans who might otherwise have be interred in Potter’s Field, albeit in a special section within that City Cemetery on Hart Island.
In fact, for years the West Farms Memorial Park Society members had sought to arrange disinterment of all in Potter’s Field “Soldiers’ Plot.” The society wanted the remains buried in its soldiers’ graveyard. But the funds raised as of 1916 would permit disinterment and reinterment of only the half dozen. The society regarded that simply “a successful first effort.”
The six coffins containing the disinterred soldiers’ bodies were taken from Hart by DOPC steamer with police boat escort, to the 135th St. East River dock where a NY National Guard detachment placed them on individual caissons. National Guard Second Battery pallbearers and several hundred Bronx Boy Scouts met the cortege at the West Farms Soldiers Memorial Cemetery. Father Francis Duffy, chaplain of the “Fighting 69th” Regiment, whose statue graces Times Square, and the Rev. Dr. George Bolsterle of the Anderson Memorial Church conducted the services.
The six coffins were lowered simultaneously into their new graves by Boy Scouts. Some 150 children from Public School 45 sang “Nearer, My God, to Thee” and “America.” Second Battery members fired a gun salute.
During the event a speaker declared, “In time others of the more than 20 still buried on Hart Island will be buried here.” The prediction was only partly accurate: true, the others were buried elsewhere, but not at West Farms. An inscription added to the base of Hart’s obelisk explains:
“The remains of these veteran Union soldiers and sailors were disinterred June 9, 1941 and an re-interred in the Cypress Hills National Cemetery.”
Until that disinterment – two days shy of exactly six months before the attack on Pearl Harbor — the Reno Camp of Sons of Union Veterans had continued observing Memorial Day at Civil War graveyard within Potter’s Field up to and including 1940.
In 1954, a long campaign by Bronx veterans and civic groups succeeded in persuading NYC municipal government to take on responsibility for maintenance of the Old West Farms Soldier Cemetery’s 155-by-190-foot grounds holding some 60 graves of soldiers and veterans from four major wars spanning 1812 through 1918. Thirteen years later, the Landmarks Preservation Commission designated it a city landmark.
These days, the Correction Officers and the Rikers volunteer inmate crews they supervise continue to include the grave-less Soldiers’ Plot in their City Cemetery burial grounds maintenance and care. They tend its very low stone wall and its very tall obelisk, keep the small space free of wild growth, and, in general, show it marked deference because its former occupant remains once hollowed those grounds by resting there.
There the grave-less graveyard silently proclaims the previous presence of Civil War veterans’ buried bodies. They still remain part of Hart’s history aka memory. Thus there too the salute to the old soldiers continues.