A Trip to Hart Island by Amy Purtill

Just in time for Halloween, let's go to one of NYC's most haunting places. 

There's a lot that's chilling about Hart Island. A look through some photos on The Kingston Lounge tells the story of a different New York, peopled by its most vulnerable and those on its fringes.  First and foremost, it is New York City's potter's field, which means that all deceased New Yorkers whose bodies are unclaimed by loved ones or cannot be identified wind up here.  It isn't the first - some of NYC's most famous sites, including Washington Square, Bryant Park, and Madison Square Park were all once potter's fields.  Hart Island, though, is the largest by far: there are as many as 1 million people buried here, in the world's largest public grave site. 

An open grave pit in the courtyard of Hart Island's abandoned old asylum. Image via The Kingston Lounge

An open grave pit in the courtyard of Hart Island's abandoned old asylum. Image via The Kingston Lounge

We’re not really sure why it’s called Hart Island.  One theory is that the island itself looks a bit like a human heart.  British mapmakers just before the American Revolution to labelled it “Heart Island;” we’ve since dropped the “e.”  It’s also possible that, since the word “hart” is an old English work for “stag,” it might have once been a place where people hunted deer.  There’s certainly no deer there today.  

Hart Island was part of a package of land bought by Thomas Pell in 1654 from local American Indians. It was bought from Pell’s heirs by Oliver DeLancey in 1774.  The next record of ownership I could find was in 1868, when the City of New York officially purchased the island.  At this point, it had already been in use throughout the Civil War by the Union army.  Since the DeLanceys were firm loyalists during the Revolution, it’s possible that the new American government took ownership of the island after the war, as his and other loyalists’ land was being seized and redistributed to patriots.  By all accounts, it seems to have had little use for nearly 100 years.  

During the Civil War, it was a POW camp for Confederate soldiers.  The remains of the over 200 who died on the island were buried right there along with a number of Union soldiers. There is still a memorial on the island, erected in 1877, to those Union soldiers, though they and their Confederate brothers have since been disinterred and moved to Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn. 

Image via AM New York

Image via AM New York

In 1868, the city purchased the land to use as its potter’s field. The first person buried there was Louisa Van Slyke. At 24 years old, she died in City Hospital on Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island) of yellow fever; she had no family or friends to claim her body, perhaps because she had already lost both parents to the same disease. In 1877, as a result of another yellow fever outbreak, the island sees its first use as a quarantine space. 

Towards the end of the century, a workhouse for delinquent young boys was housed on the island.  The workhouse, which was an extension of the prison on Blackwell’s Island, housed as many as two thousand boys, first in old military barracks, then in newly constructed buildings. When the prison on Blackwell’s Island closed its doors in 1936, the boys were moved to Rikers Island.

The Pavilion building, built in 1885.  Image from The Kingston Lounge

The Pavilion building, built in 1885.  Image from The Kingston Lounge

The “Pavilion building” still stands on the island today.  It was built in 1885 as an insane asylum for women.  Hart Island’s story is one of overcrowding and overflow, particularly from Blackwell’s Island.  Much like the workhouse, the asylum was established here because the old asylum there - location of the famous Nelly Bly story Ten Days in a Mad-House - was overflowing with “patients.”  In 1966, it was converted to a drug rehab centre as part of Phoenix House, which still operates today, though not on the island.  One of the “occupational therapies” of the centre mandated residents to make leather shoes, which remain in remarkable shape, covering the second-story floor of the building in an eerie blanket to this day. 

Image from The Kingston Lounge

During the Second World War, the island became a disciplinary barracks for the Navy, Coast Guard, and Marines.  Three Nazi soldiers found near the Long Island Sound were brought here as POWs. During the Cold War, the north side of the island was turned over again, this time to the Army.  For the next ten years, through the height of Americans’ atomic fears, the island was home to Nike missiles.  The silos, now defunct, remain. 

The Department of Corrections runs the island today, has said that there are somewhere between 750,000 and 1 million bodies interred here.  While you'd normally expect a large margin of error on any number provided by a city office, this might be one number you'd like to see a little more certainty on.

Why does the Department of Corrections run a cemetery, you ask?  It's a good question, but unfortunately there isn't a great answer.  DOC has run prisons on the island throughout its history, between missile silos and tuberculosis hospitals.  Today it is staffed by inmates from Rikers Island, and is actually considered one of the better jobs available to inmates in the prison, as it allows them some time outside.  

Image via Untapped Cities

Image via Untapped Cities

The thing is, when a Prisons office runs a cemetery, they tend to run it like - well, a prison.  There is only one ferry to Hart Island, from neighbouring City Island.  Burials are performed Tuesdays - Fridays each week, with a different day for each borough.  For instance, on Tuesdays bodies from Manhattan are buried, on Wednesday Brooklyn, and so on.  The deceased are piled into mass graves in simple wooden coffins, 150 adults to a grave.  What's really heartbreaking about Hart Island, though, is how many of those buried here are children - infants, mostly, who have died in their first few days of life.  They are fitted with small wooden coffins and buried 1,000 to a grave.

Image via AM New York

Image via AM New York

You might think that you need to lead a homeless, anonymous existence, completely alone in the world, to wind up at Hart Island, but that isn't always the case.  The fact is that many of the children buried here were brought before their mothers even had a chance to claim their bodies.  This was the story of Elaine Joseph, who told AM New York earlier this year about the baby girl she'd had in 1978, but who had lived only for five days.  While Elaine was recovering in hospital, the baby was taken to what she was told would be a public site she'd be able to visit.  It was decades before she was able to even learn that she'd been taken to Hart Island.  Even then, she wasn't allowed to visit the site, since the only people allowed on the island were those Rikers inmates doing the digging.  Some are disinterred and moved when their families are able to find them.  Sometimes, New Yorkers wind up in Hart Island because their families don't speak English well, and run into confusion while trying to claim their loved one.  

The Catholic chapel on Hart Island, built in 1935.  Image via The Kingston Lounge

The Catholic chapel on Hart Island, built in 1935.  Image via The Kingston Lounge

Melissa Hunt from the Hart Island Project has been working tirelessly, on her own, for decades to open up Hart Island and restore some humanity to those interred here.  She's pushed the DOC to keep better records and to make them public, as well as for family members to be able to reconnect with those buried here.  The Project's website focuses on removing the anonymity from those who remain; if you see someone you might know in the "traveling cloud museum," as it's called, then you can add some detail about their life and story.  By contributing to their story, the person is no longer "lost," and the clock which measures their time alone on Hart Island stops.  

This summer, the DOC actually opened up the island to visitors after settling a class-action lawsuit with the New York Civil Liberties Union about the way it runs things there.  Don't start planning your day trip just yet, though -- visitation is limited to family members of those buried here, and is only allowed one day a month.  Some say it's a first step in opening the island up fully, others say it hasn't gone nearly far enough.  While it's also been mentioned that perhaps mourning families shouldn't be made to feel like prison visitors in this particular moment, that hasn't changed the way the place is run.  If you want to go, you'll need to sign in to a DOC visitors' log, and be ready to hand over your camera and phone before you get off the ferry.  

Abandoned bleachers from the Brooklyn Dodgers' Ebbets Field.  Image via AM New York.

Abandoned bleachers from the Brooklyn Dodgers' Ebbets Field.  Image via AM New York.

Hart Island feels more like it belongs to the New York City of 100 years ago than today.  Littered with artifacts of the past, from anonymous dead, to missile silos, to the bleachers from the Brooklyn Dodgers' old Ebbets field - there are 2000 rotting bleachers from the old field on the island - it's certainly unlike any other grave site you'll find.  

Hopefully one day it will be opened up and New Yorkers will be able to visit here.  We should all be able to pay respects to the dead, but also to tour around this museum to New York City's marginalized and unwanted peoples - and think on how many like them may still be going uncared for in our city today.  

4 reasons why Calvin Coolidge is our most underrated President by Amy Purtill

Last month, I saw Calvin Coolidge race around Nationals Stadium, breeze past George Washington and Teddy Roosevelt, and claim a glorious victory. 

Calvin Coolidge is no-one's idea of an exciting president.  When he took over the job after Warren G. Harding's death in 1923, Oswald Garrison Villard, editor of The Nation, wrote "I doubt if it [the presidency] has ever fallen into the hands of a man so cold, so narrow, so reactionary, so uninspiring, so unenlightened, or who has done less to deserve it than Calvin Coolidge."   But while his policies weren't much (or anything) to speak of, the man himself had some of the best quirks in presidential history.  

keep cool with coolidge.jpg

Image source

4. He was a man of few words.
Silent Cal, as he came to be known, wasn't big on small talk.  The most oft-repeated story is of a woman sitting next to him at a dinner.  "Mr. President," she gushed, "my friend bet me that I wouldn't be able to get you to say three words tonight."

"You lose," he answered.

3. He had a pet raccoon.
Her name was Rebecca.  

Grace Coolidge with Rebecca the raccoon.  Image source

2. He knew how to relax. 
Silent Cal wasn't exactly the workaholic type you'd expect from the most powerful man in the world.  By 1927, he had been President for four years, and worked a maximum of four and a half hours per day.  Instead, he took naps and counted the cars passing outside on Pennsylvania Avenue.  

Livin' the dream. Photo from the Nats' twitter.

1. He really wanted to be a cowboy.
Coolidge spent July 4th, 1927 (which was also his 55th birthday) in South Dakota, where he was presented with a gift of a horse and cowboy outfit.  While it seems he wasn't so fond of the horse, the cowboy outfit was an immediate favourite.  He wore the getup - including ten-gallon hat, red shirt, blue neckerchief, chaps, boots, and spurs - for the rest of the summer, often changing into it when his presidential duties were over at the end of the day.

President Coolidge in his favourite outfit.  Image source

Most of these little Coolidge nuggets came from Bill Bryson's fabulous book, One Summer: America, 1927.  

History Cheat Sheet: Iraq by Amy Purtill

Recently, I was asked to answer a question along the lines of "WTF Iraq?"  The question was prompted by the surprising military takeover of a large amount of the country, including important cities like Mosul.  While to some of us it might seem like Iraq came into being when the US invaded it in 2003, the terrible conflict going on there right now is, like pretty much everything else in the world, bound up in centuries of religious, ethnic, and cultural factors, which means that even the minutiae of this situation is the most important thing in the world to someone.  This post is my (long) answer to this question.  Hopefully it will help one or two of us feel like we can wrap our heads around this region the tiniest bit better than we could yesterday.

Ruins of the ancient city of Hatra Source

First off, let’s address something incredibly important. The difference between Sunnis and Shiites in the region is one of the major causes of its seemingly endless unrest. Most of us, if we’re being honest, couldn’t explain the difference between Shia and Sunni Islam if we tried, so let’s pause here at the beginning to make some sense of it. The split happened in 632, right after the Prophet Muhammad’s death, and was essentially a disagreement over who should replace him. The majority of his followers believed that they should choose the next Caliph – the spiritual leader of Islam as well as the head of the Islamic Empire. A few, however, believed that the line of succession should follow Muhammad’s family line, and go to his son-in-law, Ali. This group which, not surprisingly, included Ali, called themselves the Shia, and a schism was born. The Sunnis won out, and a new caliph was chosen, but with decades of violence, and the murder of two caliphs, as the result. Ali was eventually chosen as the fourth caliph, but this led to a war in which Ali himself was killed. His son, Hussein, became a martyr for the Shiite cause when he and 72 family members went into battle against the caliph’s much larger army and, again not surprisingly, were all killed. Since then, Hussein’s spiritual significance has been transferred to the Shiite leaders, or Imams. This is one of the biggest sticking points between Sunnis and Shiites, as no leader in Sunni Islam has the same kind of spiritual importance as Shiite Imams. Some Sunnis make the argument that Shiites attribute to their Imams the kind of divine qualities which should be reserved exclusively for God. This is important when we get to the Twelfth Imam, also known as the Hidden Imam, who is for most Shiites a kind of messiah. The Twelfth Imam disappeared in an event now called The Occultation, and so-called Twelver Shiites believe that God took him so that he can return at the end of the world. Although Shiites are a minority – they only make up about 15% of Muslims worldwide – they are the majority in Iraq.

Now that I’ve just jammed 2000 years of history into a paragraph, let’s get back to Iraq.  Click through to go with me.

Its name was, until pretty recently, Mesopotamia. If that sounds familiar, it's because it was an important place for us humans as a species – it's considered one of the "cradles of civilization.”. It was a place of sophistication and learning at a time when Europe was little more than some rudimentary groupings. It’s hard to overstate how much more civilized Baghdad was than, say, London in this time. It remained this way for hundreds of years until 1258, when the Mongols arrived and, as Mongols will do, sacked it. After that, Baghdad became not much more than a provincial town in the Mongol empire.
A Persian fresco painting depicts Safavid warfare.  Image source

In 1508, the Safavids of the Persian empire, who were Shiites, took over and made the conversion of the region to Shiite Islam their pet political project. Although they were only in power a few decades, by the time the Ottoman Turks arrived on the scene in 1533 they had created a Shiite majority in what is now Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon.

Mesopotamia remained a part of the Ottoman Empire for the next 400 years, but that did not always mean stability. This part of the Middle East has always been attractive to competing regional powers, and as Iraq has learned, if you aren’t one, you’re probably about to be invaded by one. In the course of Ottoman rule, it was often a site of clashes as rival powers fought for autonomy from the Ottomans, and the Ottomans in turn suppressed them.
Map of the Middle East, with Mesopotamia shaded in green.  Image source

During World War I, the British created the Mesopotamian expeditionary force to invade Iraq. By the end of the war, the Ottoman Empire was disbanded and the British occupied most of the country. If you were in Baghdad at this time, and had heard Woodrow Wilson’s fourteen points, you might have been excited by the prospect of all of the self-determination you were about to get. However, you’re about to be disappointed to learn that those principles don’t really apply to you. Instead, the League of Nations gave Britain a mandate to govern Mesopotamia, which was renamed Iraq. The general idea behind this was that Britain would set up a functioning country and then turn it over to the Iraqis to carry on themselves independently. Sound familiar?

At this moment, we should point out that it may well have been possible to prevent or at least alleviate some of the problems we see in Iraq today by having even a little bit of consideration for the situation in the region. Many people in Iraq, then and now, believe that the best outcome for the country would be to divide it into three separate states: a distinct state each for Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds. Instead, however, the British created the State of Iraq without consideration for these political, cultural, and religious differences.

The British mandate of Iraq was, any way you look at it, pretty much imperialism by another name. They instituted a monarchy, headed by the new King Faisal of Iraq, a Hashemite Sunni from what is now Saudi Arabia, but a British High Commissioner was appointed to basically run the civilian government. Consistently, they the British showed preference to Sunnis and regional, rural sheiks, ignoring the growth of a young, urban, Shiite, nationalist movement. In 1927, when oil fields were discovered, they were administered by the Iraqi Petroleum Company – a British company. The Kingdom of Iraq remained under these conditions until 1958, when it was overthrown by the military. This began a series of revolutions and coups which left us, unfortunately, with Saddam Hussein. Hussein came out of the Ba’ath Party, a socialist, nationalist, pan-Arab party which while being primarily secular, favored Sunni leadership.

Saddam Hussein pretty much immediately led the country into the Iran-Iraq war, which destroyed all of that nice prosperity left by his predecessor. The war lasted eight years, and although Iraq won, the country emerged exhausted, indebted, and with an increasingly emboldened Kurdish minority in the north. Hussein’s brutal response to the Kurdish rebellion included the use of chemical weapons, and killed an estimated 100 000 – 200 000 Kurdish civilians. Amazingly enough, this was not what brought the US into the area for the Gulf War. Instead, Hussein then went on to annex Kuwait, which was a big mistake since Kuwait was an American ally, and we have to get our oil from somewhere. After six weeks of bombardment from the air, Hussein admitted defeat and backed off Kuwait. At this time, the United Nations implemented sanctions which would keep the Iraqi people in poverty for the next decade.

A US marine walks past a decapitated statue of Saddam Hussein.  Image source

This brings us finally to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the country that you and I know today. The removal and execution of Saddam Hussein brought new government and elections, but it doesn’t seem to have brought much in the way of peace. Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki, who was a Shia dissident during Hussein’s reign, was certainly more representative of the country’s Shiite majority, but has been accused of undue harshness against Sunnis since taking office. In fact, his treatment of the Sunni minority is likely one of the major factors in the rise of the terrorist group ISIS, which now presents a serious threat to the state of Iraq as we know it. Perhaps no amount of elections is going to change the fact that Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq are not ready to just get over it. As for the Kurds, that’s for next time.

Understanding the Boko Haram Kidnappings by Amy Purtill

My latest piece for the Everygirl has been up for a little while now.  It's about Boko Haram, the Nigerian government, and the tragic kidnapping of 218 girls from their dorm rooms.  After the celebrity tweets die down, it's easy to move on and forget about terrible things going on elsewhere in the world, but that makes this the most important time to maintain our attention to these girls.  It's not too late to #BringBackOurGirls.

Understanding Ukraine with The Everygirl by Amy Purtill

I'm excited to announce that I'm writing a new series for The Everygirl, and my first post is up right now!  We're aiming to help you understand what's happening in our world one topic at a time with a clear report that's (hopefully!) easy to read.  First up is the current crisis in Ukraine.

Understanding the Crisis in Ukraine:  The Everygirl

To give it a read, just click on the image above. 

Something in the world you'd like explained?  Email in to info the everygirl com, with subject line "UNDERSTANDING (TOPIC)" or leave a comment on the post and we'll pick the most popular request for our next piece.