Monday, November 19, 2012

The Hart of New York City: The Poor and The Potter's Field

In The New Colossus Emma Lazarus gives voice to the “The Mother of Exiles,” when Lady Liberty cries, "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.”  Standing upon her tiny island in the New York Harbor, The Statue of Liberty was meant to serve as a symbol of freedom, democracy, and opportunity for those migrating to American shores. What happened to those poor huddled masses after they landed is an entirely different story, one that has remained conspicuously inconspicuous for over a century.  Located opposite of Liberty Island in Long Island Sound just northeast of Manhattan resides another highly symbolic little island, the world’s largest publicly funded cemetery and potter’s field.  Approximately 850,000 bodies have been interred on Hart Island, and every year tens of thousands of adults and children wind up in pine boxes stacked one on top of the other in mass graves.  Hart Island is where the homeless, the poor, the unidentified, and the unclaimed go when they die. For many the only identification or marker of their life and death is a string of numbers written on the side of their simple coffin in black marker.  Serving as the city’s largest potter’s field since 1869, throughout the years many of the graves have become lost along with the hundreds of bodies they contain.

As space is socially produced, coded and materially constructed, upon examination it is clear that Hart Island is a place for everything and everyone that the city deems deviant or undesirable. Throughout history this island has been used as a place of exile. A women’s asylum, a confederate and WWII POW camp, a drug rehabilitation facility, a prison, a quarantine facility, and a NIKE missile base have all been located on Hart Island (  Even stranger, the island is under the control of the Department of Corrections (DOC), which pays inmates from Riker’s Island Prison to lay the dead to rest (  There have been few visitors to the island, and even families attempting to find lost loved ones are met with a nightmare of bureaucratic red tape due to it being under DOC jurisdiction.  The state maintains a barrier both physical and social between those laying in the potter’s field and the public.  While many New Yorkers may know that the poor end up in a potter’s field, the ritual of burying the dead remains shrouded in mystery.  What does this landscape say about our society?

Adults are buried in three rows of 150 people and the children are buried in three rows of a thousand. The poor lay alongside unidentified and unclaimed persons, and sometimes they are unidentified because they are poor.  Currently, excavations are being conducted to locate unmarked graves, and with the use of DNA, forensic archaeologists are starting to make positive identifications and repatriate some of the remains. Non-profits are also working to obtain the burial records from the DOC and digitize them so the public can search for lost loved ones whom might be buried amongst the masses (  While this helps identify those with families searching for them, it does not help those who were forced into the graves due to economic conditions, nor will it help those who died without comparative DNA samples in the database.

Identifying Remains in New York's Potter's Field by associatedpress
All across the world, in every culture the deceased’s body is highly symbolic in rituals surrounding death.  Even in death it is assumed that an individual or related group should have some agency over the body. For example, in the United States, even those that donate their body to science or choose to forgo a burial must go through a process whereby consent is obtained from a will or family member. However, an interesting connection between death, the state, and capitalism exists; if someone dies without having money for a burial the state then rules over the body, but federal law stipulates that one cannot sell their body for money upon death.  So while the human body may become the property of the state due to economic status, the state also restricts commodification of the corpse. Those that live in poverty are not extended the same rights or abilities as those that can afford hundreds if not thousands of dollars for a burial or cremation. Instead they go through a ritualization that de-signifies the individual and de-sanctifies the human body, creating an unknown homogeneous unit.  While Lady Liberty stands on her island welcoming the poor and wretched to New York City’s shore, another tiny island hidden away from society awaits to lay them to rest en mass. 


  1. Your post serves as an incredibly relevant and important part of New York's past and present engagement with the poor and marginalized members of society. Hart Island and Potter's Field are relevant and essential contributions to the discussion of repatriation and legal verses ethical forensic anthropology and archaeology. When reading your blog, I was reminded of discussions of NAGPRA and the Chinese government's commodification of the unidentified remains currently on exhibit at Bodies downtown. The first thing I did after reading your post was to do more research on Hart's Island, and I'm definitely going to seek out more information!
    ~Mackenzie S.

  2. I really enjoyed the historical context and background for the Potter's fields, as I think it is integral to understanding the positioning the individual within a larger group of the integrate, and sometimes anonymous, bodies. In my own research, I'm interested in the loss of identity, specifically through anatomical dissection. The links and video were a great addition. I think you did a wonderful job with your post.

    -Kelsey k.

  3. The economic aspects of this site are very interesting in that the legal aspects seem to be rooted in economic grounds rather than ethical grounds. Since law is supposedly created to uphold common good, what are the implications that arise from the historical situation on Hart Island and with other Potter’s Fields? As far as the identification process is concerned, I wonder if the information stored in the database is used as a resource for other matters. While I’m sure the scientific information available from the unidentified remains at Potter’s Field is incredibly valuable, I would be disheartened to think that these remains were being used for a secondary purpose without explicit consent (obviously unavailable until identification could be made). Really interesting topic!

  4. I really enjoyed the way you used historical context to frame your post- I would be curious to hear about a specific case of a family attempting to find their missing relative. Have you come across any specifics about people searching?

  5. I really think that focusing in on one grave, and one family as raised by Jessica would be a fascinating angle or at least component to include in the paper. Especially since part of the issue at hand is the notion of mass graves. Singling one grave out will mirror the subject matter, and serve to highlight the problematic practice.

  6. I would like to hear more about why this location was chosen for a potters field--esp. from a political and urban planning perspective.

    Are there many/any images that you have access to? Or must you rely upon maps?