NYC Department of Correction

Hart Island Handover Ceremony, Headquarters

Guest Speaker Thomas McCarthy


Is anyone here from Parks & Recreation? If so, I respectfully ask you to carry back a plea – nay, a prayer -- that your agency be attentive to the heart (H-E-A-R-T) in Hart (H-A-R-T).

More than management of some municipal turf is being turned over. The living legacy of 150-plus-years of service, caring, and reverence is being handed over. May your agency always be sensitive to the sacredness of the place itself. Never let the clamoring of contractors, politicians and ideologues deaden that sensitivity.

Most DOCers who worked the island have been moved in their hearts by Hart; have felt the sense of mission there, a kind of calling, not just a job. Yes, count inmate crew members as feeling that even more deeply.

The consecration of this isle began years before our ancestor agency, Public Charities and Correction (PCC) acquired it in 1868. Hart and the nation were blessed by the service of thousands of Union soldiers who mustered in and trained on its 100+ acres before shipping out to fight the Confederacy. Among the 50 different military units who drilled there was the 31st U.S. Colored Troops Regiment. It helped cut off Lee’s retreat at Appomattox, ending the Civil War.

Among the factors figuring in the commissioners’ acquiring the former Union training and POW camp were the several buildings still standing there ready for use. The agency turned some of those into an industrial school for “street urchins.”

That reform school morphed into the land base for America’s first ocean-going school ship, the cutter Mercury. With a crew of 250 JDs and their instructors, the Hart wind-driven craft sailed the Atlantic, visiting ports in Europe, Africa, North and South America from 1869 to 1876. Talk about having “heart!”

The first Public Charities and Correction burial on Hart took place also in 1869: a young woman who died alone in the Charity Hospital on then Blackwell’s Island, now Roosevelt Island. Early burial record books show the bodies of those who died in NYC-run public institutions such as almshouses, asylums, orphanages, and hospitals went unclaimed, making necessary the remains be buried on Hart by inmate and officer crews. That pattern would be replicated hundreds of thousand times during the century and a half that followed.

Hart itself served as a site for some of those institutions used to treat the contagious, the mentally ill, the addicted, the young offenders with reform potential, and elderly repeaters needing social services.

Early on in the post-Civil War era, the commissioners recognized that a graveyard of individual burial plots should be laid out within the City Cemetery for a burial of veterans in its facilities. At least, until such time the federal government set up a system of national cemeteries.

The soldiers and sailors graveyard within the larger cemetery was adopted by a veterans group, the Grand Army of the Republic. It was attentive to its care, drew thousands to it for patriotic observances, and raised funds to move some of the bodies into a regular Bronx cemetery (West Farms).

In 1941, the same year the U.S. took over most of Hart for a Navy brig, the other Civil War vets’ bodies were moved to Cypress Hill National Cemetery, Brooklyn. After WWII, the inmates suggested and DOC agreed to their building a monument to all buried on Hart. Finished in 1948, the structure proclaimed one word: “Peace.” Seven years later, across from that monument, the Army installed defense missiles. They didn’t depart until 1961.

AMK let PAL and other community groups bring inner-city kids to romp in LI Sound waves on Hart’s mini-beach, situated down from the island’s only hill (with missiles its hidden underground and its “Peace” monument on top).

Elsewhere on the Hart, but not visible to the romping kids, burials continued in Potter’s Field. Also continuing was a steady stream of individual kin coming to pray their respects. Others – often a mix of kin, friends and earnestly motivated citizens – conduct periodic group remembrance services.

One such group I have been privileged to work with during nearly all of its 30 years of Ascension Thursday Hart Island Masses of Remembrance. They were begun in 1991 by a nun/social worker who saw in them a way to help heal family relationships not reconciled before the intervention of death. Though its annual service is a mass, the group is a highly diverse mix of faiths.

My plea to Parks & Rec administrators is not to just look Hart over. but also to let its heart touch yours. That narrow stretch of land, so packed with life and death in 150 years of war and in what passes for peace. Those 100 acres hold perhaps a million bodies beneath your feet. Suddenly, or perhaps slowly, you may feel workaday government cant slipping away and basics returning. Hart can be a humbling experience. For governmental managers, that may be good. It might stay the bureaucratic impulse to bureaucratize. Please don’t turn Hart into a smooth, standardized, super-secular, sterile memorial park. Let Potter’s Field be itself, rich in its common humanity capable of connecting with the good will and wisdom in other hearts. Peace.