Artist's study of island brings the dead to life

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Posted: Oct 31, 2010 12:01 AM
Artist's study of island brings the dead to life

When the dead are delivered, four mornings a week, the ferry Michael Cosgrove is waiting.

A refrigerated truck from the city morgue follows Fordham Street to its stump, between a used boat dealership and a lot thick with weeds, and a high chain-link fence warning "Prison-Keep Off." For New Yorkers who die without the money, family or identity required to get a proper funeral, the dock just beyond is the boarding point for a seven-minute journey to oblivion.

The destination is Hart Island, 101 acres of wind-swept sand and trees crooked in the waters a half-mile off the Bronx, like a beckoning finger.

If the more than 800,000 people laid to rest on the island over the last 141 years were alive, it would be the state's second largest city. Dead and buried, they populate what is almost certainly the country's largest public cemetery. But there are no headstones, no eulogies and no regular visiting hours.

In fact, most New Yorkers have never heard of Hart Island. In a city of 8.5 million lives, such a place may be a necessity. But it is one long deemed off-limits, home to stories better left untold.

At least that was the case until Melinda Hunt discovered it.

"This guy was a heroin addict and his girlfriend went looking for him ... this is a Vietnam veteran who developed schizophrenia and he committed suicide," Hunt says, flipping through sketches of Hart Island dead. "These people sort of speak to me."

Hunt is an artist, but the portrait of Hart Island she has created over the past 19 years blurs the boundaries of that job description. The divorced mother of two college-age daughters has turned herself into Hart Island's detective and de facto archivist, its lead witness and chief scribe.

Add it all up and it might not fit some people's definition of art. But in this last refuge of the forgotten, Hunt says her Yale degree in sculpture and deftness with a charcoal pencil are only the starting point.

The end, as she sees it, is to unearth lost souls.

___

If Michael Jones was going to find his way in Hart Island's city of the dead, it was clear he would need a guide.

In 1992, Jones' brother Vernon _ Vern to family, Cameron to some of his friends _ came to New York after graduating from the University of North Carolina. He found an apartment on Amsterdam Avenue, set himself up as a handyman and enrolled in acting classes. He sent Michael postcards with pictures of the Empire State Building and the Brooklyn Bridge.

But when Vern came home for Christmas and his return flight was overbooked, his mother begged him to stay.

"She hated the idea of him being in New York," Michael Jones says. "She didn't think that that was the place for a Southern boy to be. She thought it was dangerous up there _ and I guess she was right."

A few days later, one of his brother's roommates called. Vern had gone to a friend's apartment in the East Village to celebrate New Year's Day. Soon after midnight, he passed out on the floor, friends told police. They ran out to a grocery across the street and when they returned at 12:30 a.m. Jan. 2, 1993, he had vanished _ for good.

Years passed. Michael Jones could not let go, could not forget his older brother. "The not knowing drives you crazy _ and it did," said Jones, 33.

In 2008, he began working with a private investigator and made some headway retracing his brother's life in New York. Then, searching the Internet at home in Charlotte, N.C., Jones came across mention of the shadowy island where New York City buries its unclaimed dead. He posted an open query on a website called findagrave.com, asking if anyone could tell him more.

The answer: You need to contact Melinda Hunt.

___

More than a century ago, famed journalist and social reformer Jacob Riis searched for a way to expose the destitution of New York's slums. Flash photography was in its infancy, but Riis grasped the power of pictures. He bought a box camera and went looking for a place to practice.

He found it on Hart Island. Riis returned from the island in 1888 with now-faded frames capturing a hidden side of the city. In one, workers lay coffins like bricks in a grid of adjoining trenches, each hole large enough to bury dozens. Years later, those photos got Melinda Hunt thinking.

Hunt grew up in Calgary, trailing an oil geologist father on digs. "It gives you a very different perspective, geology does, because you realize human life is so brief," she says.

By 1991, she was living in New York, pregnant with her second daughter and looking to apply her art training. Many city neighborhoods were plagued by crack cocaine and AIDS and Hunt wondered what became of the victims of those twin epidemics.

She and a photographer got permission from the city Department of Correction, which runs Hart Island, to revisit the tragic place where Riis had apprenticed.

They found a scene remarkably unchanged. Work crews of six to eight city jail prisoners stack pine-plank boxes three high and three wide in long, narrow trenches. Guards enter names of the dead by hand, or record them as "unknown," in thick, bound ledgers. Names are also marked on the caskets, nailed together by state prison inmates for $71.25 each _ or $7.60 for the shoebox-sized containers that hold babies.

Years ago, when the island was the site of a drug treatment center and other institutions, it had a chaplain. But today the dead _ unembalmed and sometimes with the clothing in which they were found _ are interred without ceremony. Prayers are offered one Thursday every other month, when the advocacy group Picture the Homeless visits the island for an interdenominational service.

Over the decades, Hart Island housed a Civil War prison, an asylum, a tuberculosis hospital, a workhouse, a jail and a missile base. Through it all, New York continued ferrying bodies that went unclaimed at the city morgue _ in recent times, an average of nearly 1,300 burials a year, including about 340 stillborns.

Hunt, who is 52, wondered how such a place could be all but unknown. Maybe that was no accident, she decided. Maybe the island was hidden because of people's discomfort with the secrets it held. Maybe art could shed some light.

Hunt pieced together collages of island photos and pages from old burial logs, as well as gallery installations of tiny coffins holding blankets embroidered with the names of the dead. In 2006, she made a documentary, walking Hart Island's paths with a few people who'd learned family members were buried there. Afterward, others called and e-mailed, seeking answers.

As she worked, Hunt discovered the island has a rhythm of its own, with burials surging during epidemics and hard times. It was the resting place for the poor and the homeless, but also thousands of the stillborn, as well as those cut off from families by miles and unexpected circumstance.

"Fifty years later it can become very important that somebody took the time to gather the information and make it visible, to tell the story, and that's what I'm trying to do," she says.

"These are stories that are not told, that the public hasn't had access to, that people feel ashamed of. And as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, the things that people are ashamed of make the best stories."

___

Shawn Sheridan's story begins when he was 4, on the afternoon a couple entered the Angel Guardian Home in Brooklyn to adopt him and two older brothers. The boys' sole clue to their previous life was an old school backpack with the last name "Ferrick" written on the canvas.

At 18, Sheridan wrote to the state and learned his birth mother had killed herself in 1971. Officials told him only that his father was Protestant and worked as a delivery man. Neither was identified by name and Sheridan's birth certificate had been reissued shortly after his adoption, with all the parental information changed.

"They say no man is an island, but me and my brothers, we've always felt like we're an island," says Sheridan, who lives in the Houston suburb of Richmond, Texas. "My goal was to sit down face-to-face with my father one time and have him acknowledge me."

More searching revealed his parents met as teenagers at a state psychiatric hospital. His father served time in prison. Parole records showed he, too, was dead. But how? Where was he buried?

In 2005, Sheridan's search led him to Hunt and her Hart Island Project, after city officials told him records showing whether his father was buried on the island had been destroyed in a fire. But Hunt had seen the 11x17-inch ledgers stored in a trailer on the island. The volume Sheridan sought, she knew, had been submitted as evidence in a trial for the murder of a woman buried on the island and later exhumed.

Hunt filed a Freedom of Information request with the city. But rather than seeking the single volume, she followed a lawyer's advice and asked for much more. In March 2008, the city turned over 2,000 pages, detailing burials as far back as the early 1980s. She followed with a lawsuit to get the city to divulge the place of death of those buried on the island, resulting in a settlement for more information. She followed up with requests for records from the 1970s and logs from 2008 to the present.

"Melinda's a fireplug when it comes to Hart Island," says Wayne Kempton, archivist for the Episcopal Diocese of New York, who has written about its history.

In 2009, more than three years after their first contact, Hunt e-mailed Sheridan a copy of a single, ruled page. On the 25th line down, his eyes found the entry for one Richard Ferrick, 36, killed in 1982 when he was hit by a subway car. He lay in Plot 137, Section 2 on Hart Island.

Hunt credits Sheridan for helping uncover the records. But he says she was the one who found the thread and kept following it. In late 2007, when he boarded a ferry to the island with his half-brother and a priest, Hunt joined them. There was no way for Sheridan to know precisely where his father was buried, let alone the chance to confront him.

Still, "it was just finality." Sheridan says. "After years and years, it was just the end."

And for Hunt it was another chance to draw back the blanket of anonymity covering the island's wind-swept fields.

"It's sort of like being in Dante's Inferno," she says. "These people come out of the ether and they tell you something about themselves _ and then they disappear again."

___

Hunt faced a new challenge once the city turned over island burial records. All the entries were handwritten, some in neat block letters, others barely legible. The artist had always been certain the island belonged to the public. But making its stories accessible would take time.

At the end of 2008, as Hunt gathered a small corps of volunteers to type in the thousands of names and dates, she received an e-mail from Michael Jones, the out-of-work mortgage representative searching for his brother. Beyond the date of Vernon's disappearance, Michael knew only that his brother had been wearing a red and gray-striped sweater, a white T-shirt, jeans, a tan jacket and boots. Could Hunt help?

If his body was on Hart Island, it was among thousands that had never been identified, Hunt explained. He might find a clue in the burial records. Then again, he might not find anything at all. But if Michael wanted to help enter the data, Hunt offered, she would send him the logs from 1993 one page at a time.

"I was hoping that I would find him. I mean that selfishly, that was my main goal for volunteering," Michael says. But after a while, "it really kind of gave me a sense of relief. Not only was I doing something to find my brother, but that I was doing something that might help somebody find somebody else."

At first, he kept his search a secret. But when he told his mother, Sarah Lineberger, about his work with the Hart Island logs, she joined him. The pair worked for months, entering records of more than 1,500 burials, trading e-mails with Hunt to make sense of their findings.

"You try to go through it line-by-line," Michael said. "When you come across one that said unknown, the rest of the information didn't matter. Your heart would kind of skip a beat. ... There were definitely certain times that I thought I'd found him."

On a spreadsheet, Michael compiled a list of unidentified men buried on Hart Island whose age, race, or other detail matched Vernon's. By the time mother and son worked their way through the last page of burial logs from 1993, the list had grown to more than two dozen possibilities.

Lineberger dug out the baby teeth she'd saved from her sons' childhood; Bob Rahn, a retired New York homicide detective turned private investigator, delivered them to the city medical examiner's office to work up a DNA profile. Rahn's partner, Kim Anklin, compared the burial logs with details in old missing person's files, working with city medical and police investigators to whittle the list to 15.

In July, they zeroed in on an entry in an island burial log from March 1993. The block letters offered the lone epitaph for an unknown white male, approximately 30 years old, found near Pier 17 of lower Manhattan's South Street Seaport. He lay in grave 22, Plot 231, Section III _ possibly buried together with personal effects including a gray-and-red striped sweater.

Could this be Vernon Jones?

Hunt, whose database now includes records for 36,450 burials, is matter-of-fact in dealing with queries she receives about Hart Island. But this search, particularly the decision by Jones' mother to immerse herself in the old records, struck a chord.

"She would call me and say, `What do you think?'" Hunt said. "I'd say 'I think at some point you're going to find out, but I think you have to systematically open every door.' And she understands that, that as a mother you don't get frustrated, you just keep going."

___

Over a weekend in 1975, Jeanne Frey was digging through family keepsakes in the basement. Underneath a trove of her parents' old love letters, she found a small box. It opened to reveal a tiny pink bonnet and a dress with a delicately embroidered collar.

The items were wrapped loosely in brown paper and labeled in pencil: "Baby, May 24, 1942, 8:30 a.m."

Frey, born in 1945, carried the box up to the kitchen, where her mother was cooking dinner. The instant she held up the dress, the older woman started weeping.

"That's when she told me I had a sister," Frey recalls, taking the dress from the box recently and laying it across the table of her own kitchen in Bellmore, N.Y.

The story dated back to World War II, when Frey's father was an officer in the U.S. Air Force. Her mother was a war bride in Brooklyn, pregnant with her first child, to be named Angelina. At 30 weeks, she went into labor and the doctor delivered a stillborn fetus. Distraught and alone, Frey's mother agreed when hospital staff asked her to let them dispose of the body.

After her mother died, Frey wondered for years about that day before a battle with cancer pushed her to pursue answers about her family. By the time she contacted Melinda Hunt, city officials had provided her with records showing the sister she never knew was buried on Hart Island. Frey wanted to exhume the body, but she needed to know more.

Through Hunt, she came to understand that her mother's long hidden shame was hardly unique. The island was the resting place of thousands of babies, some stillborn, others who died shortly after birth.

"She told me she had talked to other women, from approximately the same time in the 40s, and that they had to make the same decision," Frey says.

Many other children buried on the island were the victims of abuse, Hunt told her. Their stories were lost in the island's unmarked graves. There'd be no way to find and disinter Angelina. The conversations with Hunt, while reassuring Frey, made her wary about what she might find if she got to the island. But she'd heard enough to know she had to go.

On a Friday morning in May 2009, Frey and two friends stepped off the ferry and corrections officers led them through a silent, wooded landscape to a large granite cross. One friend read a poem aloud: "I love you little sister. You're a person of the wind. Free to be the memory of all that might have been."

As she listened, Frey looked out over a field of unmarked graves and found herself strangely comforted by Canada geese whose eggs nestled in the grass.

"It is so quiet, so peaceful, the wind is blowing through the trees," Frey said. "It was like a giant weight had been lifted off of me. It was like this is God's cradle."

___

Directly across the bay from Hart Island, on a grassy slope framed by a black wrought-iron fence, Pelham Cemetery is anything but anonymous. Some headstones are engraved with pictures of the departed. Mourners come to water the flowers.

When Linda Polesnak Herrick of Binghamton, N.Y., learned her aunt Charlotte Cella was buried in an unmarked grave in the potter's field across the water, it became clear the little cemetery was the next best place to set a headstone.

"You can go to a cemetery, you can read a stone, you can read their epitaph. They lived. They breathed. They held hands with someone. They loved someone," she said. "That was my Aunt Lottie. But nobody knows that she's buried with almost a million other people on Hart Island and they were all real people."

The truth is that, from a distance, Hart Island appears deserted. Death may be society's last chance to celebrate a life. But here, that opportunity is often lost.

By this fall _ 17 years after Vernon Jones vanished _ his mother and his brother felt increasingly certain they found him.

Then investigator Bob Rahn called Sept. 21 with the news: The DNA tests on the body they'd exhumed had come back negative. With 14 other unidentifieds still on their list, the medical examiner advised, the search would have to go on.

On the phone from North Carolina, disappointment fills Michael Jones' voice. He tempers it, thinking of the thousands buried on Hart Island, cloaked in anonymity.

Surely, other families out there are looking for their own lost sons and brothers.

Maybe, Michael tells himself, his search for Vern has brought them all a step closer.

___

Adam Geller, a national writer for The Associated Press based in New York, can be reached at features(at)ap.org.