Potter’s Field Has Found a Resting Place at Last
By MARGARET F. O’CONNELLAUG. 31, 1975
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August 31, 1975, Page 187The New York Times Archives
Gulls wheel against the gray sky, their cries a counterpoint to the muffled sounds of City Island yachtsmen a third of a mile across the water. The birds’ shadows ripple over the barren expanse of Harts Island, guarding the mortal remains of the two–thirds of a million souls who in the last century or so have become eternal wards of the city. This is potter’s field.
The 101 acres of salt marsh and meadow in Long Island Sound are not the exclusive preserve of the dead. They share Harts Island with 300 or so residents of Phoenix House, who are struggling to repair lives shattered in a haze of narcotics. But the island is primarily a city of the dead, consigried to the homeless, the penniless and the nameless because no one else wanted it.
At least no one else wanted it in 1869, when the city paid Edward Hunter of the Bronx $75,000 for Harts Island and promptly interred there one Louisa Van Slyke, “born at sea and died alone at Charity Hospital, aged 24.” She has since been followed by more than 700,000 others.
But if the city’s experience with earlier potter’s fields is any indication, it is far from a safe bet that someone else won’t want the final resting place of that woebegone throng. Or that he won’t get it.
New York’s living—fervent believers in the “raze and rebuild” theory of progress—have always been less anxious to make way for the dead than to wrest Lebensraum from their departed ancestors. The resting place of the city’s poor has rarely been final.
Indeed, the Surrogate’s Court, the Washington Square arch, part of Madison Square and, yes, the New York Public Library itself rest upon the remains of yesterday’s destitute. The Waldorf‐Astoria, which also stands on an old potter’s field, was built in a more enlightened day. The bones that lay there were carried off to a more remote and so far more permanent site.
It all began on an open marsh in Lower Manhattan, where the Surrogate’s Court Building now stands. Perhaps this was New York’s only true potter’s field. Here for years Colonial potters had built their shacks and ovens on the hill that sloped down to the “collects” of water.
About 1755, the area began to appear on maps as the Old Negroes’ Burying‐ground Just to the south, on what was then the Commons and is now City Hall Park, were the almshouse (the poorhouse), Bridewell (the workhouse) and the gaol (debtor’s prison).
During the Revolution, the British turned the Old Negroes’ Buryingground into a common cemetery for Colonial prisoners who died during captivity in churches, hospitals and windowless “sugarhouses,” or warehouses.
Eleven years after the British left town, the city fathers abandoned that cemetery and established a new “burying‐ground for the Black people” on a site now occupied by a dilapidated warehouse at 195 Chrystie Street, facing Forsythe Street Park, on the Lower East Side.
In the same year, 1794, the Com mon Council appropriated for the almshouse burial ground—the potter’s field—a swampy triangle on the common lands three miles from the city, at the junction of Post and Bloomingdale Roads—now 26th Street and Fifth Avenue, the north end of Madison Square.
The council also established Bellevue Hospital for contagious diseases in 1794. It was “opposite three‐mile stone,” at what is now 27th Street and First Avenue, about a mile east of the potter’s field.
For the next half century—years of regular smallpox and yellow‐fever epidemics, of penniless immigrants crowding filthy streets—Bellevue would serve as the city’s hospital, almshouse and penitentiary. In an unaccustomed burst of municipal practi cality, the Common Council would insure that every potter’s field in Manhattan thereafter was within a mile and a half of Bellevue.
The Madison Square potter’s field lasted only three years, through the yellow‐fever epidemic of 1796, which took 1,300 lives in two months. It was filled in and leveled for use as a military parade ground. In its place the council planned to use 6½ acres of swamp “at two‐mile stone” on Greenwich Lane from the Post Road, now the Bowery.
At the time, Greenwich Lane was the only route westward across the fields to Greenwich Village. It had become the fashionable drive elegant New Yorkers took to visit their equally elegant friends at Greenwich.
Their complaints about being held up on the Post Road by slow‐moving pauper funeral wagons had been one of the pressures to abandon the “old” potter’s field at Madison Square. Now the “new” potter’s field site along Greenwich Lane promised them no respite.
Alexander Hamilton, who owned a country home in the vicinity, was predictably dis enchanted with the council’s plans. Hamilton and 56 ?? his neighbors formed a committee that bombarded the Common Council with complaints and counterproposals.
In a long, rambling petition, they noted that not only did the proposed burial ground lie too near the city and its main roads but that it was too near the homes they had “built at great expense . . . for the health . . . of their families. …” If the council followed through on its plan, they said, they would have to “abandon their seats … or submit to the disagreeable sensations arising from an unavoidable view of and close situation to a burial place. …” Hamilton and his friends offered to buy and give to the city another suitable site for a potter’s field, but the offer was rejected.
For the next 25 years, the city’s poor were buried in the “new” potter’s field in Greenwich Village. As annual epidemics filled the cemetery, the city’s expansion did the same for Greenwich Village. The yellow‐fever epidemic of 1823 was the last straw. Finally, in response to public pressure, the council ordered in 1825 that interments be stopped at the Greenwich potter’s field. Ten thousand people had been buried there.
Within 15 years, all traces of the old cemetery had disappeared. That plot of worthless ground had become Washington Square, where the Delanos, the Roosevelts and the Brevoorts, among other old Knickerbocker families, flocked to build rows of handsome marble and brick homes.
Perhaps having learned its lesson, the council looked in 1823 far beyond the city limits, then at 14th Street, for its next potter’s field. About three miles from City Hall on the Middle Road—and about a mile from Bellevue—it found 10 acres of “high and pleasant land” at what is now Fifth Avenue, between 40th and 42d Streets, the site of the New York Public Library.
This was vacant land filled with ragged rock, deep pits and a few tumble‐down shanties. It needed “improvement,” in the council’s view, so that it might “do honor to the taste and magnificence of the city of New‐York.” After an appropriate cornerstonelaying ceremony, a stone wall was built around the field. The use of prison labor helped hold the cost down to $8,499.91. The wall was topped with locust posts and Georgia pine to thwart graverobbers. And just inside this “handsome fence,” two rows of weeping willows and elms were planted to “express sorrow” over the dead.
Three cholera epidemics, the Great Fire of 1835 and the hard times that preceded the panic of 1837 insured that the potter’s field fulfilled its purpose, but ultimately the needs of the living took precedence over those of the dead. This time, the city needed a reservoir.
The Murray Hill receiving reservoir, built on the site of the 42d Street potter’s field, was part or the Croton water system, hailed at its opening in 1842 as one of the great engineering feats of the 19th century.
When construction began, the potter’s field was removed to the area between 49th and 50th Streets and Third and Fourth (Park) Avenues, a site now occupied in part by the Waldorf‐Astoria Hotel. It proved to be an unpopular choice, at least to the superintendent of the Deaf and Dumb Asylum at Madison Avenue and 50th Street.
The superintendent began a heated correspondence with the Common Council, and he was given a hearing at City Hall in 1843, when an alderman was moved to announce: “No one could now pass within a quarter mile . . . without being suffocated with the effluvia emitted from the ground.”
So the 50th Street potter’s field was closed, and the council designated 75 acres on Randall’s Island, near Hell’s Gate, as the burying place for the poor. Two years later, however, when an almshouse was built on Randall’s Island, the potter’s field was ordered abandoned in favor of a 75‐acre site on Ward’s Island. In yet another burst of municipal foresight, the Common Council had put the potter’s field near the refuge for the sick and destitute immigrants who thronged by the thousands to New York.
In 1857, all 100,000 bodies in the 50th Street potter’s field were dug up and moved to Ward’s Island. A year later, the 32 lots on the 50th Street site were, granted to Woman’s Hospital, a grant that was to remain in force as long as the land was used “for the purposes of a hospital.” Such niceties notwithstanding, the New York Central was able to buy the property in 1902 for $450,000.
By then, of course, the city’s poor were making the melancholy trek to Harts Island for burial. In the nineteen‐twenties, they prevailed over Solomon Riley, a Harlem developer who wanted to transform the southern tip of the island into a black Coney Island.
Riley’s Spectacle Realty Company had acquired a four‐acre plot of privately held land when the city declined to buy it. In a year and a half he built bathhouses, bungalows and a pavilion. A three‐hole golf course was next on his schedule, but public opinion forced him to cancel his plans. Amid outcries of mayoral folly, political skulduggery and mismanagement, the Common Council moved to “save” the island, and it still belongs to the poor, the homeless and the nameless dead.
Every Thursday, a blue and gray Department of Hospitals truck rolls past the young people mowing the lawn and tending the vegetable garden at Phoenix House, turns onto a rutted road, bumps through fields of high grass and comes to a stop near a nine‐foot‐deep trench where an inmate detail, dressed in green denim, stands leaning on shovels.
Small white pine boxes carrying the bodies of the very young are lifted out first and put aside in alphabetical order, to be buried later at the foot of the trench. Larger boxes bearing adults are taken out next, and identifying numbers are chiseled on them. The names of the dead, if they are known, are scrawled in big, black strokes of an indelible crayon and a packet containing a death certificate is attached to each coffin.
The boxes are piled three high in the trench, row after row. Then mounds of dirt are shoveled over them. No stones mark the graves, but a monument to all the unknown dead rises 30 feet above a hill at the head of the 44‐acre field. On one side, inscribed in gold, is the word, “Peace.”
There is peace over potter’s field these days. Even after a century, the poor of New York prevail over their last resting place, though history suggests that they will not prevail indefinitely.
Not so long ago, someone mentioned that Harts Island would make a fine park—like Washington Square.