Less than a mile off the coast of The Bronx, a melancholy sliver of land sits waiting.
In its nearly two centuries long history, it has served as a prison for Confederate soldiers, a psychiatric hospital, a homeless shelter, a tuberculosis sanatorium, an overflow jail, a drug rehabilitation center, and – most notably- a potter’s field. Approximately one third of the more than one million sets of remains interred here are those of infants. The others are the unclaimed, the unwanted, the imprisoned, and the victims of the various plagues which have been frequent, unwelcome visitors to the five boroughs of New York.
Hart Island has recently been thrust into the national spotlight as drone footage surfaced depicting the mass internments currently taking place there. At the time of this writing, more than 11,000 New Yorkers have died as a result of the COVID-19 epidemic and, as has been true in the past, city officials have been forced to cope. Hart Island, with its vast burial trenches and proximity to, yet separateness from, the city at large has once more proven the most suitable location to quickly bury the dead.
Melinda Hunt, founder of the Hart Island Project, told CNN, "This is where the majority of COVID-19 victims are going to be buried. It disproportionately affects the low-income community, who can't really isolate and avoid the subways. By the same token, those same people can't afford a funeral."
While the majority of Americans found these images disquieting, and while the grim mystique of Hart Island is no doubt compounded by the city’s continued reticence to allow the families of those interred there access to the graves of their loved ones, mass burials- particularly in times of public health crises- are hardly a new phenomenon in New York City.
Washington Square Park famously served as a Potter’s Field for over one hundred years becoming the final resting place of some 20,000 New Yorkers, many of whom fell victim to the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1795. That outbreak helped to spur the creation of the first NYC Board of Health.
Bryant Park, also, was once a burial ground. From 1823 to 1840 the city's unclaimed dead were laid to rest here. Even Madison Square Park was once a potter's field for the working poor of New York.
Indeed, epidemics of various degrees of severity have long been a fixture of city life. Over the years, New York has confronted diseases from small pox and cholera, to polio and AIDS.
In 1702, British governor of New York Lord Corbury noted that in less than three months a devastating outbreak of yellow fever had claimed the lives of "five hundred people of all ages and sexes" had perished. That number would have translated into approximately ten percent of the overall city population at the time. (Fun side note: Lord Cornbury may or may not have gotten his jollies by having his portrait painted while wearing women's clothing. No judgement!)
In the summer of 1832, cholera claimed the lives of some 5,000 New Yorkers. Particularly hard hit were those who lived in the rapidly expanding slums of the Five Points. And while the so-called miasma theory of infection had largely fallen out of favor, the public still did not fully grasp the connection between water quality and disease, thus perpetuating the unsanitary conditions which made cholera so prevalent. It was not until 1854 when English Dr. John Snow successfully articulated the link between water contamination and cholera that the situation began to improve. (Snow was eventually able to pinpoint the source of a recent outbreak to a contaminated well on Broad Street.)
The advent of germ theory that science and health finally intersected in such a way as to give officials reliable tools in their arsenal, notably sanitation policy and personal hygiene guidelines, which could help combat the spread of disease.
However, increased knowledge alone was not enough.
In 1918, influenza took the lives of roughly 33,000 city residents- this even after public health strategies such as aggressive education campaigns had been implemented. And the 1920s and 1930s continued to be haunted by the specter of polio.
Widespread vaccination programs and more stringent public health policies touching upon everything from housing to diet provided a greater degree security to the city's populous in the years following WW2. Gradually, fear of disease became less of a day-to-day concern for most residents.
While COVID-19 has thoroughly dispelled the illusion of security we have enjoyed for almost two generations, it is vital that we continue to view today's events through the lens of history.
New York will survive. It will go on. It will bury its dead and mourn them. And it will learn the lessons of today to better care for its citizenry tomorrow.
We have done it before. We will do it again.