Unearthing the Secrets of New York’s Mass Graves
wice a week or so, loaded with bodies boxed in pine, a New York City morgue truck passes through a tall chain-link gate and onto a ferry that has no paying passengers. Its destination is Hart Island, an uninhabited strip of land off the coast of the Bronx in Long Island Sound, where overgrown 19th-century ruins give way to mass graves gouged out by bulldozers and the only pallbearers are jail inmates paid 50 cents an hour.
There, divergent life stories come to the same anonymous end.
No tombstones name the dead in the 101-acre potter’s field that holds Leola Dickerson, who worked as one family’s housekeeper for 50 years, beloved by three generations for her fried chicken and her kindness. She buried her husband as he had wished, in a family plot back in Alabama. But when she died at 88 in a New York hospital in 2008, she was the ward of a court-appointed guardian who let her house go into foreclosure and her body go unclaimed at the morgue.
By law, her corpse became city property, to be made available as a cadaver for dissection or embalming practice if a medical school or mortuary class wanted it. Then, like more than a million men, women and children since 1869, she was consigned to a trench on Hart Island.