Annette Gallo was 10 years old when her brother Peter sent her a letter, from his orphanage to hers: “Last Wednesday morning something bad happened to papa.”
Papa was Luigi Roma, their father, who had died from pneumonia and tuberculosis at Norwegian Hospital in Brooklyn. Their mother had died years earlier. No one bothered to tell his children when officials buried Roma in a trench in New York City’s potter's field.
Roma‘s descendants traced his burial to Hart Island, the potter's field in the Long Island Sound. It’s a mass grave for Roma and roughly 1 million New Yorkers, most of them poor, and New York City has allowed it to erode so badly that bones sometimes emerge from the soil. The site is still in use.
On April 23, forensic anthropologists from New York City’s Office of Chief Medical Examiner collected uncovered human remains from the shoreline, produced a bone inventory and shared it with the City Council, which shared it with POLITICO.
The anthropologists were drawn to the site after activists and a reporter from Newsday called attention to the latest instance of uncovered remains. What they found, according to the inventory, were six craniums, six mandibles, four right clavicles, four left clavicles, 15 right humeri, 16 left humeri, 15 right radii, 6 left radii, 15 right ulnae, 13 left ulnae, eight right pelvises, eight left pelvises, 11 right femurs, 20 left femurs, 11 right tibiae and 16 left tibiae.
More bones have since been found, according to Jason Kersten, a spokesman for the Department of Correction, which administers the burial ground. Archaeologists are now conducting inspections at least once a month for exposed remains, he said, and will remove any they find and store them until the city's $13 million restoration of the disintegrating shoreline is complete.
“Every one of those bones belongs to a human being, to a New Yorker,” said Mark Levine, a council member from Manhattan. “People who in many cases were marginalized and forgotten in life. They've been again marginalized and forgotten in their final resting place, and this disinterment is the ultimate indignity.”
Annette Gallo, whose father was buried on Hart Island, is now 94 and stricken with dementia so severe she no longer recognizes her daughter. She spent much of her life searching for her father’s grave.
“Her father used to come and visit her at the orphanage, and then one day he stopped coming,” said Carol DiMedio, Gallo’s daughter.
“As she started with the dementia, she became really obsessed,” DiMedio said. “She had to know what happened to him.”
So DiMedio redoubled her efforts, ultimately finding her way to to Hart Island.
Levine, who used to chair the Council's parks committee, has made Hart Island a personal cause. To allow for easier access for the bereaved, he has championed a bill that would transfer the island from the Department of Correction to the Parks Department. He would also like to transfer responsibility for burying the dead from the Department of Correction to the Office of Chief Medical Examiner.
Levine’s fight is, perhaps, a futile one. At least for now. He’s garnered no support from the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio, who rose to power appealing to the sympathies of the disenfranchised, whose dead populate the 101-acre island. Administration staff have told Levine that any efforts to transfer the island to the Parks Department would be cost-prohibitive.
De Blasio spokeswoman Natalie Grybauskas offered a different explanation. The administration sees no reason to change the way the island is managed, because the Department of Correction knows how to run Hart Island, and the Parks Department doesn’t. She referred all further questions to the Department of Correction, which said it considers its burial duties a "solemn responsibility."
Only sentenced inmates with "good behavior records" are allowed to work on the island, and — under pressure — the department has in recent years expanded access to the island, so that the wait to visit the mass grave of a loved one is, according to the department, generally no longer than a month.
But the stigma associated with the site remains.
“Hart Island really disproportionately affects poor people,” said Melinda Hunt, president of the Hart Island Project, which advocates for broader access to the island. “If you’re poor and you’re buried by the penal system, it’s really bad. It’s so shameful to these families.”
DiMedio, 61, lives outside of Philadelphia and helps her husband run his psychology practice. Since she was a child, she has shared her mother’s desire to find Roma’s grave. With her mom’s dementia worsening, DiMedio hastened her pursuit and ultimately connected with Hunt, who found evidence that Luigi Roma had been buried on Hart Island.
At first, DiMedio was relieved to find closure.
“But as I learned about Hart Island, and I learned that there were trenches and bodies buried on top of one another and no markers,” she said, “[that] the trenches are marked a lot of time with PVC pipes, that it was run by the Department of Correction and that it was so hard for a family member to get there, it was devastating and it was really overwhelming.”
Now, with reports of bones emerging, DiMedio can’t help but worry that the remains are her grandfather’s — even if she’s knows it’s unlikely. An estimated 1 million people are buried in trenches at Hart Island. Each trench can reportedly accommodate 150 adults, or 1,000 babies, all buried in pine coffins.
“To me, it’s as if the person who has those remains is trying one last time to say, ‘I’m here,'” DiMedio said.
While city officials trace the recent erosion at Hart Island to Hurricane Sandy, the island has been unearthing its occupants for decades now.
“[We] observed human bones,” wrote two Sanitation Department officers in 1985, following a visit to the island, in a memo obtained by Hunt. “A skull was also seen on the beach area. It was explained to us that this was a rather common thing to happen since the city has been burying bodies there for almost 80 years and the water has caused some erosion at the older burial spots.”
Other cities manage their potter’s fields differently. Los Angeles cremates its paupers’ remains and buries their ashes in a cemetery that's open to the public. It holds an annual ceremony honoring the dead.
Hunt pointed admiringly to Rochester's Mount Hope Cemetery, which she said offers municipal and private burials.
"There are monuments and unmarked graves," she said. "New York City could adopt that model."
The dead who end up on Hart Island often led tragic lives. They are the stillborn babies and the unidentified bodies, the victims of sickness or old age whose families are too poor to bury them elsewhere. Roma, a barber, was no exception.
“My Grandparents immigrated from Italy,” DiMedio wrote Hunt, in an email thanking her for helping locate Roma’s gravesite. “They must have had such high hopes for a new life in America. They were only here a few years. My Grandmother died right after giving birth and sadly so did the baby.”
Of Roma’s three children, two survive. One is DiMedio’s mother.
Before her dementia got so bad she could no longer recognize her daughter, DiMedio was able to bring her some peace, even if it involved a lie.
DiMedio visited Hart Island in November. It wasn’t easy. Since the Department of Correction uses prisoners to bury the dead, the island is a secure facility. DiMedio had to sign up for a visit months in advance. She had to sign a waiver. She had to turn over her phone. She took a ferry to the island. She remembers she was constantly watching her feet. The ferry that took her to the island was unsteady. And the island itself was uneven.
“And I remember when my foot stepped onto the island, because that was the closest I had ever been to him,” she said.
She sprinkled holy water and placed three roses on the island — one for her grandfather, two for the other dead.
“I just thought they might not ever be honored,” she said.
She told her mom she had found her father’s grave.
“It was as if God allowed her mind to remain intact just long enough for her to understand that I had found her Father after you located his name,” DiMedio wrote Hunt. “I lied to her when I told her I found out where he was buried. I told her he is buried in the most beautiful place with trees and green grass surrounded by blue water with seagulls flying above. She cried when I told her. She needed that peace.”