WEBMASTER NOTE: This web site gratefully expresses appreciation to archivist Wayne Kempton for graciously permitting it to post excerpts from his detailed history of Episcopal Diocese of New York activities on Hart Island, "In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Liberty, and In All Things Charity.
Given that those activities, dating from the mid-19th Century, touched virtually all aspects of life on the island, Kempton's account serves as excellent resource on Hart history in general.
These excerpts are intended to serve as a sampling or introduction to encourage the serious student of Hart history to access the unabridged version via linkage provided elsewhere on this page.
At various junctures, images and captions not in the original work have been inserted by the webmaster to provide additional information or illustration. These have been clearly identified as such. Any additional material inserted by the webmaster into the text, such as first names, appear within brackets. This first excerpts installment presents extended passages from the Preface and Part II: A Cross for Potter's Field. Future installments will present selected passages from other parts.
Melinda first became aware in 1991 of Hart Island, where the poor, unknown, and unwanted — mostly children — are buried in mass graves . . . .
Had the Episcopal Church ever had a presence on the island? Did the Episcopal Church ever pray for those buried there? Searching the Internet I found a wealth of material. Searching the diocesan archives I found even more.
On November 17, 2005 the Rt. Rev. Mark S. Sisk, 15th Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, visited the Potter’s Field on Hart Island. Accompanying him were Archdeacon Kendall and members of the advocacy group, Picture the Homeless . . . to pray for and honor the hundreds of thousands of people who are buried there. . . . .
The title for this work, In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Liberty and In All Things Charity, is taken from an 1887 description by our Episcopal Chaplain to Bellevue Hospital of how chaplains from all faiths worked together at that post. It seemed a worthy moniker for this current effort as well.
Mission News January 1906:
THE MISSION ON HART’S ISLAND
Seventeen miles by water from East 26th Street, well out in Long Island Sound, lies that “ultima thule “of New York’s penal system — Hart’s Island. On this little-known and rarely-visited islet are located the Branch Workhouse, and the Boys’ Reformatory.
The Workhouse, in its scattered wooden buildings, houses approximately 500 men and 25 women. The Reformatory is overcrowded with nearly two hundred boys. Not one New Yorker in ten thousand, perhaps, has ever heard of this place, and yet Hart’s Island has a peculiar interest, for here one may see boys, who have only begun a life that perhaps shall be largely spent within prison walls, and also ancient pensioners at the scant table of a city’s charity — old men who look from the windows of the only home they know, upon their last long resting place — the Potter’s field.
The boys are housed, in a separate building, on the dormitory plan; which means simply that two hundred boys can be and are packed into a building that should properly shelter not many more than one hundred. With no privacy possible, each boy must carry with him, wherever he goes, his entire possessions.
“Dormitory” has a prettier sound than “cell,” but the quiet chance for reading or study would be a boon to most of them — a boon that the dormitory system denies.
To a worker in this field, the task appears at once hopeful and hopeless — hopeless, when one considers these aged or crippled, bodily or mentally unsound, inmates of the Workhouse; hopeful, when one looks into the faces of these boys. The men have long since been cast aside, useless and perhaps dangerous derelicts on the sea of life. The boys have life’s great journey still before them. Very few of them are deliberately criminal; the majorities are here because of bad companions or parents worse than none.
Under a law lately put into effect, a new class of boys, known as “misdemeanants,” is being sent to Hart’s Island. They are committed for a term of three years, but this may be commuted for good behavior, to a minimum of three months. These newcomers are being taught to work at making hosiery and shoes for the various penal institutions; and ultimately, it is thought; most of the boys sent here will belong to this class. Under a trained and efficient instructor, school sessions are held morning and afternoon; regular attendance is compulsory.
As this is the least known, so it is also the neediest of the city’s institutions. The boys and men ask for reading matter with an eagerness that is pathetic. We receive, and distribute weekly, about two barrels of magazines and periodicals, which are furnished us by the Church Periodical Club. Among so many elderly men, there is a great demand for tobacco. And if this should reach the eyes of some smoker, who has plenty of this world’s goods, let him bestow a little private charity. Five dollars a month would mean more happiness here than ten times as much could purchase outside.
The Chaplain is very anxious to secure the amount needed to hire a larger-sized gramophone, with twenty or thirty records, to give the prisoners now and then an afternoon’s entertainment, which they would greatly appreciate.
“A very needy field,” you will say. And it is. But it is a blessed privilege to work in such a field, to bear light into so dark a place, and to feel that, through God’s mercy, even the walls of a prison may ring with songs of praise and thanksgiving for the souls of men redeemed.
Mission News March 1906:
Mission News April 1906:
MORE ABOUT HART’S ISLAND
. . . . We rejoice in the possession of a first-rate graphophone; that means a weekly treat to every soul on the Island. The Church Periodical Club is our mainstay for reading matter of all sorts. Several persons have answered our appeal for tobacco and for magazines. We have received a piano and a communion service. Altogether, our “cup runneth over,” and Hart’s Island seems every day less forlorn, less forsaken of the people of God. Surely THE MISSION NEWS may boast of generous, as well as “gentle,” readers.
It is a pleasant duty also to express our appreciation of the unfailing courtesy and helpful kindness of Warden [Thomas F.] Kane. Himself a Roman Catholic, he has in every possible way aided and encouraged the work we try to do. . . .
The work among the boys is, of course, by far the most interesting and hopeful. These are no depraved and desperate criminals, defiant toward God and dangerous toward man. They are simply boys who, born into families too poor and too ignorant to constitute a home, have never been given a fair chance in life. Many of them are here for no crime but poverty and homelessness. Now and then we find among them an ambitious boy who came to the city to make his fortune, and was picked up as a vagrant. Of course, there is a small percentage of out-and-out scoundrels among them . . . .
To them all New York City owes a home and training far different from what she so grudgingly gives. Our great, rich city abuses a good word when she speaks of her “Reformatory.” These boys should be taught useful trades, taught the proper care of their own bodies and minds, made to realize that there is for each one a useful and honorable place among men, and not be turned out at the end of their stay on the Island as ill equipped for life’s battle as when they came here.
To be sure, the city has made one step forward in their treatment. The new class of boys, called “misdemeanants,” is required to work at the making of shoes and hosiery, and a small class of them is being taught telegraphy. But simply to supply power to a machine that makes a stocking, or to cut endless pieces of leather by a set pattern, will never train a boy for useful toil outside prison walls.
. . . . Many of them are so terribly homesick! They write woeful little notes beseeching those at home to write them and to visit them. Some of their appeals would well-nigh break your heart, especially if you knew they would probably go unanswered, or result in a visit from parents quite unfit to see even their own child.. . . .
Less hopeful, but more exacting than the boys, are the men in the Workhouse; who are here for a variety of causes — drunkenness, pauperism, homeless vagrancy, and “wife cases ”— the poor’s substitute for the divorce court. In a separate building are the women, about thirty of them, mostly victims of drink.
In the annex are gathered eighty or more unfortunates, largely elderly men, not a dozen of them in full possession of their senses. These men are absolutely out of place here. They should be in an asylum for the imbecile. They need nurses, not keepers. It is from them we hear always the pitiable request for tobacco.
Fit for no employment, hardly ever allowed to leave their secluded quarters, their days and nights are embittered by their ceaseless craving for this, the only solace they can enjoy. Once a week the city lavishes upon each of them half-an-ounce of tobacco - enough for an hour or two. Then they begin to wait till the next week’s allowance is doled out. But, thanks to the readers of THE MISSION NEWS, we have been able to add a little to their comfort in this way. It will doubtless please you to learn that your beneficence has materially decreased the consumption of their blankets, so often used in lieu of tobacco.
The 1905-1906 annual reports of the Rev. Thomas McCandless follow:
* The Branch Workhouse, Hart’s Island 1905-1906
To the Branch Workhouse the inmates are committed for a variety of offences— desertion and non-support, drunkenness and disorderly conduct, but most commonly for vagrancy. The last named, like charity, covers a multitude of sins.
For instance, imbecility — the sole offence of many — will bring us a homeless idiot to atone for his crime by six long months of confinement. The old soldier who comes with his pension money in his pocket to see the great city, and who is knocked senseless and robbed by the kind stranger who offers him a drink, may stand next morning, speechless and dazed, but guilty and a vagrant in the eyes of justice. The orphan country boy who makes his way by stolen train rides to the city of his dreams may be rudely awakened, if caught in the freight yards, by a six months’ sentence for his crime of vagrancy. Bowery “rounder” and homeless boy, drunkard and petty thief, may all be branded with this convenient legal label and are all treated alike by the impartial arm of the law.
Or come to the Island Hospital and see worn-out unfortunates dying the slow death of senility, mumbling old men awaiting the boon of mortal sleep. They lay here, perhaps fifteen or twenty, cared for by the faithful physician who does his best, handicapped by insufficient help and prison diet. No fruit or flowers are ever sent to these uncomforted sick; seldom does a visitor seek this lonely room.
* The New York City Reformatory 1905-1906
The system of merit marks differentiates this institution from similar reform schools elsewhere. By this plan, for good behavior the maximum term of three years may be commuted to a minimum of three months. Yet to anyone aware of what radical changes must be effected in these young men and boys before they can be called measurably, not to say permanently, reformed, it must be apparent that such a minimum term is all too short.
A plant for the making of hollow cement blocks is soon to be started, which will serve the double purpose of teaching the boys a profitable trade and furnishing material for much-needed buildings. Every boy, not a graduate of the public schools, is required to attend school for one session daily. Beyond this meager curriculum, its equipment does not, at present, permit the work to advance.
Such obvious reformatory training as the teaching of personal neatness and decent table manners is made impossible by overcrowding in an ill-adapted dormitory. The same cause prevents the boys from spending their evenings in any manner more uplifting than waiting for bedtime. Yet these defects will work their own cure. . . . .
It has seemed best to go somewhat into detail in our description of the institutions on this Island, because it is a little known and practically new field for the work of the City Mission, and because to describe such a field defines very clearly the work most needed. And this precisely has been our aim: to know the inmates and their needs as intimately as possible and to befriend them in whatever manner suggests itself as most for their good. . . .
Another source of much-needed aid is the Chrystie Street Home for Boys, and its head, Mr.[Wallace] Gilpatrick. Many a boy of ours has he sheltered and clothed and set to work. But for him many a boy would still be waiting for release from the Reformatory. Nor can we ever forget in our thanksgiving the great number of anonymous friends who have enabled us to supply regularly the poor old men with tobacco. . . .
. . . . Now and then a man is found in prison that has a place waiting for him outside. In such a case the judge will usually grant a shortening of sentence. In this way, during the past year about a dozen men have been helped to their freedom, and, so far, not one of them has been recommitted.
On Sundays we have morning service at 10 A.M. and Sunday-school for the boys at 1:30 P.M. Both services attract practically all the boys and men as well as the few women who are Protestants. We are proud of our services, for our congregation is as reverent as and far more cordial than the usual gathering of worshippers. The Rev. Mr. [Henry St. George] Young, the former Chaplain, visits us on special occasions to celebrate Holy Communion. . . .
Since last May we have regularly read the Burial Service over the bodies of those unfortunates who are buried in Potter’s Field. The city can do little for these pitiful relics of failure, except to give them a decent grave; the Church can and does consign them to earth with the same stately service and the same high hope of a glorious resurrection as she chants over the open graves of her own more fortunate dead. This vast and silent city, numbering already over 142,000 dead, adds to its census the body of one in every ten of those who die in all New York City.
. . . Our work is a very needy one; we have no fitting Church home; we worship in an ugly and cheerless room; we gather the lame, the halt, the blind and the diseased; but even here our hearts are warmed by the glow of the unseen Presence of Him who came “to seek and to save that which was lost.”
From the 1905-1906 annual report of the Rev. Henry St. G. Young we read:
“On Hart’s Island I have officiated at two celebrations of the Holy Communion in the Chapel and administered to four sick in the hospital, and at five other services in Chapel and Sunday-school.”
THE CHURCH AND THE POTTER’S FIELD
. . . . On wind-swept, sea-girt Hart’s Island, to the left of the millionaire’s yacht and the humbler craft of popular pleasure or commerce that sail forth into the Sound, lie fifteen or twenty desolate acres, the Potter’s Field. . . . here lie the bodies of over 142,000 persons, about three quarters of them children. And here, we are told, every tenth person in this great city finds his last long home. . . .
He is a man of no ordinary fortitude or indifference who can look dry-eyed upon these bare, brown coffins, huddled by the gaping trench. Here are the tiny bodies of those pitiable children who came to homes where poverty denied them a welcome. Others, more fortunate, have never breathed the breath of life. So many of them lie here, little wanderers whose life journey mercifully ended almost as soon as it began. . . .
The comprehensive purpose of the City Mission is to minister, in her varied fields, to every spiritual need. The foundling at Bellevue is baptized into the Kingdom of God. The people are shepherded throughout their lives; at death they are given the last Christian rites.
We wondered why so decent a thing had not been done always. And so, since last May, the Service for the Burial of the Dead has been read each time the bodies are brought from the morgue to Hart’s Island.
To the visitor it can hardly fail to be a most impressive scene. The little group of prisoners, in their striped clothes, gathers by the trench. They are quiet and reverential in bearing, standing with heads bared of their own accord. No mourners weep for these lonely dead; no tribute of flowers covers them.
But, over the open grave are spoken the stately words of our Burial Service as the bodies are committed to the ground, “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; looking for the general Resurrection in the last day, and the life of the world to come, through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
“Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?”was the contemptuous proverb quoted by Nathanael long ago. “Can any good boy come from Hart’s Island?” might well be asked today. Like Philip, we will answer, “Come and see.”
About a month ago, one of the boys on the Island came to me, asking if I could find him a shelter in the city for a few days. Though in the regulation clothes, rough and gray, of a prisoner, the boy’s clear, steady eyes were convincing. Here was a boy worth while. When his time was up he was sent down to the Chrystie Street Home, where Mr. [Wallace] Gilpatrick took him in, fitted him out with clothes and gave him a home. Less than a week later he announced, in a triumphant postal, that he had found work as assistant janitor in a public school— hours, 5 a.m. till 11 p.m., wages $20 a month.
Since then this boy has found work for two other boys who sorely needed it. Today he is “hanging on,” as he calls it, looking for an easier job, where he can attend night school. He’s a splendid fellow, with the makings in him of a noble man. Is it not worth while?
THE BRANCH WORKHOUSE, HART’S ISLAND Tacitus speaks somewhere of “Ultima Thule,” the “Ultimate Island,” and the phrase recurs inevitably when dealing with that outpost of our city’s penal system, Hart’s Island.
As for the dreary company of those who must owe their burial to our city’s grudging charity, so to the pitiable throng here sheltered in the Branch Workhouse, this is indeed the end of things, the last home of failure and despair.
On this bleak islet, as far from the city’s sympathy as from the hum of her industry, are gathered the wretched remnants swept aside from the human mechanism we call our city. Of this human rubbish the economist would, no doubt, tell us that we are well rid; that within these worn-out bodies may be hidden souls made in the image of God, is a matter, not of economic, but of Christian, interest.
Today there are about six hundred and fifty men in this branch of the Workhouse, by far the greater number of them old, helpless and homeless. With a few exceptions, they are here because they know no better place to spend the winter, because they have no other home.
By the end of March they will begin to be discharged, so that by the first of July there will not be more than two hundred left. During the summer they will scatter over the country, to return like homing pigeons, to the city with the first touch of frost.
Then, they know the combined interest of the policeman and the magistrate will secure for them a warm and comfortable shelter till the snow flies once more.
But let not the anxious tax-payer fear that the city is wasting his substance in maintaining open house for the country’s incapables.
This is no house of rest for the weary; this is a place of punishment for crime. And so the inmates are not paupers, but criminals.
They are clad in prison stripes, fed with prison food. It is a sad commentary on a city’s wretchedness and poverty that for so many hundreds this mean and scanty diet is an annual Godsend.
The able-bodied portion of the prisoners are housed in a separate building; to them is entrusted the work of the island — digging the trenches in the Potter’s Field, loading and unloading the boats, the laundry and the kitchen, etc.
In winter there is not enough work to go round; in summer, not enough men for the necessary work. These are a decent, well-behaved lot of men, whom it is a thousand pities to see in prison. They represent just so much wasted time and energy.
A little magisterial consideration and advice, a little “talking to,” after the manner of a Dutch uncle, would have settled the domestic trouble that brought most of them here, and perhaps have saved a home.
But, of course, the city does not wish, and cannot afford, to care for the comfort of these unprofitable servants. She gives them enough to eat, of a sort they can hardly eat at all; she gives them almost enough clothing to keep them warm. But there are between sixty and seventy old men in the Annex who have not yet had any socks this winter. The needless suffering this petty economy entails is a disgrace to this big, rich city
If they become ill, they are sent to the Island Hospital, where a capable physician battles bravely but vainly against the diseases rendered hopeless by vicious living and old age. Again, the loving care of the city for her unfortunates is witnessed here; sick or well, all have the same dietary. One sees toothless old men, trembling with weakness and age, mumbling at their coarse and uninviting food. Poor things, so many of them are doomed to die here, friendless and alone. They are grateful for the smallest kindness; their dim, old eyes lighten with gratitude at the merest inquiry after their health.
. . . . here, among the lowly and despised, you will find men and women who have traveled far on the road to God. And as, among them, you will find every vice except dishonesty, so you will find every virtue except economic efficiency.
As the fellow-prisoners of St. Paul could testify, one may be in jail and yet be in very good company.
And the songs of Christian triumph that, throughout the ages, have resounded from the prisoner and the captive, testify even today that stone walls and iron bars can never exclude Him who came to seek and to save that which was lost.
Mission News April 1907:
The necessary permission has been secured for the erection of a cross, which will be ten feet high, of rough-cut New Hampshire granite with a chiseled edge, and will bear upon its base the inscription, “HE CALLETH HIS OWN BY NAME”.
Those who wish to join Mrs. Greer in this splendid movement may send their contributions to her at 7 Gramercy Park. About six hundred dollars is needed.
The fund for the cross at the Potter’s Field, which Mrs. Greer was seeking to raise, was quickly subscribed.
It is hoped that the cross will be in place in time for it to be dedicated by Bishop Greer on the afternoon of Trinity Sunday.
The usual custom is to have the annual Confirmation at the City Home for the Aged on that day, and many of our friends go to the service.
This year the Confirmation Service will be held earlier in the afternoon, and the friends who accompany us – an invitation is extended to all – will be taken by boat directly to Hart’s Island for the service there.
Mission News June 1907:
The dedication will take place some weekday in June, as we cannot now give definite notice of the time, if those who would like to be present will send their names and addresses to the Superintendent, the Rev. Mr. [R. B.] Kimber, he will notify them by post. Cordial invitation is extended to all those who are interested in this good work.
The 1906-1907 annual reports of the Rev. Thomas McCandless:
* The Branch Workhouse, Hart’s Island 1906-1907
. . . . During the past year the census of the Branch Workhouse has ranged from 400 to 700. Of these, excepting the twenty-five or thirty women needed in the island laundry, the greater part are elderly men, who return with sad regularity to serve term after term as vagrants. They usually keep away for the midsummer months, but the first touch of frost hurries them back to what is their only real home.
The younger men, numbering perhaps 100, do the heavier work, such as digging the trenches in the Potter’s Field. The new ice-plant, planned to supply the institutions of the different islands, requires the labor of many. These men are more active offenders against the law, and are being punished for disorderly conduct, drunkenness and nonsupport.
This is merely part of the Workhouse where the boys are kept. Those not graduates of the public school are required to attend daily one session of the school maintained on the island by the Department of Education. This is the extent of the “reform.”
. . . . During the past year, by interceding with the magistrates, the release of about twenty men was secured. Of course, it is needful to exercise the closest scrutiny before undertaking such a mission. That in this we have been sufficiently careful is shown in the fact that no magistrate has ever refused our request and that no prisoner so released has ever been recommitted.
Lest such a chaplaincy might seem too secular, too busy with the cares of this world, we have tried to square our Sunday preaching with our week-day practice, and to transfigure love for humanity into love for humanity’s God. Our services are reverently followed and shared by the inmates who worship with us. Mr. Gethin, our organist, renders invaluable aid in making our singing hearty and devout. On a few holy days, the Rev. H. St. George Young has visited us and administered Holy Communion, and on Trinity Sunday it was a privilege to present to Bishop Greer, for Confirmation, a class of three men, two women and five boys — the first Confirmation class on Hart’s Island.
[Editorial Note:] The Confirmation took place at the Chapel of the Good Shepherd on Blackwell’s Island May 26, 1907, the Rt. Rev. David Hummell Greer, Bishop Coadjutor of the Episcopal Diocese of New York presiding. Greer would become the 8th Bishop of New York the following year following the death of Bishop Potter. . . .
*The New York City Reformatory 1906-1907
. . . . the year just ended has also shown some basis for our optimism. For we have progressed. To begin with, the number of inmates is now on the average 300, twice that of a year ago. And instead of the indiscriminate commitment of “boys” of thirty and boys of fifteen, hardened criminals and unfortunate children, we now receive only first offenders. So our standard of admission is a year higher. Again, to earn his recommendation for parole, a boy must now have 1,200 instead of 900 merit marks, a full month’s extension of the minimum term. That is a step, but only a step, in the right direction, for in neither three nor four months’ time can any permanent reform be affected in a boy’s character.
So much for present virtues! There ought to be, and there will be, more than these. The boys should be given a training in the personal and social decencies that is out of the question with the present lack of equipment.
. . . . When a boy is paroled on condition that someone provides his fare to his home, our Ex-Convict Fund is called upon. Yesterday we sent a Jewish boy to his parents in Montreal. Most of those so aided have shown a lively sense of gratitude by returning the amount we gave them.
Mission News November 1907
From the 76th Annual Report of the New York Protestant Episcopal City Mission Society by the Superintendent the Rev. Robert B. Kimber:
“More than 5,000 persons have been laid to rest in the city’s burial ground – the Potter’s Field – and over each one interred there the Burial Office of the Church has been read. No longer is their resting-place unmarked, for there now rises from the knoll, plainly seen by the passing ships, a large granite cross, bearing the inscription, “HE CALLETH HIS OWN BY NAME.” This symbol of the resurrection is the pledge to those who lie there of their heritage in the Christian’s hope.”