Hart Island: One woman's journey to find her baby daughter's grave

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Hart Island in New York City is home to mass graves.
Hart Island in New York City is home to mass graves. Credit: ITV/On Assignment

The trench is broad and deep. Pale brown earth has been freshly turned, ready for another row of coffins.

I have stood with grief-stricken relatives at the sites of mass graves before - during Pakistan's war with the Taliban and in the aftermath of a tsunami in the South Pacific.

But this isn’t one of the world's blood drenched trouble spots or the scene of a natural disaster.

This is New York City. And as dawn breaks, the mother I have come here to meet has waited half a lifetime to see where her daughter is buried.

Elaine Joseph is struggling to contain emotions long suppressed by disappointment and frustration.

Elaine Joseph's daughter Tomika died in 1978 after she was born two months prematurely.
Elaine Joseph's daughter Tomika died in 1978 after she was born two months prematurely. Credit: ITV/On Assignment

"I'm feeling elated that I'm getting to do this - but sad that it's taken 36 years," she tells me.

"I'm just hoping that it's beautiful.''

She is about to board a ferry for a short journey across the western end of Long Island Sound.

Her destination is a not a place that welcomes visitors. Not while they're living, at least.

It’s a small, scrubby stretch of land marked by crumbling buildings. Along the shore there are warning signs to keep out.

For a century and a half, Hart Island has been the place New York dumps its inconvenient problems - out of sight and out of mind.

This island of lost souls has been in its day home to a reform school, a TB hospital, and a lunatic asylum.

And from the late 19th Century to the present day it has been the location of mass graves for New York's lonely dead.

Here lie as many as a million bodies. The dead no-one comes to claim, the homeless and the nameless; the destitute and the desperate, in giant trenches, ten feet deep, stacked in rough wooden caskets, three high in rows of six.

But that is not the greatest heartbreak harbored by Hart Island.

It is also the last resting place for many thousands of premature babies and other infants, like Elaine's daughter, whose lives were measured in a few precious days.

In the winter of 1978, Elaine was 23 years old and pregnant with her first child. She named her Tomika.

I remember her little face, I remember she had chubby little cheeks and I remember she had a weak little cry,.

She weighed four pounds, two ounces. She was tiny.

The nurse held her up and said, 'Look, here's your baby.'' I looked at her and said 'She really is beautiful, but she's gonna die'.

It was an intuition.

– Elaine Joseph

Tomika had been born two months prematurely. She was weak and required heart surgery.

Elaine had nursed her for four days, staying that last night at her bedside until midnight before she reluctantly went home to rest.

Fate in the form of a great winter storm was to separate them forever.

A blizzard closed the city down, blocking roads and cutting phone lines.

When her daughter suffered heart failure, Elaine was stranded by snow at her apartment.

"I just could not get there. I regret terribly that she died alone," she says.

The only keepsake Elaine Joseph has of her daughter Tomika is a card with her footprints.
The only keepsake Elaine Joseph has of her daughter Tomika is a card with her footprints. Credit: ITV/On Assignment

It was some days before she could speak to anyone at the hospital to discuss funeral arrangements. When she did, they gave her stunning news.

"They said, 'The body's already gone. You signed the forms so that the City will bury her but don't worry because the City buries them with the other babies and stillborns."

"As if that would make it better?" I ask her.

"Yes,'' she replies. "But it didn't."

The burial certificate didn't mention Hart Island. All that officials could tell her of the location of the cemetery was a name, Potter's Field.

Many New Yorkers have no idea of the secrets Hart Island holds.
Many New Yorkers have no idea of the secrets Hart Island holds. Credit: ITV/On Assignment

She had no idea that was a Biblical term for a place where the poor are buried in common graves; and no clue that in New York that meant Hart Island.

Few in the city do.

"I'm a native New Yorker" she says, "and I know thousands of other native New Yorkers who have never heard of Hart Island."

It was as if Tomika had disappeared without a trace, though Elaine never gave up looking.

"Anyone who’s a parent, you know you can’t let it go it’s a part of you," she says.

Months turned into years, and years into decades. Then one evening in 2008 she saw a local television news bulletin.

New York artist Melinda Hunt as dedicated years to putting faces and names to those buried at Hart Island.
New York artist Melinda Hunt as dedicated years to putting faces and names to those buried at Hart Island. Credit: ITV/On Assignment

It featured an item about a New York artist, Melinda Hunt, who had become fascinated by Hart Island and its secrets.

She has dedicated years to putting faces and names to those buried in anonymity there, and where possible to reconnect them with their families.

"That we can have a place so dark and inaccessible - that just isn't who we are as Americans," Melinda told me when we met at her studio a couple of hours drive from Hart Island.

On the table in front of us she places photographs of some of those who have ended up in those anonymous graves.

The island has been the location of mass graves for New York's lonely dead since the late 19th Century.
The island has been the location of mass graves for New York's lonely dead since the late 19th Century. Credit: ITV/On Assignment

Behind each portrait lies a tale of personal tragedy. Hart Island does not discriminate.

Take the story of Bobby Driscoll, the child actor known to millions as the voice and model for Peter Pan in the Walt Disney film of the early 1950s.

A Hollywood prodigy, in adulthood his star rapidly waned and by the 1960s he was lost to drink and drug addition, disappearing into New York's underground scene.

When his body was found in a derelict tenement block there was no one who could identify him, so he was dispatched to Hart Island for a paupers' funeral.

Melinda is one of the few outsiders to have witnessed the burials that still take place, Tuesdays to Friday each week.

"It’s a really overwhelming experience," she tells me.

This rare footage was filmed in 1990s of one of the morgue trucks arriving for burial.
This rare footage was filmed in 1990s of one of the morgue trucks arriving for burial. Credit: ITV/On Assignment

"A morgue truck arrives and it’s full of coffins. Especially if it’s baby coffins, there are fifty or sixty at once. They line them up sort of like UPS unloading these boxes."

There is no ceremony, no prayer, no priest.

The grave-diggers are convicts from the nearby Rikers Island jail and they are paid 50 cents an hour.

A quirk of history means Hart Island is run by the Department of Correction, New York’s prisons authority. Though here the security is to keep people out.

Until now, the authorities have allowed families only as far as a wooden gazebo close to the shoreline. Prison rules apply. No phones, no cameras. Strict ID checks. It’s like visiting a convict, not a cemetery.

Only after threatening legal action has Elaine, along with seven other mothers of infants buried on the island, been granted permission to visit the grave-site itself.

It takes just a few minutes to cross to Hart Island on the ferry.
It takes just a few minutes to cross to Hart Island on the ferry. Credit: ITV/On Assignment

It is a shining Spring morning when she sets out. Barely a breath of wind, the sky over Hart Island turned a luminous red by the rising sun.

From the small ferry port it takes just a few minutes to cross to Hart Island.

Then, accompanied by prison department officials, Elaine walks over compacted earth to the place Tomika is buried.

It is hard to be exact. There are no grave-stones, just rough concrete markers.

At a spot they have calculated as best they can, they pause. A bunch of flowers is suddenly produced and placed on the bare ground.

Elaine Joseph finally sees her daughter Tomika's grave.
Elaine Joseph finally sees her daughter Tomika's grave. Credit: ITV/On Assignment

There is a moment of silence, and a lifetime’s pain, as Elaine kneels and cries.

"It was surreal," she tells me later:

We had to walk over mass graves to get to the spot where my baby was buried.

The Department of Correction captain that works on the island, who runs this island, out of the goodness of his heart he put flowers on my daughter's grave.

It actually brought out the good in people. It had me in tears.’

In a prepared statement, the Department of Correction told us it now conducts regular monthly visits for family members to Hart Island.

But it insists the cemetery lacks the facilities to accommodate safely large numbers of visitors or to permit them to wander over the grounds.

Elaine and the others mothers have launched a campaign to change that. They want Hart Island turned into a public park.

"I think it would be a fitting memorial for Tomika and every other baby that is buried there," she says.

It seems the least that New York, a city which teams with so much life, can do for its dead.

Watch On Assignment, Wednesday at 10.35pm on ITV

This article first ran in the Daily Mirror