From Bones of Immigrants, Stories of Pain
A few weeks ago, a hearse left Tom Amorosi’s brownstone in Park Slope with the remains of 36 people who died in the 1840s and 1850s. The remains were on the final miles of a dizzying journey out of history. Mr. Amorosi, a forensic anthropologist, had been hired by the state to study them.
The old bones spoke, but did not give direct answers. “I’d look at some of them, and think, ‘How the heck did you get up in the morning?’ ” Mr. Amorosi said, tracing the ravages mapped in the bones by poverty, illness and birth defects. In the bones, recovered during the construction of a courthouse on Staten Island, we get a glimpse of the story of immigration long before Ellis Island.
From the late 18th century on, people arriving in the United States were examined by doctors while their ships were anchored in New York Harbor. Those suspected of having an infectious disease were sent to a quarantine station at Marine Hospital in St. George, Staten Island. Some recovered and left. Others did not, and were buried in a rude graveyard on the grounds.
When the hospital was built in 1799, St. George was distant, rural countryside. By the late 1850s, however, prosperity had arrived. Summer homes were built by wealthy families from Manhattan. A community had grown.
The walled compound of the Marine Hospital, crammed with diseased and dying immigrants, was not the ideal real estate amenity. In 1858, the neighbors decided to shut it down. The sick immigrants were put into a number of New York City homes until Ellis Island opened. “You had very respectable people — church leaders, local politicians, business owners — who battered the gates, emptied any people in the hospital buildings, and then burned each building down,” said Sara Mascia of Historical Perspectives Inc., a firm that studied the site for the state.
No one went to jail for the fires, said Cece Saunders of Historical Perspectives, because “arson was defined as burning down a house with people in it.”
Over the next century, fine houses were built atop the old burial ground. These fell into disuse, and around 1957, the city plowed over the ground and paved it for a public parking lot, disrupting many graves.
“There was one older woman who said she saw human remains being dumped into New York Harbor,” said Lynn Rogers, director of the Friends of Abandoned Cemeteries of Staten Island. In the late 1990s, the city began planning a new courthouse on the parking lot. The state’s Dormitory Authority, which constructs many public buildings, was managing the work. It hired Historical Perspectives to figure out where the cemetery had been.
“The goal was to define the limits of the cemetery so we could avoid it,” said Matthew Stanley, an environmental manager for the Dormitory Authority.
A FIGHT began over what would happen to the remains. Ms. Rogers said her group was willing to provide plots in another cemetery to rebury them. “We said, we don’t care if you want to build a courthouse, a hotel, a bowling alley,” Ms. Rogers said. “Just give them to us and we’ll bury them.”
The discussion got crabby. The state said it was responsible for the remains, unless someone could claim an ancestor. The state’s chapter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians said the remains were probably those of refugees from the Irish potato famine. But hospital records were spotty, and as many Germans as Irish were emigrating in some years the burial ground was in use.
“There were people talking about how we were going to bulldoze a cemetery and drop a courthouse or parking garage on top of it,” said the state’s Mr. Stanley. But the goals, he said, “were always to respect the site.”
The Staten Island borough president provided funds to build a memorial green, where the remains will eventually be placed, when the courthouse is finished. Although most of the remains were not disturbed during the archaeological study, 37 partial skeletons were recovered, jumbled in shallow graves.
These were brought to Mr. Amorosi’s lab in Brooklyn, where he saw compound fractures in the bones and arthritic joints in men and women not yet 40 years old. “These people were used as mules,” he concluded.
At 10 a.m. Saturday, two coffins, one for the adults, one for the five children, will be brought to St. Peter’s Catholic Church for an interfaith service. Afterwards, they will be placed in a holding tomb.
“Then we’re going to Tappan Park,” Ms. Rogers said, “for a traditional 19th-century wake.”
New York Times