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Dead of AIDS and Forgotten in Potter’s Field

NEW YORK — The bodies reached Hart Island on a ferry like all the others, in spare wooden boxes and bound for ignominious mass internment off the coast of the Bronx where New York City buries its unclaimed dead by the hundreds in long, shallow trenches.

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Corey Kilgannon
, New York Times

NEW YORK — The bodies reached Hart Island on a ferry like all the others, in spare wooden boxes and bound for ignominious mass internment off the coast of the Bronx where New York City buries its unclaimed dead by the hundreds in long, shallow trenches.

But when these 17 bodies arrived in 1985, the island’s hardened crews, used to burying dozens of indigent people per week, recoiled. These were different. They had died from a widely feared nascent disease called AIDS, a highly contagious illness with a skyrocketing death toll.

The bodies were kept out of the trenches and instead quarantined in a remote spot on the island’s southernmost tip, buried deep in individual graves.

“This was a scary time and people were avoiding AIDS patients like the plague,” recalled Eugene Ruppert, 69, who retired as a captain with New York City’s Department of Correction, which oversees burials on Hart Island.

The island would go on to receive scores, if not hundreds, of people who died during the AIDS epidemic, which during the 1980s and 1990s killed more than 100,000 people in New York, about a quarter of AIDS deaths nationwide during the same period.

Trying to pin down the precise number of those with AIDS buried on Hart Island is difficult. A long-standing stigma about the island and criticism that the burial practices are crude and outdated have made city officials reluctant to provide many details. Officials at several city agencies involved in the burials refused interview requests to discuss the issue and insisted that no data or any other information was available on AIDS burials.

But piecing together an estimate is possible by surveying the many hospitals that treated AIDS patients during the epidemic and sent bodies to potter’s field. By that accounting, the number of AIDS burials on Hart Island could reach into the thousands, making it perhaps the single largest burial ground in the country for people with AIDS.

It is an untold chapter of the AIDS crisis, but in recent years some of the island’s secrets have started to tumble out largely because of the work of a longtime activist whose legal pressure has wrested information from the city, giving relatives of people with AIDS answers they have long sought.

One of them, Elsie Soto, 35, of the Bronx, learned recently that her father, Norbert Soto, who died in 1993 from AIDS, is buried on the island.

It was a double indignity to die from such a stigmatized disease and then be buried in anonymity in a mass grave, said Soto, who visited the island in April on one of the monthly trips that the Correction Department now offers relatives. She recalled being escorted by a correction officer to a broken marker at a mass grave.

“They said, ‘He’s here in this section,'’ she said. “I’m like, ‘But where?''’

By 1987, AIDS was killing thousands of New Yorkers a year, with spikes to more than 8,000 fatalities annually in the mid-1990s before deaths declined as new treatments became available.

It was a time when AIDS wards were crowded with patients and medical personnel focused on treating the living, leaving the fate of unclaimed bodies largely unobserved and little documented.

Even among AIDS experts and doctors, nurses, hospital administrators and advocates with key roles during the epidemic, not much is known about AIDS victims on the island. Who were they? And how did they wind up there?

“Part of the history of the AIDS epidemic is buried on Hart Island and it’s the unknown part,” said Melinda Hunt, the longtime advocate who has battled the city for information and believes that the island should be open to the public.

The stigma and lifestyle associated with AIDS left many patients – whether young, gay or poor intravenous drug users – prone to being estranged from loved ones.

Private burials were difficult to arrange because many funeral directors either refused to handle AIDS corpses or charged higher fees.

Soto said her family had such a hard time finding an affordable funeral home that “Hart Island was literally our only option.”

She and other relatives of those with AIDS have sought help from Hunt, a visual artist who runs The Hart Island Project, which operates an interactive searchable database using burial data obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests.

Correction Department officials said that, like other cemetery operators, they were not privy to causes of death and did not have a tally for AIDS burials on Hart Island.

Officials with three city agencies involved with AIDS patients — the Health Department, the Office of Chief Medical Examiner, and NYC Health + Hospitals — said they had no information available that could shed light on the issue. Barbara Butcher, a longtime chief of staff for the city’s medical examiner before retiring in 2015, said she was told about individual AIDS burials during a visit to Hart Island during the 1990s.

“I said, ‘Why are they buried separately,’ and they said, ‘Because they had AIDS,'” recalled Butcher, who is now a forensic consultant. “I said, ‘Do you think the other dead people will catch it from them?’ and they said, ‘Well, we didn’t know what to do.'”

Ruppert, who managed burials on the island during the 1990s, said the early panic over AIDS frightened his burial crews, which included correction officers supervising Rikers Island jail inmates working as gravediggers.

Even though some of those with AIDS had been dead for weeks or even months, the crews still feared being infected by bodily fluids.

So the medical examiner sent the corpses in body bags to prevent leakage and inmates wore protective jumpsuits that were disposed of after each burial, Ruppert said.

“The medical examiner forewarned us they were coming and we didn’t know if they’d be contagious even after death,” Ruppert said. “We were flying by the seat of our pants because there were no regulations.”

The bodies were buried “as far as we could go with the backhoe,” Ruppert said.

After it became clear that the cadavers were not contagious, AIDS bodies became part of the mass burials.

As a result, the initial 17 AIDS burials, each with its own tiny concrete marker bearing a number, are perhaps the only individually marked graves among the estimated 1 million bodies interred on the island. The number of burials annually on Hart Island do not align neatly with AIDS deaths from year to year during the epidemic. But they do track the increase in the late 1980s as well as the decrease after 1995.

One clue to AIDS burials comes from the Hart Island burial records, which the Department of Correction began making public in 2013 as a searchable list on its website.

A New York Times examination of the records, which includes the names of individual hospitals from where bodies came but not causes of death, showed that many hospitals with sizable AIDS wards sent hundreds of patients to Hart Island during the epidemic. Some sent well over 1,000.

From 1980 through 2000, there were about 1,500 bodies buried on Hart Island from Bellevue Hospital Center, which had the city’s largest AIDS treatment center. Another roughly 1,750 bodies came from St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital and nearly 1,500 from Harlem Hospital Center, both of which also had large AIDS wards.

During the same period, nearly 1,000 bodies arrived from St. Vincent’s Hospital, whose AIDS ward gained recognition as the epicenter of the medical fight against AIDS. Another 455 came from St. Clare's Hospital in Manhattan, another major AIDS treatment center.

Hart Island burials also came in smaller numbers, like the 27 from Rivington House, a nursing home in Manhattan exclusively for AIDS patients, and 48 from Terence Cardinal Cooke Health Care Center in Manhattan, which had a busy AIDS ward during the epidemic.

Dr. Stephen W. Nicholas, who ran several pediatric AIDS units during the epidemic, recalled treating so-called AIDS babies in the mid-1980s at Harlem Hospital, many of whose mothers were often homeless drug addicts dying from AIDS.

He remembered asking a nurse about burial arrangements for one early patient.

“She said, ‘Oh no, these babies go to potter’s field,'” said Nicholas, now a dean at the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University.

“It dawned on me that many of these kids didn’t have any place to go for a decent burial,” he said.

Nicholas said he saw images taken by photographer Claire Yaffa of babies being buried on Hart Island. “It made me sick to see these crates stacked up and bulldozers just covering them over,” said Nicholas, who began pushing hospital administrators to coordinate with charity groups to arrange burials for his patients. Robert Ruggiero, who owned a Bronx funeral home that was one of the first in New York willing to embalm AIDS cadavers, said making burial arrangements often involved calling the estranged families of young gay men who had come to New York for acceptance.

“The parents would say, ‘It’s not our problem – just do what you have to do,'” he recalled. “These families were so disheartened by the lifestyle their son was living. Some said, ‘Just cremate him and mail us the ashes.'”

In many cases, relatives have no idea that a loved one is buried on Hart Island. Paul Alladice, an actor from Harlem who had a role in the 1969 film “Putney Swope,” died of AIDS at Saint Luke’s Hospital in 1997. After years of searching and wondering, his daughter, Fahja Alladice, and his brother, Darryl Alladice, finally found his body recently with the help of a forensics consultant they hired.

Another notable person buried on Hart Island is Richard Humphreys, who in the mid-1970s was Lou Reed’s transgender partner who went by Rachel and was the inspiration for the music and artwork on Reed’s 1976 album “Coney Island Baby.”

Humphreys died in 1990 at St. Clare's Hospital, which specialized in treating AIDS patients at the time, though Humphreys’ official cause of death is unknown.

Hunt said she learned about the burial ground for the first 17 AIDS patients while perusing an obscure infrastructure report conducted by a sanitation consultant. After hiring a drone operator recently to videotape the island, she was able to locate the tiny grave markers in the footage.

Hunt said the site deserves its own memorial.

“No one has acknowledged these burials,” she said. “And they’re an important part of the history of the city and the AIDS epidemic.”

The markers include what Hunt calls the “tomb of the unknown child,” the 1985 grave of the first Hart Island burial of a child who died from AIDS.

It reads “SC-B1 1985,” or Special Child, Baby 1, 1985.

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