Lady Liberty and the Tired, Poor Huddled Masses of Irish Famine Victims in one Ferry Ride

"Every civilization in this world built on top of the one they conquered. You go to Rome or Jerusalem or Paris, France, and it's cities stacked on top of towns, stacked on top of villages, stacked on top of one man's house built on top of one man's cave."

Fans of 1923 will undoubtedly recognize this great line by Harrison Ford's character, Jacob Dutton. Is this a sign of progress? Building cities over the dead. The memorial green on Staten Island, where the Northern Cemetery of the Staten Island and Marine Hospital Quarantine Station once stood, defies this definition of progress.

For the thousands of people who enter St. George Courthouse on Staten Island delivering or waiting for a verdict of innocent or guilty, thousands more innocent Irish Famine victims, given a harsher justice, are interred beneath their feet. The courthouse stands on the site of the former Marine Hospital and Quarantine Station of Staten Island (SIMH&QS), which operated from 1799 to 1858. It was here, during the years of the Irish Famine, 1845 - 1852, that thousands of Irish immigrants were examined on board ships and, if deemed too sick to be admitted into public life in New York, were isolated. Here, Irish immigrants perished in their thousands.

The Northern Cemetery is just a short walk from the Staten Island Ferry terminal, where the Staten Island Marine Hospital and Quarantine Station originally stood. Over the last fifty years, how many millions of Irish tourists boarded that ferry instead of standing in the long wait lines for Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, not knowing that a short walk away was a mass Irish famine grave? I was one of them.

It was 1990, and as a NUI Galway student working for a summer in America, I posed on that ferry, like millions of others before me, trying to hold the Statue of Liberty in my palm. Little did I know what I was missing, apart from blocking the Statue of Liberty, when I stepped off that ferry in Staten Island, only to reboard it and not spend another minute in the place where thousands of Irish Famine immigrants are buried. 

In a poignant event that marked a significant step in honoring the Irish Famine victims buried on Staten Island, two caskets were reinterred in 2014. These caskets, containing the remains of 83 bodies, had been exhumed for testing in 2003. Testing confirmed their Celtic origin, further deepening this place's historical Irish Famine significance.

In 2015, two volunteer groups, The Committee for the Commemoration of Irish Famine Victims (CCIFV) and The Hunger Committee's Famine Marker Project, placed a small headstone on the site to mark its connection to the Irish Famine. In 2016, Friends of Abandoned Cemeteries of Staten Island, FACSI, erected a sign dedicating the site as a cemetery and memorial green to the victims of the Irish Famine.  There are no death certificates or cemetery logs for the people buried here. So, how can we be sure that most people here are of Irish origin? The year it was cut, the hasty burials, and the location provides clues.

Staten Island has three sites associated with Irish Famine graves: the front of the St. George Courthouse, Silver Lake Golf Course, and the Staten Island Cemetery on Richmond Terrace. The St. George Courthouse cemetery was cut in 1847, a pivotal year in the Irish Famine and Irish immigration into the port of New York. Commonly referred to as Black '47. Until recently, it was the year of the highest recorded Famine fatalities. It is now believed that 1848 holds that record. Immigrants leaving Ireland in the fall of 1847 and winter of 1848 would already have suffered severe malnourishment and arrived in the Port of New York in deplorable condition. The Northern Cemetery ceased accepting burials in 1854, although clandestine burials may have continued beyond that date.

The site at the courthouse is unique in that historically, it was where the former SIMH & QS existed, surrounded by a wall that separated the facility from local businesses and residences. During the years of the Irish Famine, it was considered "The largest quarantine facility in the country," according to Seton Hall University's ongoing research project, The Watering Place. The number of Irish Immigrants entering the port at Staten Island from 1845 to 1852 had local newspapers calling it "Staten Ireland."

Historical Perspectives, Inc., employed by the Dormitory Authority for the State of New York (DASNY) to do the archaeological dig, reported that the site is unique to Irish Famine history because of the date it was cut, its location—not ideal for a cemetery—and the date it ceased to accept burials. In Historical Perspectives Inc.'s report, the cemetery is called "the Northern Cemetery."

Residents at the time of cutting the Northern Cemetery would agree that the location was not ideal for different reasons. On April 11, 1848, residents formally complained to a Select Committee appointed by the House of Assembly. The most disturbing accounts of how the cemetery's location disrupted locals' lives can be found in the testimony given to assembly members. The testimony of locals describes discarded rubbish, stenches, and the fear of staff spreading disease into the community. Their vivid descriptions serve as documentary evidence of the summer of 1847 when the Northern Cemetery was cut and used on the SIMH&QS grounds.

Resident John C. Thompson stated the following account in 1848:

"Convalescing patients frequently come into the village by permission, to make purchases and look about: that is, I think they are out by permission, as they do not appear to be under restraint. Some members of the family go out, while others remain in the hospital. They return to the Quarantine at night and are therefore passing and repassing between the Quarantine and the village."

The testimony of Robert M. Hazard, who lived at Nautilus Hall directly opposite the walled Quarantine grounds, is even more graphic:

"I have known the stench from the Quarantine establishment so great at Nautilus Hall piazza, as to oblige me to go inside the house and close windows and doors."

Benjamin F. Dawson elaborates on the burial trenches, the time it was opened, and the stench:

"The smell seems to proceed from the putrid flesh. I cannot describe this smell—it is horrid. My family have been quite sick from the effects of the stench on several occasions, as they believe. The stench was smelt every day in the hot months, about the time the burial trench was opened, and caused great nausea and sickness at the stomach."

Robert S. Buchanan expands on Dawson's burial trench reference and gives an even more vivid account of the burials and disruption to the lives of locals:

"My house is about three hundred feet from the hospital wall... I removed there the past season, about June 8, and almost every day the burials were offensive to my family, from the stench arising from the opening of the trench, and my family were often made sick by the stench arising there from."

The descriptions indicate that they described the summer of 1847 following the construction of the new buildings expressed by Dr. Vache in his 1847 letter to the Assembly. The testimonies also refer to using burial trenches for the dead in the Northern Cemetery's location. Trench burials are used when bodies need to be buried quickly and sometimes without individual markers, which was the case at the Northern Cemetery in 1847.

On May 11, 1851, the very first account in the Irish Immigrants of the EMIGRANT INDUSTRIAL SAVINGS BANK RECORDS TEST BOOK 1 1850-1853 Volume 1 reveals rich details about the widow Sheehan, an Irish immigrant, and the SIMH&QS. The record taker for the Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank (EISB) notes that "Richard, her husband, was drowned at Quarantine." Patrick O'Brien, the Quarantine watchman, deposited on the widow's behalf. O'Brien started a collection for Widow Sheehan, which allowed her to withdraw ten dollars per month.

Other details in the EISB records include the arrival date of the depositor's ship, their birth county, and or townland in Ireland. I believe that if the record taker didn't understand the name or spelling of the town, he either wrote it phonetically, asked for the nearest large town, or left it blank.

The " Occupation " column in the EISB records reveals even more about the Quarantine Station. In Test Book 1 alone, 22 depositors born in Ireland work at the SIMH&QS. A quick review of Test Book 2 has already revealed over 20 more. Given that the EISB has four test books transcribed by Kevin J. Rich, it is possible to build a better picture of the Irish who worked at the SIMH&QS and learn more about the Northern Cemetery.

One immigrant, William Smith, was a patient in Quarantine on Staten Island during the height of the Irish Famine. Smith, a Manchester weaver, departed from Liverpool on board the ship India in the late winter of 1847. In his book,An Emigrant's Narrative, Or, A Voice from the Steerage, Smith gives the most vivid details of life inside the SIMH&QS. Smith said his ship was delayed in Liverpool for almost two weeks. Most steerage passengers were Irish and had already eaten the bulk of their food supplies for the crossing before they had set sail. By the time India arrived in New York, the passengers were sick, and some had died. Smith was ill and was removed from the ship and placed into Quarantine. Interestingly, one of the depositors in the EISB, Patrick Barry, is a gardener at the Quarantine. In his notes, the recorder states, "Works in the gardens with William Smith." However, Smith is a common name, so we may never know if the author and the gardener are the same person.

 James Irwin                                                                            Gregory Dillon                      

Further information about the Irish entering the New York port during the Famine can be obtained from James Irwin, Immigrant Agent for the Irish Emigrant Society (IES), the precursor to the Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank (EISB).

Irwin arrived in New York in July 1845. His fellow County Roscommon native Gregory Dillon had arrived much earlier. In response to thieves, called runners, preying on naïve immigrants, Dillon formed the IES in 1841 to help keep the newly arrived Irish immigrants safe and settle them. When Irwin arrived on July 30th, 1845, Dillon was now president of the IES and offered Irwin the job of Immigrant Agent, which he performed from 1846 to 1858.

Irwin's job was to board the ships at Quarantine and inform the immigrants of safe places to stay in the city and how to protect their belongings. He kept a complaints book. In his October 1847 testimony before a committee set up by the State of New York to investigate the fraud and impositions on immigrants arriving in the state, Irwin stated:

"I am an agent of the Irish Emigrant Society of the city of New York. The books produced before the committee are the books of the society. One of them is the book of arrivals; the other is the complaint book, in which is entered the complaints made to the society by emigrants, all which of is in my hand writing. I have investigated all of the cases entered in the book." 

According to authorJohn H. Fahey, M.D.,in the Assembly Document 250 prepared by a committee, they declined to enter Irwin's complaint book into the record, which was already too "voluminous." Many complaints of runners stealing from newly arrived immigrants were being lodged in his Complaint Book. We only learn of one, Anne Steele, "who had been robbed while staying in a boarding house. Irwin had been sent as an outdoor agent to investigate but was unsuccessful in getting the boarding house owner to reimburse the young immigrant," Fahey states.

Illustration from Neil Hogan's Cry of the Famishing

On September 1st, 1858, the night that New York City celebrated laying the transatlantic cable with a fireworks display, a different type of fireworks was being used on Staten Island.

It is hardly surprising that due to the influx of immigrants, not only during the famine years but up until 1858, the location of the Quarantine on Staten Island was hotly contested by local residents and even some of the doctors who worked there. In September 1858, locals, including members of the fire brigade, burned the Quarantine to the ground.

Illustration from New York Public Libraries Digital Collection. Attack on the Quarantine Photo credit: Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library

New York will receive thousands of visitors from Ireland this summer. Many will do as I did in 1990, skip the long wait in the ferry line to Ellis Island and the State of Liberty and opt instead for their photo-op with Lady Liberty from the deck of the Staten Island Ferry. However, for those fond of Irish history, I urge you to walk from the ferry terminal in Staten Island to the St. George Courthouse. It will take less than ten minutes. A grassy hill in front of the courthouse is a testament to the fact that the dead will remind us that progress doesn't mean pouring more concrete. Progress can also mean learning from the past. We, too, were refugees in the years of 1845 – 1852.

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Tags: Famine, Grave, History, Immigrants, Irish, Mass, New, Port, York, in, More…of


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