33 The First Alms House
In the 18th century, New York and other colonial cities established charitable institutions, called almshouses, to house widows and their children, orphans, the elderly, and the disabled. City governments established buildings, plans, and management procedures for these almshouses. The first almshouse complex in New York City was built on the northern boundary of the city, near this spot. The almshouse operated there from 1736 until 1797, when it was demolished to clear the land for the new City Hall. The almshouse complex also functioned as a House of Correction, workhouse, and poorhouse (Baugher 2001, 175-184). In 1736, the Common Council of the City of New York hired a Keeper of the House of Correction and Master of the Workhouse to “do Justice and shew Humanity to the poor who are not able to labour, & Correct the Incorrigible and such Others as shall be committed to the House of Correction, keep them to hard labour according to Law." Those committed to the House of Correction included “all disorderly persons, parents of Bastard Children, Beggars, Servants running away or otherwise misbehaving themselves, Trespassers, Rogues, Vagabonds, poor persons refusing to work” (New York Common Council 4:308-309).
Two hundred years later, in 1989, archaeologists unearthed foundation stones, a builder’s trench, and brick and plaster rubble of an 18th century structure between City Hall and the Tweed Courthouse (Dunlap 1989). Archaeologists believe this was first almshouse, based on historical records concerning the almshouse and the artifacts found during the excavation, which included food preparation and service vessels, bottles, kitchen utensils, bones, darning pins, brass needles, and buttons made from bone, pearl, and pewter (Dunlap 1989; Baugher 2001, 178-181).
Shortly after archaeologists made this discovery, REPOhistory met for the first time to discuss a site-specific public art project to reveal absent historical narratives in New York City (Sholette 1999, 4). Members Anita Morse and Andy Musilli used the discovery to address the issue of homeless by memorializing June, a homeless New Yorker who died on February 2, 1992.
What happens when a homeless New Yorker, such as June, dies? When someone in New York City dies with no family and/or no money, the body is buried on Hart Island, a small island offshore from the Bronx in the western part of the Long Island Sound. The island has been used as a potter’s field, or burial ground for people who could not afford burials elsewhere, since 1869 (Lewis 2013). Though the grave sites are not marked, the Department of Correction, which administrates the island, maintains records of the people buried there. Since 2011, the Hart Island Project has worked tell the stories of the people who have been buried there after 1980 through an online database (The Hart Project 2017).
Baugher, Sherene. 2001. “Visible Charity: The Archaeology, Material Culture, and Landscape Design of New York City’s Municipal Almshouse Complex, 1736-1797.” International Journal of Historical Archaeology 5, no. 2 (June 2001): 175-202. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20852973.
Dunlap, David. 1989. “A Homeless Shelter From the 1700’s?” The New York Times, April 7. Accessed March 21, 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/1989/04/07/nyregion/a-homeless-shelter-from-the-1700-s.html.
The Hart Island Project. 2017. “Mission,” The Hart Island Project. Accessed March 23, 2017. https://www.hartisland.net/mission.
Lewis, Dan. 2013. “What Happens When a Homeless New Yorker Dies?” Smithsonian, October 6. Accessed March 22, 2017. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/what-happens-when-a-homeless-new-yorker-dies-808498/.
New York Common Council. 1905. Minutes of the Common Council of the City of New York, 1675-1776. Vol. 4, Minutes of the Common Council of the City of New York, January 24, 1730 to September 19, 1740. New York: Dodd Mead, and Company. https://books.google.com/books?id=FPJMAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false.
Sholette, Gregory. 1999. “Authenticity Squared: REPOhistory Circulation: The Anatomy of an Activist Art Project.” New Art Examiner 27, no. 3 (November 1999): 20-23 and 71-72. http://www.gregorysholette.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/12_authenticity1.pdf.