When the dead are delivered, four mornings a week, the ferry Michael Cosgrove is waiting.
A refrigerated truck from the city morgue follows Fordham Street to its stump, between a used boat dealership and a lot thick with weeds, and a high chain-link fence warning "Prison-Keep Off." For New Yorkers who die without the money, family or identity required to get a proper funeral, the dock just beyond is the boarding point for a seven-minute journey to oblivion.
The destination is Hart Island, 101 windswept acres crooked off the Bronx like a beckoning finger.
If the more than 800,000 buried on the island were alive it would be the state's second largest city. Dead, they populate what is almost certainly the country's largest public cemetery. But there are no headstones, eulogies or regular visiting hours.
In fact, most New Yorkers have never heard of Hart Island. In a city of 8.5 million lives, such a place may be a necessity. But it is one long deemed off-limits, home to stories better left untold.
At least it was until Melinda Hunt discovered it.
"This guy was a heroin addict and his girlfriend went looking for him...This is a Vietnam veteran who developed schizophrenia and he committed suicide," Hunt says, flipping through sketches of Hart Island dead. "These people sort of speak to me."
Hunt is an artist, but the island portrait she has created blurs boundaries. Over the last 19 years, she has become Hart Island's detective and de facto archivist, its lead witness and chief scribe.
The result might test some definitions of art. But in this last refuge of the forgotten, Hunt's degree in sculpture and deftness with a charcoal pencil are only the starting point.
The end, as she sees it, is to unearth lost souls.
If Michael Jones was going to find his way in Hart Island's city of the dead, it was clear he would need a guide.
In 1992, Jones' brother Vernon — Vern to family, Cameron to friends — moved to New York after graduating from the University of North Carolina. He found an apartment, set himself up as a handyman and enrolled in acting classes. But when Vern came home for Christmas and his return flight was overbooked, his mother begged him to stay.
"She hated the idea of him being in New York," Michael Jones says. "She thought it was dangerous up there — and I guess she was right."
A few days later, one of his brother's roommates called. Vern had gone to a friend's East Village apartment to celebrate New Year's Day. He passed out soon after midnight, friends told police. They ran to a grocery and when they returned at 12:30 a.m. Jan. 2, 1993, he had vanished — for good.
Years passed. Michael Jones could not forget his older brother. "The not knowing drives you crazy — and it did," said Jones, 33.
In 2008, he began working with a private investigator to retrace his brother's life. Then, searching the Internet at home in Charlotte, N.C., Jones learned of the island where New York buries its unclaimed dead. He posted an open query on a website called findagrave.com, asking if anyone could tell him more.
The answer: You need to contact Melinda Hunt.
More than a century ago, journalist and social reformer Jacob Riis searched for a way to expose the destitution of New York's slums. He bought a box camera and went looking for a place to practice.
He found it on Hart Island, returning with images of workers laying coffins like bricks in trenches large enough to bury dozens. Years later, those photos got Melinda Hunt thinking.
Hunt grew up in Calgary, trailing an oil geologist father on digs. "It gives you a very different perspective, geology does, because you realize human life is so brief," she says.
By 1991, she was living in New York, pregnant with her second daughter and looking to apply her art training. The city was plagued by crack cocaine and AIDS and Hunt wondered what became of the victims.
She got permission from the city Department of Correction, which runs Hart Island, to revisit and found a scene remarkably unchanged from Riis' time. Crews of city jail prisoners stack pine boxes three high and three across. Guards enter names of the dead by hand, or record them as "unknown," in thick, bound ledgers.
Years ago, island institutions had a chaplain. Today the dead, sometimes with the clothing in which they were found, are interred without ceremony. Prayers are offered one Thursday every other month, when the advocacy group Picture the Homeless holds an interdenominational service.
Over the decades, Hart Island housed an asylum, a tuberculosis hospital and a missile base. Through it all, New York continued ferrying unclaimed bodies — an average of nearly 1,300 burials in recent years.
Hunt, 52, wondered why it remained unknown. Maybe art could shed some light. She pieced together collages of island photos and burial logs. In 2006, she made a documentary, walking island paths with people who'd learned family members were buried there. Others called and e-mailed, seeking answers.
As she worked, Hunt discovered the island's rhythm, with burials surging during epidemics and hard times. It was the resting place for the poor, but also thousands of the stillborn, and those cut off from families by miles and unexpected circumstance.
"These are stories that are not told, that the public hasn't had access to, that people feel ashamed of," she says. "And as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, the things that people are ashamed of make the best stories."
Shawn Sheridan's story begins when he was 4 and a couple entered the Angel Guardian Home in Brooklyn to adopt him and his two brothers. The boys' sole clue to their previous life was a school backpack with the name "Ferrick" on the canvas.
At 18, Sheridan learned his birth mother had killed herself in 1971. Officials told him only that his father was Protestant and worked as a delivery man. Neither was identified by name.
"Me and my brothers, we've always felt like we're an island," says Sheridan, who lives in the Houston suburb of Richmond, Texas. "My goal was to sit down face-to-face with my father one time and have him acknowledge me."
More searching revealed his parents met as teenagers at a state psychiatric hospital. His father served prison time. Parole records showed he, too, was dead. But where was he buried?
In 2005, Sheridan's search led him to Hunt's Hart Island Project after officials told him records showing whether his father was buried on the island had been destroyed by fire. But Hunt knew the volume Sheridan sought had been submitted as evidence in a murder trial.
She filed a Freedom of Information request and in 2008 the city turned over 2,000 pages, detailing burials as far back as the early 1980s. She followed with a lawsuit to divulge the place of death and is still pursuing records from the 1970s and from 2008 to the present.
"Melinda's a fireplug when it comes to Hart Island," says Wayne Kempton, archivist for the Episcopal Diocese of New York, who has written about its history.
In 2009, Hunt e-mailed Sheridan a copy of a single, ruled page and 25 lines down he read the entry for one Richard Ferrick, 36, killed in 1982 when he was hit by a subway car.
Hunt credits Sheridan for helping uncover the records. But he says she was the one who kept following the thread. In late 2007, when he boarded a ferry to the island, Hunt joined him.
"It's sort of like being in Dante's Inferno," she says. "These people come out of the ether and they tell you something about themselves — and then they disappear again."
Hunt faced a new challenge once the city turned over burial records, some barely legible.
At the end of 2008, as Hunt gathered volunteers to type in thousands of names, she received an e-mail from Michael Jones, the Charlotte mortgage representative searching for his brother. He had little more to work with then the date of Vernon's disappearance and that he'd been wearing a red and gray striped sweater, jeans and boots.
If Vern's body was on Hart Island, it was among thousands that had never been identified, Hunt explained. If Michael would help enter the data, she would send him the 1993 logs a page at a time.
"I was hoping that I would find him," Michael says. But after a while, "it really kind of gave me a sense of relief. Not only was I doing something to find my brother, but that I was doing something that might help somebody find somebody else."
When he told his mother, Sarah Lineberger, about the logs, she joined him. They entered records of 1,500 burials, trading e-mails with Hunt to make sense of their findings. Michael compiled a spreadsheet of unidentified men buried on Hart Island whose age and race matched Vernon's.
Lineberger dug out baby teeth saved from her sons' childhood and Bob Rahn, a retired New York homicide detective turned private investigator, delivered them to the city medical examiner's office to work up a DNA profile. Rahn's partner, Kim Anklin, compared burial logs with old missing person's files, working with city medical and police investigators to whittle the list to 15.
In July, they zeroed in on a 1993 log entry for an unknown white male found near lower Manhattan's Pier 17 — possibly buried together with effects including a gray and red striped sweater.
Could this be Vernon Jones?
Hunt's database tracks 36,450 burials. But Lineberger's decision to immerse herself in the old records struck a chord.
"She would call me and say, 'What do you think?'" Hunt said. "I'd say 'I think at some point you're going to find out, but I think you have to systematically open every door.' And she understands that, that as a mother you don't get frustrated, you just keep going."
Over a weekend in 1975, Jeanne Frey sorted through family keepsakes. Underneath a trove of her parent's old love letters, she opened a box to reveal a tiny dress with an embroidered collar. "Baby, May 24, 1942, 8:30 a.m," was penciled on the wrapping paper.
Frey, born in 1945, carried the box upstairs. The instant she held up the dress, her mother wept.
"That's when she told me I had a sister," Frey recalls, laying the dress across her own kitchen table in Bellmore, N.Y.
The story dated to her mother's days as a war bride in Brooklyn. In the 30th week of pregnancy, she delivered a stillborn fetus. Distraught and alone, Frey's mother agreed when hospital staff offered to dispose of the body.
After her mother died, Frey wondered for years about that day. By the time she contacted Hunt, city officials had provided her with records showing the sister she never knew was buried on Hart Island.
"She told me she had talked to other women, from approximately the same time in the 40s, and that they had to make the same decision," Frey says.
Hunt explained that there'd be no way to find Angelina. Still, the conversations convinced Frey she had to go to the island.
In May 2009, corrections officers led Frey through a wooded landscape to a large granite cross. A friend recited a poem: "I love you little sister. You're a person of the wind. Free to be the memory of all that might have been."
Frey looked out over a field of unmarked graves, comforted by Canada geese whose eggs nestled in the grass.
"It is so quiet, so peaceful, the wind is blowing through the trees," Frey says. "It was like this is God's cradle."
From afar, Hart Island appears deserted. But by this fall, Vernon Jones' family felt increasingly sure they'd found him in its fields.
Then investigator Bob Rahn called Sept. 21 with the news: The DNA tests on the body they'd exhumed had come back negative. With 14 other unknowns on the list, the medical examiner advised, the search would have to go on.
On the phone, disappointment fills Michael Jones' voice. Then he recalls the thousands buried on Hart Island, cloaked in anonymity.
Surely, other families out there are looking for their own lost sons and brothers.
Maybe, Michael tells himself, the search for Vern has brought them all a step closer.