Friday, May 22, 2020

Finding Eloise

She was a fourth cousin of mine, so I never really would have known her, myself. I would not even have encountered her name, if it hadn't been for this strange hobby of pursuing ancestors and their kin. Eloise Marie Lyon was a second great-granddaughter of the brother of my own second great-grandmother—a distant trail of relationships only a genealogist could follow. It was because I was having challenges researching William F. Riley that led me to her story.

I've already recounted what I learned about Eloise and her family—their early years in rural Indiana and subsequent move, before the start of the Great Depression, to Detroit, Michigan. Although I could trace what became of her three siblings and her parents, the trail went cold for Eloise after she obtained her Social Security card in 1951—until, that is, I stumbled upon a possible indication of her death.

It was a stark entry in Find A Grave which filled in the sparse details. None of the customary photographs or other volunteer-provided records accompanied Eloise's memorial. In fact, the entry did not even provide a date of birth—just the word, "unknown." Date of death was simply "Jul 1982."

The only thing that kept me from bypassing this doubtful match was the detail filled in below that date of death. According to the memorial, this Eloise—whether she was mine or not—was buried at a place listed as "Potters Field." Below that entry, someone had provided the location as "Hart Island, Bronx County, New York."

Having grown up in the New York metropolitan area, one thing I knew was that if New York was anything, it was a place made up of islands. Manhattan is an island. So is Staten Island. Some of the famous places all Americans recall are islands in and around New York City—think everything from Ellis Island to Liberty Island, the ground upon which the Statue of Liberty is perched. So where was Hart Island? I had never heard of it.

As it turns out, the island could possibly be seen by anyone driving northward over the Throgs Neck Bridge—at least on a clear day, if the bridge's barriers did not block a driver's view. And yet, I had never noticed this island with such a strange history. Over time, Hart Island had served as a military training ground, a prisoner-of-war camp, a quarantine station during the 1870 yellow fever epidemic, a psychiatric hospital, and a tubercularium. It later also housed a workhouse for the indigent and, eventually, a prison.

Hart Island became New York City's catch-all for all sorts of unpleasant duties of government, and, not surprisingly in the face of various epidemics, it became the site chosen for mass burials. It could, indeed, be considered a "potters field." Over its long history, not all records were carefully kept—indeed, in some cases, that would be impossible for the remains of those not even identified at the point of their death—but adding to that lack was the incidence of arson, occurring in 1977, which destroyed many burial records there.

Somehow, someone found a record detailing the 1982 burial of a woman in New York City named Eloise Lyon. Whether that was thanks to the nearly single-handed campaign by artist Melinda Hunt and the Hart Island Project, I can't say. But the effort to bring the Hart Island tragedy to light has been shared by a number of others publicizing its plight. A 2016 photojournalism piece in Medium gave the world a glimpse of Hart Island's current abandoned situation and the history that led to this point. A more recent account, appearing last month in National Geographic, gained additional attention upon the news that, in the course of composing the piece, the journalist's drone was seized by New York City police, just as New Yorkers were waking up to the fact that the city was again using Hart Island for burials—this time, to dispose of victims of the current coronavirus epidemic.

Far from any limelight—even if of a notorious cast—was the burial of Eloise Lyon. Could she have been my family's Eloise? It is hard to say. The Social Security account gives this woman a birth date of March 11, 1920—matching the record issued in Indiana at the time of Eloise Marie Lyon's birth. It further mentions that this woman obtained her Social Security account in Michigan, which would have been correct for our Eloise, as well. But it is not outside the realm of possibility that there would have been two women by the same name and similar story.

Given the sad history of Hart Island, it is entirely likely that this Eloise found herself an unfortunate indigent who, at the end of life, would have been buried in such a desolate location. Trying to find any record of her life's story in New York through newspapers would be a challenge, if she were one of the near-anonymous homeless of the area. I've tried, of course, to find any mention of her—and will keep trying. It's hard not to know—but near impossible to know.

So often, we pass people living on the streets who are down on their "luck"—but never imagine one of them could be our own kin. And yet, there we find an example of how, yes, this could indeed happen. I suppose only a genealogist would know anything about someone as distantly related as a fourth cousin. But for this fourth cousin—wherever she was abandoned under the rocky turf at Hart Island—I can't help but mourn her forgotten end.


  1. It's a sad, gray, dismal rainy day in Northern Ohio today. Seems fitting for the story of poor Eloise.

    1. Oh, how well I know those gray days in Ohio, Miss Merry. Exactly the mood-setting I'd have chosen for poor Eloise's story, if I could have any say about the weather.

  2. Such an interesting post. I had just read the Nat Geo article about Hart Island. Now you have all of your readers wondering if there are similar stories in our family lines.

    1. Now that I've read all those articles on Hart Island, Sara, I would not be surprised to learn of other such instances. It does introduce another perspective for researchers stuck with inexplicable "brick wall" missing ancestor. Some of those people may well have "disappeared"--which gives us a new appreciation for those activists who have found new ways to bring "lost" records to light.


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