From Bones of Immigrants, Stories of Pain

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A few weeks ago, a hearse left Tom Amorosi’s brownstone in Park Slope with the remains of 36 people who died in the 1840s and 1850s. The remains were on the final miles of a dizzying journey out of history. Mr. Amorosi, a forensic anthropologist, had been hired by the state to study them.

The old bones spoke, but did not give direct answers. “I’d look at some of them, and think, ‘How the heck did you get up in the morning?’ ” Mr. Amorosi said, tracing the ravages mapped in the bones by poverty, illness and birth defects. In the bones, recovered during the construction of a courthouse on Staten Island, we get a glimpse of the story of immigration long before Ellis Island.

From the late 18th century on, people arriving in the United States were examined by doctors while their ships were anchored in New York Harbor. Those suspected of having an infectious disease were sent to a quarantine station at Marine Hospital in St. George, Staten Island. Some recovered and left. Others did not, and were buried in a rude graveyard on the grounds.

When the hospital was built in 1799, St. George was distant, rural countryside. By the late 1850s, however, prosperity had arrived. Summer homes were built by wealthy families from Manhattan. A community had grown.

The walled compound of the Marine Hospital, crammed with diseased and dying immigrants, was not the ideal real estate amenity. In 1858, the neighbors decided to shut it down. The sick immigrants were put into a number of New York City homes until Ellis Island opened. “You had very respectable people — church leaders, local politicians, business owners — who battered the gates, emptied any people in the hospital buildings, and then burned each building down,” said Sara Mascia of Historical Perspectives Inc., a firm that studied the site for the state...

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