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Everyone in the park knew him. It was only after he died that his story came to light

Susan Hurlburt visits her son's grave on Hart Island for the first time in April 2023.
Andrew Lichtenstein/Radio Diaries
Susan Hurlburt visits her son's grave on Hart Island for the first time in April 2023.

This story is the first in a series called The Unmarked Graveyard: Stories from Hart Island from Radio Diaries. You can listen to the next installment on All Things Considered next Monday, and read the next installment on NPR.org.

Riverside Park runs along the Hudson River on New York's Upper West Side. It's a neighborhood gathering place where locals jog or walk their dogs or join in games of pickup basketball. Regulars get to know one another, if only by sight.

In the winter of 2014, park regulars started noticing a man in his early 30s sitting on the same bench every day. He was tall and muscular, with closely cropped hair and a backpack that he always kept by his side. Billy Healey, a local bird watcher, approached him. "It was like pulling teeth to get him to say anything. He was not a talker," Healey said.

Still, the man told Healey that his name was Stephen, and that he was from Long Island.

Two years went by and Stephen sat on that park bench, in all weather and at all times of day. Though he said little and asked for nothing, he became well known in the neighborhood. "It was always kind of reassuring to see him, because he was such a big guy and so gentle in his presence," said Joy Bergmann, who would see Stephen on her daily walks with her dog.

Locals started bringing him small gifts. Bergmann would give him bags of her magazines to look through. Healey prepared plastic containers of pork ribs and potato salad for him — leftovers from family dinners — and he gave him a burgundy hoodie that Stephen wore every day.

He was wearing that hoodie when his body was discovered on the morning of March 9, 2017, near the foundation of a luxury condominium building by the park. Jim Littlefield, who ran security for the building, was parking his car to come to work when he noticed him. "I saw a person sitting down, knees bent, and his head was hunched down almost as if in contemplative prayer," Littlefield said. At first, Littlefield thought he was sleeping. But when he saw him again the next morning, sitting in the same position, he called the police.

Soon after, Joy Bergmann wrote an article about Stephen's death in a local publication, the West Side Rag, and it prompted an outpouring of sympathy. Neighbors built a makeshift memorial on the bench where Stephen used to sit, with a sign that read "Stephen Remembered," and filled it with flowers and cards.

But despite the community's fond feelings toward Stephen, no one knew his full name or almost anything about his background. And over the next few months, the police department was unable to identify him.

Finally, in August, 2017, Stephen's body was placed in a simple pine coffin and brought to Hart Island, a narrow strip of land in Long Island Sound where New York City buries its unclaimed and unidentified dead, including many homeless people. There, he was stacked with dozens of others in a mass grave. The only marker was a white post with a grave number: 383.

The City of New York bought Hart Island in 1868 and began using it as a public burial ground soon after. Since then, more than a million people have been buried there, making it America's largest public cemetery. Most of the interred end up there either because their families don't claim their bodies, or because the city can't find their next of kin. They also include many stillborn infants and fetal remains. And each year a few people, like Stephen, can't be identified and are buried as John Does.

Hart Island is an unusual cemetery in many ways. Most adults are buried in wide trenches with about 150 bodies. The island has no headstones or plaques, only white posts with grave numbers on them. For most of its history, Hart Island was managed by the city's Department of Correction, and most burials over the last several decades were performed by men incarcerated at the nearby Rikers Island jail. (The use of incarcerated burial crews ended in 2020.)

A mass grave can be seen on Hart Island in August 2017.
/ ©2017 Alon Sicherman courtesy The Hart Island Project
©2017 Alon Sicherman courtesy The Hart Island Project
A mass grave can be seen on Hart Island in August 2017.

For years, information about individuals buried on Hart Island was very difficult to access. But in 2008, following a Freedom of Information Law request, the city started releasing Hart Island's burial ledgers from 1980 onward to visual artist Melinda Hunt, who runs a nonprofit organization called The Hart Island Project. Hunt has spent decades documenting Hart Island and advocating for greater transparency around its burials. The Hart Island Project has used the burial records to build an online database with names and information about the dead, which includes spaces for loved ones to write notes and remembrances.

Hart Island is often thought of as a place where people end up when they've been forgotten by family and friends, but the notes in the Hart Island Project database reveal a more complicated reality. They tell stories of conflicts, addictions and mental illnesses that led family members to become estranged or out of touch. They reveal institutional failures, like cursory police investigations that left bodies unidentified, or simple lack of oversight that allowed bodies to be sent to Hart Island by mistake after they were donated to science.

Radio Diaries' new series, The Unmarked Graveyard, explores these themes through the stories of a few individuals buried on the island, the lives they lived, and the people they left behind. One will follow a woman who decided to track down the father she never knew, only to learn that he was one of the many people who were buried on the island at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Another will investigate what happened to a man who was estranged from his family for decades.

The series commemorates an author whose body ended up on the island without her family's knowledge, and pieces together the life of a woman who lived alone in a Manhattan hotel. It will examine what went wrong in an old missing persons case that prompted legislation in New York State, and consider one man's decision to be buried on Hart Island, a place most people don't end up by choice. And it will uncover the backstory of Stephen, the homeless man who died in Riverside Park.

Incarcerated men from the Rikers Island jail bury adults in a mass grave on Hart Island in 1992.
/ © 1992 Joel Sternfeld courtesy The Hart Island Project
© 1992 Joel Sternfeld courtesy The Hart Island Project
Incarcerated men from the Rikers Island jail bury adults in a mass grave on Hart Island in 1992.

The series comes at a time when Hart Island itself is becoming more accessible than it has been in decades. The island's gravesites were almost completely off limits to the public, including most relatives of the dead, until 2015. Since then, in response to a class action lawsuit, family members and close friends have been able to sign up for visits where they are ferried to the island and escorted by guards to the graves of their loved ones. Visits are currently limited to about two dates per month.

In 2021, the city transferred control of the island from the Department of Correction to its Parks Department, which recently announced that it would open the island to the general public. That's expected to happen sometime this year.

More than a year after Stephen's death, a local journalist named Jessica Brockington was scrolling through a database of missing persons when she stumbled on a familiar face.

Brockington had seen Stephen for years while walking her two dogs in Riverside Park. Their interactions had been brief. Her dogs would run under his feet sometimes, and Stephen liked to pet them. Once, on a bitterly cold winter day, she had bought him coffee and soup. Though she didn't know him well, she felt sad that he had died.

That day, as she was scrolling through the database, she recognized Stephen's photo immediately. But next to the photo was a name she didn't recognize: Neil Harris Jr.

Brockington started Googling the name, and she found a Facebook page where, every Monday, a woman named Susan Hurlburt was posting a missing persons flier with pleading notes: "Still missing, still praying. I'll never give up on you," or, "Help me locate my son. I'll never give up on you, Neil."

"I'm completely obsessed with it at that point," said Brockington. She suspected the New York City Police Department might have information about the man in the park that could help Hurlburt. But when Brockington reached the detective who'd been assigned to look into the man's identity, she says he told her he didn't think Stephen and Neil were the same person.

So Brockington reached out to the Aware Foundation, which was helping Hurlburt put out missing persons fliers, and the next day she and Hurlburt were on the phone.

Susan Hurlburt has a hat box where she keeps memorabilia from her son's childhood. Inside there are baby shoes and a lock of hair from Neil's first haircut, and a photo of his father. "Neil's father and I unfortunately were just a one night stand," Hurlburt said. "But, things happen. And Neil happened."

Hurlburt raised Neil in Inwood, Long Island, as a single mother, and they were close. She still has a letter he wrote to her as part of an elementary school assignment: "My hero is my mom because she has always been there for me... I remember when we didn't have a home or any money and we were living with my aunt. After a while she got a job and we got a home. And that's why my mom is my hero."

Susan Hurlburt, pictured here in 2022, holds a childhood photo of her son, Neil Harris Jr.
/ Alissa Escarce/Radio Diaries
Alissa Escarce/Radio Diaries
Susan Hurlburt, pictured here in 2022, holds a childhood photo of her son, Neil Harris Jr.

Hurlburt remembers Neil as a fun, cuddly child who loved dogs so much that the family called him Dr. Dolittle. But as he grew up, he started exhibiting signs of serious mental illness. He became quiet and withdrawn, and started speaking with what he believed to be ghosts. Once, he accused Hurlburt of trying to poison him, and pushed her. "I went flying across the room," she said.

After a series of incidents, Neil was hospitalized at the age of 29, and Hurlburt says the doctor diagnosed him with schizophrenia and prescribed medication. After a short stay, though, Hurlburt says Neil wanted to stop the medication and be released.

Hurlburt and Neil moved with relatives to upstate New York. But Neil wasn't happy about the move. One day, he asked Hurlburt to bring him to the Inwood train station, where he planned to sleep on the platform. She did what he asked, worried he'd get violent if she refused.

"I felt helpless," Hurlburt remembers. "When we pulled into the parking lot of the Inwood train station, he just got out, took his little backpack, threw it over his shoulder, walked away. Never looked behind."

Hurlburt decided to go to the train station once a week to give Neil food and money, and the first time she went, she says Neil took the money and walked away. But the next time, he wasn't there.

Hurlburt reported Neil missing and started putting out notices on social media. But more than three years passed, and she heard nothing.

When Brockington and Hurlburt spoke, their first, painful task was to confirm whether Stephen and Neil were the same person. Brockington began by telling Hurlburt about Stephen's behavior in the park — how quiet he was, and how he'd connected with her dogs.

"And I'm like, that's gotta be Neil," Hurlburt said. "And then I'm, like, arguing within my own head. Saying no, no, no — and then saying maybe, maybe — no, no, no, no, no."

Brockington sent her the medical examiner's photo of Stephen from his autopsy. Though he looked more disheveled than she remembered, Hurlburt recognized him immediately. A DNA test soon confirmed the match, and Hurlburt received Neil's death certificate. He had died of an untreated ulcer.

When Hurlburt learned that Neil was buried on Hart Island, the idea of his body being stacked in a mass grave upset her. She considered having him exhumed and buried elsewhere.

Then she changed her mind. She knew that Neil's father, Neil Harris Sr., was buried on Hart Island as well. He had died decades earlier, also in his thirties, when Neil Jr. was nine. Hurlburt says her son always wanted to have a relationship with his father and to visit his grave. Now, in death, she said, "my hope is that they're together now and they're developing a relationship and they're hanging out somewhere together."

When she visited Hart Island for the first time in April 2023, Hurlburt was struck by the physical beauty of the island. Like Riverside Park, it was full of trees, and Neil's gravesite overlooks the water. "It's a very quiet, serene spot," she said as she surveyed the scene. "And that was Neil. He was very quiet in life. So, yeah. This is where he will remain."

Learning what had happened to her son sparked complicated emotions. Hurlburt was grateful to the people who had looked after Neil in the park, and who had tracked her down to let her know what became of him. But she didn't feel the sense of closure many people expected.

"There's no closure," she said. "I don't understand what people think when they say, 'Well, at least now you know.' I'd rather not know. I'd rather keep on looking."

This story was produced by Alissa Escarce of Radio Diaries. It was edited by Joe Richman, Deborah George, and Ben Shapiro. Special thanks to Jessica Brockington, who shared research and audio recordings from her search for Neil Harris Jr.'s family, and to filmmaker Eric Spink of Vacant Light, who shared his recording of Neil's memorial.

Thanks also to Nellie Gilles, Mycah Hazel, and Lena Engelstein of Radio Diaries.

This story is the first in a series called The Unmarked Graveyard: Stories from Hart Island. You can find a longer version of the story, and other stories about Hart Island, on the Radio Diaries Podcast.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alissa Escarce