The Strange Idea Behind Gideon’s Sword
The expression “potter’s field” comes from the New Testament of the Bible. In the story, Judas, who betrayed Christ for thirty pieces of silver, is overcome with remorse and dashes the coins on the floor of the temple. The priests take up the coins “and bought with them the potter’s field, to bury strangers in.” Today, a “potter’s field” is the name for any graveyard maintained at public expense for the burial of indigent and homeless people who cannot afford a regular burial.
A couple of years ago I was researching potter’s fields and came across a fascinating and bizarre factoid. I learned that New York City maintains the largest potter’s field in the world, on an uninhabited island situated in Long Island Sound. Called Hart Island, almost a million bodies are buried there, in mass graves, dating back to the Civil War.
The weird factoid is this: if a person has a leg or arm amputated in a New York City hospital, that limb is sometimes not treated as medical waste and incinerated, as it would be anywhere else in the country. Instead, it is placed in a small wooden coffin and buried on Hart Island. This custom dates back, apparently, to the time when Catholic sentiment was strongly against the destruction of any part of the body, so that one could be resurrected whole at the Last Trump. The boxes are numbered so that, should the need arise, the limb could be located and dug up later.
When I read that strange fact, I had the sudden shock, the epiphany, of a nascent idea. I called Linc, and we discussed it with growing excitement. And that was how the central plot twist in our novel Gideon’s Sword was born. The last third of the novel are a sequence of action scenes that take place on Hart Island. I can’t tell you more, for fear of spoiling the story.
As part of the research for the novel, my wife (who is a professional photographer) and I rented a boat in the Bronx and crossed Long Island Sound to make an illegal guerilla landing on Hart Island, as it is totally out of bounds to anyone, for any reason—unless, of course, you are either dead or a member of the Rikers Island prison crews used to bury the dead. (I called Linc and asked him if he wanted to come along, but he immediately swore that he would have nothing to do with such a crazy scheme.)
My wife and I were caught while on the island (apprehended at gunpoint, actually) by prison guards supervising a burial crew—but that is another story, for another day…
Here is a link to some haunting photographs of Hart Island, which is one of the eeriest and most elegaic places in all of New York City. The island is not just a burial ground; it was also the site of a POW camp, a boy’s workhouse, a sanatorium for those dying of tuberculosis, a prison, and an old Nike missile base. The island is covered with crumbling ruins, dormitories, a chapel, houses, and abandoned missile silos.
Check out these evocative photographs.