The horrors of plagues both ancient and modern and how they were dealt with in various places was markedly different, especially in relation to what happened to the bodies of those who unfortunately died. Two examples are set out in this article, one is in the USA and the other is in Scotland. The area of the USA we will look at is New York City and how it dealt with those who died due to the Covid19 pandemic when there was no family to claim their remains, or if there was simply could not afford the cost of a funeral, for the corpses still needed to be interred.
This was usually done as cheaply as possible in some version of a communal ‘potters field’. These places are cemeteries for the poor or homeless and in the case of New York City this is Hart Island, it has been calculated that over the years in excess of a million people have been buried there, many of them in mass graves. There are so many corpses here that bones gradually find their way to the surface and are re-interred, as we shall see this occurrence is not uncommon in places where large numbers of burials have taken place in a relatively small space and over the years bodies were literally piled, one on top of the other. Hart Island, which is located at the western end of Long Island Sound in the north-eastern Bronx in New York City, was originally purchased from the Native Americans in 1654 by English physician called Thomas Pell, whose name became immortalised in the Pelham Islands archipelago. The island was eventually sold to New York City in 1869. It is also colloquially referred to as the 'Island of the Dead', which of course in effect it is, and due to its generally creepy and unsettling feel a movie called 'The Island of The Dead' was filmed there.
Because of its relative isolation it has served a variety of purposes; one of its first practical uses was in 1864, when it was used to train what were formerly known as United States Colored Troops battalions. During the American Civil War it was used as a prison-of-war camp and over 3,000 captured Confederate soldiers were imprisoned there, 235 of whom died and were buried there. A women’s psychiatric hospital called ‘The Pavilion’, a prison and a tuberculosis sanatorium were also constructed on the island. During the Cold War a battery of Nike guided missiles was even located there for a while. However many of the historic buildings are now being torn down to create more space for burials. The only formal access to the island is via a single ferry every month, which is how the unclaimed corpses, which are stored in various city mortuaries, are brought there along with the undertakers and the gravediggers, many of whom are convicts from nearby Riker’s Island prison. Until 2019 family members who wished to visit the island to see where their relatives lay had book a visit with the Department of Corrections. However, the island is now the care of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, although in the case of Hart Island it is hard to see exactly where the recreation comes into it.
Given its checkered and mostly unpleasant history, it is not surprising that there are many accounts of ghosts being seen here. Most of these accounts have been reported in two locations; one is on the site of the original prison, and the other is where the asylum once stood. The reports range from sudden feelings of severe nausea and intense cold spots, to claims of individuals being physically pushed to the ground. Another commonly reported phenomenon that encompasses the entire island is the sensation of being watched and of someone standing right next to you, especially in the ruined buildings and this is when the person involved knows that they are the only one there.
The apparitions encountered here take the form of figures being seen in the mists that, given its mid-river location, are common in the early morning, if anyone approaches them they just melt back into the mist. Stranger still is the curious fact that it is not so much the experiences people have while on the island, it is what happens after they leave. There are reports of people having particularly powerful dreams about the island as it was when it was still in use, especially the often brutal forms of treatment used in the asylum.
The unsettling phenomena experienced at Hart Island finds a strange resonance with what has often been reported by visitors to another burial ground, this time thousands of miles away in Edinburgh, Scotland, at the much older location of Greyfriars Churchyard in Edinburgh, which dates from around 1621. This cemetery contains the last remains of victims of the many assorted diseases that ravaged the overcrowded and frequently filthy towns and cities in the British Isles and Edinburgh was no exception. As with Hart Island, Greyfriars and the adjoining Covenanters Prison contain many more bodies than they were originally designed for, and again like Hart Island, the bones of the deceased often gradually percolate to the surface. The paranormal activity reported here in Greyfriars is not a recent event, because the churchyard has been the scene of various kinds of psychic phenomena over several centuries, some of them witnessed by more than one person.
Perhaps the term ‘Covenanters Prison’ gives a slightly misleading picture of the area, conjuring up the impression of a vast, gloomy edifice. In fact, the ‘prison’ is a long, open, narrow rectangular area adjoining Greyfriars churchyard, and although slightly smaller than it was previously, is still around 90 meters long and perhaps 12 meters wide. Historically, the term ‘Covenanter’ applied to Scots Presbyterians who rejected the ecclesiastical modernization’s of King Charles I of England. This took the English Episcopalian view that various changes in religious practise should be imposed within the Scottish Protestant church and a hierarchy of bishops should govern it. Following the restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, due to their religious/political stance, the Covenanters began a period of martyrdom. The crown declared the covenant illegal and for the next 25 years the signatories suffered brutal persecution. Attempts to restore their religious beliefs resulted in three rebellions in 1666, 1679 and 1685, all of which were viciously suppressed. The prison itself dates from 1679, when some 1200 Covenanters were imprisoned within the churchyard awaiting trial.
In common with the psychic attacks experienced at Hart Island, the attacks at Greyfriars have also involved people being pushed, bumped and sometimes hurled to the ground and in some cases the victims were knocked unconscious. The alleged assaults are frequently attributed to the restless, malevolent spirit of a ruthless 17th century Lord Advocate, George Mackenzie, also known as ‘Bloody Mackenzie,’ who’s earthly remains lie within a vault just outside the black, wrought iron gates of the Covenanters Prison. Known as a hanging judge, Mackenzie’s fearsome reputation was richly deserved and he took particular delight in consigning dozens of Covenanters to the gallows.
As is often the case in situations such as this, expectations can run high at the prospect of gleaning some scrap of evidence, some shred of proof one way or another concerning the afterlife. Unfortunately, this is not always the case, the spiritual aspect is usually the most difficult to quantify since we have to rely almost entirely on the subjective impressions of the mediums involved. It is sometimes possible that the mediums can amplify what they perceive as ‘spirit energy’ and allow us to interface with it. This, although a remarkable and quite unique sensation, is still subjective and open to various interpretations and limitations. However, as with many claims of paranormal or supernatural events, including actual assaults by ghosts, in the main all the claims are hearsay and until there is absolute proof they have to be treated as such. It does not matter how sincere the victim or witness may be, when it comes to what constitutes acceptable proof that these events actually take place the jury is still out. But the truth is that as long as claims such as these keep surfacing and the public still have an interest, perhaps one day we will find an answer, God knows it’s a long time coming.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
As a result of a very early close encounter with the otherworld, Brian Allan has had an abiding interest in all kinds of paranormal and occult phenomena throughout his life. Although he had initially confined his interest in the subject to a passive role, involving study via books etc, it is only in the past forty five years or so that he actually became involved in an active ‘hands on’ basis. During this period of time he has witnessed at first hand some genuinely remarkable phenomena and has also met some truly remarkable and talented people. He has written twelve books, all dealing with various aspects of the paranormal in one way or another, and he is currently the editor of the international online publication, Phenomena Magazine. He has also been privileged to receive Strange Phenomena Investigations prestigious Tartan Skull award for services to ufology and the paranormal in Scotland. All back issues of Phenomena Magazine, which is absolutely free, can be accessed at www.phenomenamagazine.co.uk :
Brian Allan’s new book ‘THE BOOK OF SECRETS’ will be published by Flying Disk Press on November