Bodies in Transit registers
Collection REC0052 - RG 036. Department of Health and Mental Hygiene
4 cubic feet (10 volumes)
Existence and Location of Copies
Due to the growing city’s need to keep track of disease and illness, each of the ten bodies in transit registers were preprinted with column headings to record the date of the body’s transit in, out and through Manhattan, the name of the deceased, age in years and months, the place and date of death, the cause of death, nativity, a location in transit, the intended place of internment, who provided certification for the transfer, and the name and address of the applicant of the transfer. Each volume is roughly 20 inches long and 15 inches wide and range in thickness from one to 3.5 inches.
The earliest volumes in the collection are the most densely filled, with the frequency of permits issued decreased in later years. Efficiency was improved when a standardized permit application form was introduced in 1871. As explained by the Deputy Register of Records in the Annual Report of the Board of Health for 1870-1871, “… delay or inconvenience is sometimes experienced for lack of the necessary information relating to the death, particularly when bodies are sent by express, and only the name of the consignee and place of destination can be ascertained …. One reason for being so exact in demanding that the applications for a transit permit shall be accurately filled up is, that in enabling us to detect the cause of death, those bodies which might jeopardize the health of this city would not be permitted to enter. We also require to be satisfied that proper investigations have been made in cases of sudden death, death from violence, injury, or accident, the name and address of the applicant being a voucher for its correctness. The register of bodies in transit contains all the principal items that could be ascertained at the time, and which might be means of future identification.”
Further advancements came along as local health agencies began forming in the surrounding cities. The 1874 annual report stated that bodies accompanied by burial permits from the newly-established Boards of Health of Brooklyn, Long Island City, Richmond County, or Hudson County, New Jersey were not required to apply for a transit permit. An increase of regulated Boards of Health across the United States may be the reason that the Health Department eventually ceased registering bodies in transit altogether: “If some general rule or mutual understanding existed between established Boards of Health and Vital Statistics regarding the transportation of dead bodies, there would be no necessity of placing any impediment or obstacle in the way of the transmission of a corpse from the place of death to its destination, provided that a burial permit accompanied it, with a sufficient number of coupons attached and containing the same items of information regarding the deceased as are contained in the transit permit; the coupons to be collected by the transportation agents on the arrival or departure of the body, and returned to this Bureau, as the regulations may require, to be entered on the register of bodies in transit.” This same report also suggests using the telegraph as a means of communicating when a body is being transferred from one jurisdiction to another, including the possibility of a delay in the journey.
Notable entries in the records are those concerning reinternments from Manhattan burial grounds to one outside the borough and those noting when a body belonged to a Civil War soldier. Additionally, there are several prominent individuals listed in the pages. Abraham Lincoln’s body is listed in the third volume when his funeral cortege stopped in the city on April 24, 1865 (page 142-143). His registered cause of death is “pistol shot.” The abolitionist John Brown passed through on December 4, 1859 (volume I, page 42-43), two days after his execution for leading the raid on Harpers Ferry. Beside his name, under the remarks, it reads “Hung for Murder, Treason and Inciting Slaves to escape from Virginia and Maryland.”
These records detailing transportation of bodies in, out and through Manhattan were created during the latter half of the 19th century, a period of great change for how local government addressed health issues in New York City. During the colonial period, slow population growth allowed the city to remain relatively orderly, and few ordinances were put in place to address human welfare directly. Any epidemics experienced were seen as an expected part of growing a new city.
It was not until the years after the American Revolution that it became apparent such measures were needed. The population was multiplying and, in turn, so were sanitation and health problems. In response to this, the formation of state and municipal public health agencies began. In 1804, the New York State Legislature authorized the Common Council to make sanitary ordinances, which resulted in the position of City Inspector. The first Board of Health was established the following year and became the governing body of the City Inspector’s Department.
In 1859, the position of Registrar of Records was created within the City Inspector’s Department and they were to head the Bureau of Records and Statistics. Reports contemporary to the time suggest that the recording of the transportation of bodies in, out and through Manhattan between 1859 and1894 was mandated by this new department. As concern grew over how health and sanitary matters were addressed in a rapidly growing city, the value of vital statistics, especially regarding death, took on new precedence. Between 1859 and 1894, jurisdiction over the city’s health matters changed hands from the City Inspector’s Department to the Metropolitan Board of Health in 1866 to the Department of Health in 1870.
- "Bodies in transit records (1859-1894)." Goodwin, Aaron. New York City Municipal Archives: an authorized guide for family historians. New York: New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, 2016.
- Duffy, John. A history of public health in New York City, 1866-1966. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1974.
- New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Protecting public health in New York City: 200 years of leadership, 1805-2005. New York: New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, 2005.
- Volume I: 1859-1863
- Volume II: 1863-1865
- Volume III: 1865-1866
- Volume IV: 1866-1868
- Volume V: 1869-1870
- Volume VI: 1871
- Volume VII: 1872
- Volume VIII: 1873
- Volume IX: 1874-1880
- Volume X: 1881-1894
- Guide to the Bodies in Transit registers, 1859-1894
- Alexandra M. Hilton
- 2018 May
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