Bodies in Transit

Staff at the Municipal Archives completed digitization of the Bodies in Transit ledgers, 1859-1894 and the entire series of 10 ledgers is accessible via our website...

Bodies in Transit volumes from 1859-1894. NYC Municipal Archives.

The information in the ledgers about deceased persons whose bodies were transported through Manhattan prior to burial is a rich resource for genealogists and historians researching diverse topics in American urban history including public health, mortality and the Civil War.

The origins of this record arise from the City’s efforts to protect the health of its rapidly growing population. In 1804, the New York State Legislature authorized the New York City Common Council to enact sanitary ordinances and appoint a City Inspector. The first Board of Health was established the following year and oversaw the City Inspector’s Department.

Application for a Transit or Disinterment Permit. Second Annual Report of the Board of Health of the Health Department of the City of New York, April 11, 1871, to April 10, 1872, NYC Municipal Library.

In 1859, the position of Registrar of Records was created within the City Inspector’s Department. Contemporary reports suggest that the recording of the transportation of bodies in, out and through Manhattan was mandated by this new office. 

The “Bodies In Transit” registers record in ledger format the date of a body’s transit, 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 for the transfer. Each volume is roughly 20 inches long and 15 inches wide and they range in thickness from one to 3.5 inches.

John Brown’s body passed through New York in 1859, after his hanging in Charlestown, Virginia, for “Murder, Treason and Inciting Slaves to escape from Virginia and Maryland.” Bodies in Transit, Vol 1, NYC Municipal Archives.  

Efficiency improved when a standardized permit application 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."

The April 24, 1865 arrival of Abraham Lincoln’s body at the Desbrosses Street Ferry necessitated an entry in the Bodies in Transit ledger. The Obsequies of Abraham Lincoln, NYC Municipal Library.

As Manhattan’s population increased, there was increased pressure to relocate its deceased residents. Developers dug up cemeteries and moved the bodies to cemeteries in Brooklyn or Queens. Those reinternments can be difficult to trace, but these volumes are often the key to finding the graves. The grand cataclysm of the American Civil War also led to many of the entries in the ledgers.  Union soldiers are often identifiable by their company and regiment, however, they can also be identified by three other pieces of evidence: They died on Davids Island, in Long Island Sound, location of DeCamp General Hospital the largest Union Army hospital; they were buried at Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn (recently designated as a national cemetery for war dead); or the bodies were under the care of A.J. Case, who was the Undertaker for the US Army. In addition to Union soldiers, over 400 Confederate prisoners of war are recorded, having died at Davids Island after the Battle of Gettysburg. They are sometimes noted by their birth in the “C.S.A.,” or Confederate States of America.

Page and detail showing April 24, 1865 entry for Abraham Lincoln’s body as it arrived in New York to lay in state at City Hall on its way to Springfield, Illinois. Bodies in Transit, Vol 3, NYC Municipal Archives.

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. 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.”

Lincoln’s body lay in an open casket in the City Hall rotunda overnight and was seen by over 100,000 New Yorkers. On the 25th, after a funeral procession up Broadway, his body departed by train for Springfield, Illinois. The Obsequies of Abraham Lincoln, NYC Municipal Library.

The earliest volumes in the collection are the most densely filled, as they corresponded with the years of the Civil War, one of the greatest periods of mass death in our nation’s history. However, the frequency of permits issued decreased in later years 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.

 

"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.