Fort Totten: New York's makeshift COVID-19 burial site was once gangster Joseph Valachi's hideout

Most of this former 150-acre base was transformed into a public park since 2005, with the rest of the base divided between the Coast Guard, Fire Department, Police Department, and US Army Reserve


                            Fort Totten: New York's makeshift COVID-19 burial site was once gangster Joseph Valachi's hideout
Fort Totten Officers Club (Wikimedia Commons)

With the number of dead bodies piling up in New York City amid the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, city officials are looking for possible places to store corpses that have remained unclaimed after 14 days in storage. While aerial footage of health officials stacking up coffins in a mass grave in Hart Island went viral last week, another location that is rumored to be the resting place for the virus victims is Fort Totten. 

It is located along the Cross Island Parkway off Totten Avenue between Totten and 15th Roads in the Queens neighborhood of Bay Terrace. 

According to NYC Parks, the area was "originally inhabited by the Matinecock Indians, the neighborhood of Bayside was first settled during the American Revolution. This site was first named Willets Point, but later renamed for General Joseph Totten who died in Washington, DC in 1864."

The construction of the fort began in 1862, with the idea that it will be used in defending the eastern approach to New York Harbor. It spanned across the East River from its counterpart, Fort Schuyler. However, by the time its construction was completed, there were rapid advances made in fortification design by battlefield engineers and commanders fighting the Civil War in the South. As a result, Fort Totten became obsolete as a defensive structure. It came to be used mainly as casualty support and hospital care.

Interestingly, Fort Totten was also the rumored location of the safe house where Joseph Valachi, the Genovese family mob gangster and subject of a book called 'The Valachi Papers' was hidden in 1970. He was transferred to a federal prison in Texas where he died the following year.

Most of this former 150-acre base has been a public park since 2005, with the rest of the base divided between the Coast Guard, Fire Department, Police Department, and US Army Reserve. It also reportedly houses a cemetery somewhere in the area, although many public officials have debated its existence over the years. However, according to a 2012 report by the New York Times, any headstones that might have been present to park the graveyard area might have disappeared by now. 

A March 29 email shared among high-ranking city officials in New York and viewed by NY Daily News said, "If the current outbreak escalates, burials will occur at Fort Totten and Hart Island." Additionally, the email also laid out the groundwork required to transform Fort Totten into a burial ground. 

Meanwhile, the office of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has denied reports that they were considering temporarily burying the diseased bodies in Fort Totten. In fact, the mayor even refused to answer questions pertaining to the burial of virus-infected victims during press briefings. 

On Sunday, April 12, mayoral spokeswoman Avery Cohen declared, “We are not considering temporary burials at this time.” Later, Blasio’s press secretary Freddi Goldstein added, “We’ve increased capacity enough that we do not believe we’ll have to move to temporary burials.”

If bodies were to be buried in Fort Totten, retrieval of the corpses would be easier in the future as and when their respective families claim the bodies. It would also make for a much-dignified burial of the deceased, while the city rides out the pandemic. 

With coffins stacked three-high in trenches that hold 25 stacks each in Hart Island, Melinda Hunt, founder of the Hart Island Project, an advocacy group, told Daily News that it could take years for the remains to be returned to families for a proper burial. However, if the load was to be divided between the two sites, it would be trenches of 10 coffins arranged lengthwise in a single row - which would be in accordance with the US Department of Defense standards.

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