Rainsford Island sits 6 miles from downtown Boston, two squat drumlins connected by a narrow, shell-covered isthmus without a dock, ferry, or any amenities on its 11 scrubby acres.
It is among the least known of the 34 harbor islands and officially closed to the public, but it’s sacred ground to Bill McEvoy Jr., an Army veteran and retired Newton court magistrate. When he walks its few paths, aided by a cane, McEvoy becomes angered by what happened here and what has not yet happened.
“Nobody really cares," McEvoy says, peering across an acre of flat, grassy ground toward a place once called Smallpox Point.
Under the weeds on this plot are the forsaken remains of at least 1,777 of Boston’s poor, diseased, and unwanted from Colonial times to the dawn of the 20th century. No headstones record their names. No signs on the city-owned island indicate this is a cemetery.
But now, thanks to McEvoy’s painstaking research over four years, their identities have been recovered and recorded. Most lived hard, desperate lives on the margins of a society that shunned them. But going forward, he said, they deserve to be remembered.
“Someone had to speak for these people," McEvoy said. “When you know the people who are under here and the suffering they had, it’s a sadness."
McEvoy, 71, is shining a light on the tens of thousands of people who were diverted, shunted, and ordered to Rainsford Island beginning in 1730, when a quarantine station was established there to inspect shipping from foreign ports for disease.
The island later held a smallpox hospital, followed by city and state facilities — warehouses, in essence — for impoverished immigrants, violent criminals, drunkards, unwed mothers, and the insane. From 1895 to 1920, a reformatory for delinquent boys brought the island’s institutional history to a close.
"The common denominator of Rainsford was poverty, and the lack of anybody to support them,” McEvoy said.
Many of the dead, particularly victims of smallpox and other infectious diseases, were buried in long trenches on Rainsford, which also was called Hospital Island and Pest House Island at various times. Occasionally, infants were laid at the feet of adult strangers to save space. A massive lilac hedge that was planted to offset the cemetery’s smell still flourishes and flowers.
McEvoy has been lobbying city, state, and federal officials to place a simple marker or fence at the cemetery, which includes the graves of more than 100 military veterans who were treated there. So far, his efforts have not gained traction.
“Who’s going to take responsibility?” McEvoy asked. “If 1,770 people were suddenly discovered buried in Boston Common, there’d be an uproar. To be neglected in life and forgotten in death is horrible.”
Boston city archeologist Joseph Bagley, who manages the island, said McEvoy’s effort is laudable but not as straightforward as it seems. Both state and city approval would be needed to build a memorial there, which also is part of the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area.
Another complicating factor is that Rainsford, located between Long and Peddocks islands at the edge of Quincy Bay, is not staffed or policed, which could expose new fencing or memorials to vandalism, said Suzanne Gall Marsh, founder of the Friends of the Boston Harbor Islands.
“You can see evidence of campfires right around the gravesite. How are you going to protect something that hasn’t been protected?” Marsh asked.
A recent visit to Rainsford showed a large, makeshift camp erected by unauthorized visitors. There were weathered picnic tables not far from the cemetery, overturned plastic chairs, fire pits, an outhouse, blankets, and a frayed American flag hoisted high on a pole. Many rocks had been sprayed with graffiti.
“I don’t see any reason why it shouldn’t be marked. People don’t realize there is a cemetery there, and they shouldn’t be camping on it,” Bagley said.
McEvoy came upon Rainsford’s story while doing volunteer research into 23,000 burials at the Catholic Mount Auburn Cemetery in Watertown, where nearly all of the dead were Irish immigrants. During his work, McEvoy noted that 36 people buried there between 1857 and 1893 — from 9 months to 86 years old — had died at Rainsford.
“What was Rainsford Island, and why did so many indigent Irish immigrants die there?,” McEvoy recalled wondering.
The question turned into a quest. McEvoy began reading more than 1,000 newspaper and scholarly articles that mentioned the island, reviewed all Boston death records from 1800 to 1920; and scanned every relevant city and state report he could find.
He learned about Frances Hall, a 33-year-old immigrant from New Brunswick who died on Rainsford in January 1864, only three months after she had come to the United States and begun work in a Hanover Street home. Hall became pregnant, hemorrhaged during an abortion, and died the following morning after being shipped to the island in the dead of winter.
"I was disgusted,” McEvoy said.
His Rainsford work has consumed, he estimates, 4,000 hours and resulted in a recently published book that lists the names of the dead, including 109 Civil War veterans, 14 of whom were Black. He also discovered nine Civil War soldiers who had died on active duty and a sailor from the War of 1812.
The veterans hold special significance for McEvoy, who commanded a 16-man unit that provided funeral honors for casualties during the Vietnam War. McEvoy continues to provide comfort to the dying at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Bedford, where he volunteers for a program called No Veteran Dies Alone.
“I’ve always been happiest doing something meaningful,” said McEvoy, who retired in 2009 as a clerk magistrate in Newton District Court.
Recognizing those who died on Rainsford would not take much, McEvoy said. For comparison, he cited the $2.8 million project to restore the Boston Common memorial to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the first Black military unit raised in the Civil War.
At least one veteran of the 54th Regiment is buried at Rainsford, McEvoy said. If preserving the Boston Common sculpture merits such expense, he asked, why shouldn’t a small memorial be placed on the island?
“I worked in the courts for 34 years. I must have a latent need for justice,” McEvoy said.
Bagley, the city archeologist, said he hopes the Rainsford dead will be honored appropriately.
“The list of people out there is diverse and tragic. It is not a happy place,” Bagley said. “The history of Rainsford represents some of the most silenced voices of Boston’s past. These are everyday Bostonians, and they were people who were least able to be their own advocates.”
McEvoy has made it his mission to protect their resting place.
“You’re walking on people’s lives there," he said. “I want to know that if I fall, somebody is going to pick this up."
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.