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In Our Waters - The Lost Boy of Hart Island

September 25, 2017

The children’s laughter echoed through the long-forgotten frame and ribs of the abandoned innards of the skeletal tenement. The boys ran wantonly through the rooms of decaying crimson brick, peeling plague painted plaster walls, and the burnished brown beams of the floors. Suddenly the boys realized they were not alone in the formally furnished and now forsaken hovel of a home. Something or someone was in the old house. One of the boys picked up an errant stick and stepped slowly and cautiously closer to the figure sprawled out on the old military cot. He took one step at a time as he was afraid of awaking the figure from its apparent deep slumber. As he inched cautiously closer, one of his Buster Brown covered feet accidently knocked into an empty beer bottle. The glass let out a horrendous screech as it spun quickly across the dirt laden floorboards. His friend grabbed at the sleeve of his friend’s Macintosh jacket. His breath came quicker now as he slowly eased up the wooden stick toward the motionless body. He pushed the stick further forward. His friend clutched harder on his arm. The stick’s pointed end slowly lowered toward the body. “Do it already,” his friend nervously chattered as he clutched tighter on his friend’s jacket sleeve. The brave young boy pushed the stick into the body. The figure offered no reply. “Think he’s dead? I never saw no dead man before,” the second boy asked sheepishly trying to grapple the enormity of their accidental discovery. “I ain’t waiting to find out,” the first boy offered as he dropped the stick from his hand. The two boys escaped from the abandoned building and out onto the street. Their screams pierced the cold and chilly March day. It would be a day they would never forget. It was the day they chanced to find one of the lost boys.
Soon after, Gotham’s finest arrived at 371 East 110th Street in their green and white squad cars. A few passersby asked what all the fuss was about. A body, the beat cop informed the inquisitive New Yorkers, had been discovered in the abandoned building. With nothing to see or get upset about, the small gathering formed around the flashing red lights dissipated along the concrete sidewalks of the City. Inside the old building, a detective stood over the body. He instinctively licked the tip of the pencil and then flipped open a small weather-beaten notepad. Caucasian male, he wrote, early to mid-thirties at best. Drug addict, he underlined with two thick lead lines, was his best guess. An inspection of the body offered little clue as to his identity. There was no wallet and no identification card; only a cold dead body on a cot. A few empty beer bottles were scattered on the floor amidst a handful of religious pamphlets. He had found God, the detective quipped under his breath as he watched two orderlies from the morgue push the unknown man into the bay of their meat wagon.  No clues, no evidence, no idea as to man’s identity. A canvass of the Greenwich Village area by the detective showing a picture of the dead man offered no further information or clues. The man was unknown to the world. A vagabond who, after an autopsy was completed and filed, had died due to the hardening of his arteries due to significant heroin use. The detective tossed the Coroner’s report into the manila folder and eased back in his chair. He thumbed through his notepad and realized that his hunch had been right. He leaned forward and filled out the final necessary paperwork for his John Doe. The March 30, 1968 incident was shuffled into a file cabinet while the unclaimed body was sent to Hart Island for a pauper’s burial.
Hart Island, a swatch of dirt no more than one hundred and thirty-one acres in breadth, is a remote and lonely

 

 

place. Home to New York City’s forgotten and lost souls, the small island in the Long Island Sound has been used for many things in addition to the burial of the dead. First utilized by Siwanoy tribe of Native Americans, they sold the island to Thomas Pell in 1654. A hundred and twenty years later, Oliver Delancey purchased the land and renamed it Spectacle Island. The renaming of the small swatch of swampy land was only on paper and the island continued to be referred to Hart Island.
During the American Civil War, the Union Army utilized the island as a training camp and barracks for its forces prior to deployment to points south of the Mason-Dixon Line. As the tides of war shifted to the North, over thirty-four hundred Confederate prisoners of war were housed on the island. Two hundred and thirty-five of those prisoners would perish during their temporary stay on Hart Island and there they would remain for their eternity.
With the Civil War in the nation’s wake, the City of New York purchased part of the island in the latter part of the decade to serve as a public burial ground for the city’s dead. Several parcels were purchased over the course of the waning years of the 1860’s and by 1870, during a yellow fever epidemic, the island was utilized as a quarantine facility as the city fought the terrible plague. Fifteen years later, the island was utilized as a lunatic asylum for women to offset the crowded conditions at a similar asylum housed on Blackwell’s Island. Ten years later, in 1895, additional structures were added to support housing for two thousand “aged and infirm mem, narcotics addicts, and short-term inmates” also from Blackwell’s Island. Prior to World War I, the reformatory prisoners were transferred off of Hart Island and the facilities constructed were utilized as an overflow for the city’s jails. In another section of the island, a tuberculous sanitarium was established but later shut down by city officials. By 1935, with the completion of the prison on Riker’s Island, the last of the city’s most-wanted were transferred from Blackwell’s Island.
When an offer of the last four acres for purchase fell on deaf ears by city officials, the last private real estate owner sold to Mr. Solomon Riley. Riley had visions of turning the once forgotten island into a respite for the city’s African American citizens. He envisioned a seaside resort for the constituents who were barred, at the time, from utilizing “white’s only” amusement parks. Despite the construction of a boardwalk, boardinghouses and a dance hall, city officials were concerned about the plans and quickly condemned the property. Riley’s land and buildings were purchased by the city. Prisoners from the metropolis were the only ones spending time on Hart Island.
During the Second World War prisoners were transferred to Rikers Island and the United States Navy utilized the aging facilities for military disciplinary housing. At the conclusion of the war, the island was returned to the Department of Correction and continued to provide housing for prisoners. The services remained in place until the cooling tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union forced the United States Military to construct a missile base on the small island.
Project NIKE, designed to ensure protection from Soviet long-range bomber aircraft, was a part of the nation’s defense system. In 1955, Hart Island was fully functional and would remain in place until 1960 when the equipment was deemed obsolete. The island remained dormant until 1966 when a Phoenix House drug and alcohol rehabilitation center was opened in 1966. The facility operated for ten years and after its closure, a fire set by vandals, left many of the buildings ravaged and gutted. After repairs to some of the facilities, the Department of Corrections housed a small population of prisoners on Hart Island to serve as maintenance and burial support personnel. In 1991, the last of the prisoners on the maintenance and burial detail were transferred to Rikers Island. Hart Island would remain uninhabited except by the dead.
The island would serve to claim the bodies of the city’s unknown and unclaimed. Among them the vagabond found in the abandoned tenement on March 30th, 1968, was eventually identified as Robert “Bobby” Cletus Driscoll. Ironically, the man no one knew at the time of his untimely death had once been a Hollywood
childhood star.
Robert “Bobby” Cletus Driscoll was born on March 3, 1937 to Isabelle and Cletus Driscoll in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The family moved, when Bobby was an infant to Des Moines. The elder Driscoll, after years of exposure to asbestos, was encouraged to migrate his family to the sun drenched shores of California. It was in the land of concrete bound stars along the walk of fame that Bobby’s barber, who moonlighted in various small film roles himself, encouraged his parents to get little five and a half year old Bobby an audition for the movies. A happenchance comment about a boat on a back lot impressed Roy Rowland, the director of the MGM production of Lost Angel, and little Bobby got the role in the film. The rest, as they say in the land of make-believe, is history.
From 1943 to 1946, Bobby was cast in several films including the Fighting Sullivans, Sunday Dinner for a Soldier, So Goes My Love, Identity Unknown, and O.S.S. In 1946, Bobby, aside Luana Patten, were signed with Walt Disney Studios and were, with the live-action/animation film of Song of the South, quickly dubbed Walt Disney’s “Sweetheart Team.” For Driscoll, it would be the start of a series of films both with Disney and RKO studios. Driscoll starred in So Dear to My Heart, If You Knew Susie, Sons of the Pioneers, From This Day Forward, The Window, and in a live-action teaser for Pecos Bill and Melody Time. His acting was so impressive that in 1949, he earned a special Juvenile Academy Award for his performance in So Dear to My Heart and The Window. Driscoll was signed to a seven year contract with Walt Disney Studios.
In 1950, Disney’s first full live-action film was released. Starring as Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island, the film was a box-office hit. Driscoll’s name was mentioned for future film roles but few materialized with Disney. He was loaned to Horizon Pictures for the film When I Grow Up while continuing to make small performances for Disney in cartoon shorts and television specials. During the same time frame, Driscoll was utilized as a reference model and voice for Disney’s adaptation of the leader of the Lost Boys, Peter Pan. While Peter Pan was a commercial success, Driscoll’s contract was not extended and he was cast to the realm of playing on television shows from 1953 to 1956. After the conclusion of his contract, Driscoll’s parents removed him from the Hollywood Professional School and transferred him to Westwood University High School. The transition to public school coupled with his waning stardom served as a catalyst for his personal decline into juvenile delinquency, poor behavior, and drug-use. Despite his drug use and minor scrapes with the law, he was able to graduate high school after returning to the Hollywood Professional School for his senior year. As he finished up his academic pursuits, he continued to pursue roles on television and in low-budget films.
In 1956, he was arrested for possession of marijuana but the charges were ultimately dismissed. He was also charged later in 1956 with “pea shooting” females along the sidewalk from a moving car. In the same year, Driscoll married his longtime girlfriend in Mexico. They had two daughters and one son but their marriage was rocky and after a brief separation, they divorced in 1960. For Driscoll, the hard times continued. He was charged with disturbance of the peace and assault with a deadly weapon after an argument with two hecklers escalated while he washed his girlfriend’s car. Though the charges were dropped, Driscoll’s name was being more and more published in less than flattering newspaper articles and less and less on the film and television screen.
During this time frame, he was alleged to have stolen money with his new girlfriend, Suzanne Stansbury, but lack of evidence left little for the authorities to do except maintain him as a suspect. He was then charged with writing a bad check for forty-five dollars. Though Driscoll plead guilty, he would not face jail time for the action. In late 1961, he was sentenced to the Narcotic Rehabilitation Center in Chino, California due to a subsequent arrest for drug possession. Though the judge could have put him behind bars for up to fourteen years, the judge realized that his drug-use had taken control of his actions and behaviors. A year later, he was released and started his parole period. Driscoll would not find work and his career in Hollywood was largely over. During this period, having cast Stansbury aside, he met and married for a second time. Though never officially and legally recognized he was married to Sharon “Didi” Morrill. The marriage, like his first, was short-lived. Amidst a few odd jobs he maintained to keep financially solvent he was tortured by his memories of fortune and fame. “Memories,” he once commented, “are not very useful. I was carried on a silver platter and then dumped into the garbage can.”
Work was scarce during those years and in an attempt to restart his acting career, he traveled east to New York City. The lights on Broadway remained dimmed to the possibility of a revival of his once promising career and he sought refuge amongst the artisans of Andy Warhol’s Factory. It would be in this drug-fused artistic venue that Driscoll, once the Hollywood favorite of film and television would dabble in mixed-media artwork, poetry, and ultimately provide his last acting performance in an avant-garde film, Dirt. By late 1967, Driscoll disappeared from the Factory and into the shadows of New York City unknown. His search for his personal Neverland led him on a dark and solitary journey that ended with his untimely and lonely death in late March 1968.  
With no one claiming “John Doe” from the morgue, the body was transferred to Hart Island for a pauper’s burial. Amidst thousands of other unclaimed dead, the body was unceremoniously buried in an unmarked grave. The cold wind whistled through the barren island as his body was committed into the ground. For the unknown dead man, his final resting place would be amidst the unknown for eternity. In 1969, after his mother Isabelle had vainly sought to find her estranged son to inform him of his father’s ill health and eventual death, she received a letter from the county court asking to confirm his death. A phone call to the New York City Police Department was made and finally, all of the pieces of his passing were learned. Her son, missing for several years, had been found. There would be no funeral. All of that had already been done. Her son, aged thirty one at his death had been put to rest a year and a half earlier. As she fell onto her couch to handle the terrible news, she closed her eyes. Tears streamed down her face as images of her once darling son flashed through her mind, a son who had been the darling of Hollywood and now, nothing more than a faded memory. Her son, Robert “Bobby” Cletus Driscoll, one of Walt Disney’s first child stars had fallen from the star-filled heavenly world of Hollywood into the depravity of drug-use, death and internment in a potter’s field grave. The lasting images captured on celluloid in Disney’s life-action adventures of Song of the South, So Dear to My Heart, and Treasure Island, and his lost-boy model and voice for the animated Peter Pan, and a bevy of work in other films and television shows are the only reflections of the childhood actor who ended his days as a true lost boy who was cast to spend the rest of his existence on earth in an unmarked grave on Hart Island in our waters.



 

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