You’ve probably seen the grim photos of the mass burials of unclaimed COVID-19 victims on New York City’s Hart Island. According to a New York Times article published online on April 10, the city has “drastically” increased interments on the island, “to around 24 a day, as many as it would bury there in a week before the pandemic hit.”
This week’s word (or “lexical item,” as the linguists say) comes from the lede of that story:
Since the mid-1800s, New York City’s potter’s field on Hart Island, off the coast of the Bronx, has figured in numerous epidemics affecting New York City — as a burial ground during the Spanish Flu and AIDS crisis, and a quarantine spot for yellow fever and tuberculosis victims.
It wasn’t the first time I’d encountered potter’s field, and it almost certainly wasn’t the first time I’d looked it up. I knew what it meant—a cemetery where indigent or unidentified people are buried in unmarked graves—but why potter?
“The Potter’s Field – The common trench,” by Jacob Riis, c. 1888-1898. Source: International Center for Photography
Potter isn’t an eponym here (but keep reading for an instance in which it is). Potter’s field comes from the 16th-century Tyndale translation of the Book of Matthew into English: “They toke counsell, and bought with them a potters felde to bury strangers in.” The backstory: Judas Iscariot is paid 30 pieces of silver for betraying Jesus; he suffers remorse, returns the coins to the temple, and kills himself. The Jewish high priests then use the money to buy a tract of land for the burial of criminals, strangers, and poor people. The piece of land was called Akeldama—“field of blood” in Aramaic, a Semitic language related to Hebrew. (It’s sometimes transliterated as “Haceldama.” Dam—rhymes with psalm—is the Hebrew word for “blood.”)
So why don’t we call it a “blood field”? Because before being turned into a graveyard, the land had been a source of high-quality red clay used by potters.
There’s a winking reference to potter’s field in the 1946 movie It’s a Wonderful Life, set in the picture-postcard town of Bedford Falls. When the Angel Clarence shows our hero George Bailey (James Stewart) an alternate reality in which he had never been born, Bedford Falls is transformed into a minor-league Las Vegas called Pottersville, named after the rapacious banker Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) and filled with unwholesome entertainments like pawnshops, bars, and girlie joints. Instead of Bailey Park, the pleasant housing project George Bailey and his bank had built, we see Mr. Potter’s ugly, overpriced slum. Its name, in case you miss the point, is Potter’s Field. “Potter’s Field is not only a slummy housing project,” as Showbiz Cheat Sheet puts it, “it represents the death and forgotten lives of the poverty-stricken.”