Currently recognized as the largest burial ground in the world, New York’s mysterious and forbidden Hart Island located at the western end of Long Island Sound was once a prisoner of war camp for Confederate soldiers; a quarantine for sailors with yellow fever; a tubercularium; a Nike missile base; a boy’s workhouse reformatory and an insane asylum for women.
The largest part of the mile long island, spanning 101 acres, now serves as New York City’s Potters Field – a taxpayer-funded cemetery ran by the New York City Department of Correction where it’s estimated more than 1 million humans have been interred in mass graves with approximately 1,500 more added yearly. Prison labor from Riker’s Island is used to perform the burials.
Inmates stack the rudimentary pine plywood coffins in 2 rows, 3 high and 25 across for adults, 5 coffins high and 20 coffins across for children. The plots are segregated by: adults, children under 5 years of age and people labeled ‘unknowns.” Adults are buried in trenches with three sections of 48 individuals to make possible disinterment easier. Children are rarely disinterred and are buried in trenches of 1,000. Each mass grave is marked with a single concrete marker. It’s rumored that burial trenches are reused after 25–50 years allowing for sufficient decomposition of the remains. The first pediatric AIDS victim to die in New York City is buried in the only single grave on Hart Island with a concrete marker that reads SC (special child) B1 (Baby 1) 1985.
The History of Hart Island
It served as a prisoner-of-war camp for 4 months in 1865. More than 3,400 captured Confederate soldiers were housed on the island. Two hundred thirty-five of them died in the camp and were buried there. These were among the first burials to take place on Hart Island (their remains were moved to Cypress Hills Cemetery, Brooklyn in 1941).
The island was part of the property purchased by Thomas Pell from the local Native Americans in 1654. On May 27, 1868, New York City purchased the island from Edward Hunter of the Bronx for $75,000. Twenty four year-old Louisa Van Slyke was the first person to be buried in the island’s public graveyard.
People were quarantined on Hart Island during the yellow fever epidemic of 1870 and it has at various times been home to a women’s lunatic asylum. The Pavilion building, dating to 1885, housed one such asylum, and today it’s ruins still stand on the island. In the 1960’s the Phoenix House narcotics rehabilitation center used the Pavilion building and were the last of the living to leave Hart Island in 1976.
Currently, historic buildings are being torn down to make room for new burials.
Also in the late 1800’s Hart Island became the location of a boys’ workhouse. There’s a section of old wooden houses and masonry institutional structures(Dynamo Room building) dating back to this period which remain. Early in the twentieth century Hart Island was home to about 2 thousand delinquent boys as well as older male prisoners from Blackwell’s penitentiary.
Among some of the more visible structures on the island are defunct Nike Ajax missile silos that were part of the United States Army base Fort Slocum from 1956–1961. The Army built the NIKE missile base on a 10-acre plot on the island but by the end of the decade the Soviet Union had shifted its strategic forces to ballistic missiles, rendering the NIKE obsolete; the base was closed in 1961.
Hart Island Today
Completely uninhabited, the 131 acre island’s cemeteries are dotted with the eerie ruins of buildings consumed by trees and old age. Located mostly near the center of the island there’s a hospital, decaying missile silos, dormitories still marked with the graffiti of troubled boys, an old chapel, the remnants of rotting bleachers from Ebbets Field – and mismatched leather shoes strewn about the grounds of the Pavilion building – reminders of decades gone by when Phoenix House patients performed occupational therapy as a part of their treatment. There’s also a web of overgrown streets, complete with nonfunctional streetlamps(visible in this article’s featured image up top – in the upper right of the scene) connecting the various buildings.
Those buried on Hart Island could either not afford the cost of a private funeral or were unclaimed by relatives. It’s estimated that 50% of those buried there are children under 5 years of age who died in New York City’s hospitals. Generally unaware of what it meant to sign papers authorizing a “City Burial,” years later many of those mothers as well as surviving siblings will often go searching for the child’s remains but their searches are made more difficult because burial records are currently kept within the prison system which tightly controls access.
When family members finally succeed in locating the remains, their search typically ends there because the island is off limits to everyone but dead people, prisoners, and guards. But recent initiatives by The Hart Island Project have made it possible for a very select few to visit the island with permission from the NYCDOC. Bill 0848 transferring jurisdiction to the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation was introduced on April 30, 2012 and the Hart Island Project testified in favor of this bill on September 27, 2012. Bill 803 requires the Department of Correction to post its database of burials on-line and Bill 804 requires the Department of Correction to post its visitation policy on-line.
In 2013 the NCYDOC created a searchable database on its website of the people buried on the island starting in 1977 containing more than 66,000 entries.
The Jewish playwright, film screenwriter, and director Leo Birinski was buried on Hart Island in 1951, alone and impoverished at the time of his death. American novelist Dawn Powell was buried there in 1970 after the executor of her estate refused to reclaim her remains. Academy Award winner Bobby Driscoll was also buried on the island when he died in 1968 because no one was able to identify his remains. His daughter, Aaren Keely, submitted a poem in his memory to the Hart Island Project.
Hart Island is featured in the 2011 book, Gideon’s Sword coauthored by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. In an undated blog post here Preston tells a story of asking for permission to visit the island but being denied at which point he was forced to”make a guerilla landing” – visiting the island unannounced and the encounter which ensued between himself and prison guards who caught him:
About ten minutes later the supervisor arrived, a rotund African-American with a jolly face. “Darn it, I really don’t want to arrest you folks. Why’d you have to come here? We got some inmates from Riker’s Island here burying dead folks and we can’t have people landing in boats.”
“What? Burying dead people?” I pretended to be surprised.
“That’s right,” he said with a touch of pride. “We got a million dead people interred on this island. Biggest graveyard in the world. This here is the Potter’s Field for New York City. You didn’t know that?”
We both made suitable expressions of astonishment and wonder.
In 2008 urban archaeologist Richard Nickel, Jr. posted some of the most recent photos known to exist of Hart Island. I’ve included a few here for DCX readers:
Finally, a few birds eye view images courtesy of google maps. I took these on November 3, 2014 and they’re likely the most current images available of the island at the time of this writing:
Hart Island seems to be a place filled with much sadness but perhaps the cause of that is less about the dead laid to rest there and more about the notion that so many people are outcasts of our culture. The stories of adults winding up in a place like this are somber enough but appear less troubling than the fact that so many children are interred on the island.
When you consider this is just New York City’s potter’s field and then let your imagination span from sea to shining sea, not to mention the rest of the world – it’s absolutely heartbreaking to consider that so many people – human beings just like you and I – spend much if not all of their lives unloved and unwanted and ultimately wind up in a small plywood box stacked neatly alongside others who shared the same fate.
To end on a more positive note statistics show that the number of infants buried on Hart Island has reduced considerably since children’s health insurance began to cover all pregnant women in New York State.
Rest in peace …
Video Coverage of Hart Island:
(vintage news video from ’78 – around the 2 minute mark it gives insight into infant/fetus burial rituals which is .. shocking to say the least)
And a more recent production: