Every New Yorker needs to know about Hart Island, although few of us do. A look through some photos on The Kingston Lounge tells the story of a different New York, peopled by its most vulnerable and those on its fringes. First and foremost, it is New York City’s potter’s field, which means that all deceased New Yorkers whose bodies are unclaimed by loved ones or cannot be identified wind up here.
It isn't the first - some of NYC's most famous sites, including Washington Square, Bryant Park, and Madison Square Park were all once potter's fields. Hart Island, though, is the largest by far: there are as many as 1 million people buried here, in the world's largest public grave site.
We’re not really sure why it’s called Hart Island. One theory is that the island itself looks a bit like a human heart. British mapmakers just before the American Revolution to labelled it “Heart Island;” we’ve since dropped the “e.” It’s also possible that, since the word “hart” is an old English work for “stag,” it might have once been a place where people hunted deer. There’s certainly no deer there today.
Hart Island was part of a package of land bought by Thomas Pell in 1654 from local American Indians. It was bought from Pell’s heirs by Oliver DeLancey in 1774. The next record of ownership I could find was in 1868, when the City of New York officially purchased the island. At this point, it had already been in use throughout the Civil War by the Union army. Since the DeLanceys were firm loyalists during the Revolution, it’s possible that the new American government took ownership of the island after the war, as his and other loyalists’ land was being seized and redistributed to patriots. By all accounts, it seems to have had little use for nearly 100 years.
During the Civil War, it was a POW camp for Confederate soldiers. The remains of the over 200 who died on the island were buried right there along with a number of Union soldiers. There is still a memorial on the island, erected in 1877, to those Union soldiers, though they and their Confederate brothers have since been disinterred and moved to Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn.
In 1868, the city purchased the land to use as its potter’s field. The first person buried there was Louisa Van Slyke. At 24 years old, she died in City Hospital on Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island) of yellow fever; she had no family or friends to claim her body, perhaps because she had already lost both parents to the same disease. In 1877, as a result of another yellow fever outbreak, the island sees its first use as a quarantine space.
Towards the end of the century, a workhouse for delinquent young boys was housed on the island. The workhouse, which was an extension of the prison on Blackwell’s Island, housed as many as two thousand boys, first in old military barracks, then in newly constructed buildings. When the prison on Blackwell’s Island closed its doors in 1936, the boys were moved to Rikers Island.
The “Pavilion building” still stands on the island today. It was built in 1885 as an insane asylum for women. Hart Island’s story is one of overcrowding and overflow, particularly from Blackwell’s Island. Much like the workhouse, the asylum was established here because the old asylum there - location of the famous Nelly Bly story Ten Days in a Mad-House - was overflowing with “patients.” In 1966, it was converted to a drug rehab centre as part of Phoenix House, which still operates today, though not on the island. One of the “occupational therapies” of the centre mandated residents to make leather shoes, which remain in remarkable shape, covering the second-story floor of the building in an eerie blanket to this day.
During the Second World War, the island became a disciplinary barracks for the Navy, Coast Guard, and Marines. Three Nazi soldiers found near the Long Island Sound were brought here as POWs. During the Cold War, the north side of the island was turned over again, this time to the Army. For the next ten years, through the height of Americans’ atomic fears, the island was home to Nike missiles. The silos, now defunct, remain.
The Department of Corrections runs the island today, has said that there are somewhere between 750,000 and 1 million bodies interred here. While you'd normally expect a large margin of error on any number provided by a city office, this might be one number you'd like to see a little more certainty on.
Why does the Department of Corrections run a cemetery, you ask? It's a good question, but unfortunately there isn't a great answer. DOC has run prisons on the island throughout its history, between missile silos and tuberculosis hospitals. Today it is staffed by inmates from Rikers Island, and is actually considered one of the better jobs available to inmates in the prison, as it allows them some time outside.
The thing is, when a Prisons office runs a cemetery, they tend to run it like - well, a prison. There is only one ferry to Hart Island, from neighbouring City Island. Burials are performed Tuesdays - Fridays each week, with a different day for each borough. For instance, on Tuesdays bodies from Manhattan are buried, on Wednesday Brooklyn, and so on. The deceased are piled into mass graves in simple wooden coffins, 150 adults to a grave. What's really heartbreaking about Hart Island, though, is how many of those buried here are children - infants, mostly, who have died in their first few days of life. They are fitted with small wooden coffins and buried 1,000 to a grave.
You might think that you need to lead a homeless, anonymous existence, completely alone in the world, to wind up at Hart Island, but that isn't always the case. The fact is that many of the children buried here were brought before their mothers even had a chance to claim their bodies. This was the story of Elaine Joseph, who told AM New York earlier this year about the baby girl she'd had in 1978, but who had lived only for five days. While Elaine was recovering in hospital, the baby was taken to what she was told would be a public site she'd be able to visit. It was decades before she was able to even learn that she'd been taken to Hart Island. Even then, she wasn't allowed to visit the site, since the only people allowed on the island were those Rikers inmates doing the digging. Some are disinterred and moved when their families are able to find them. Sometimes, New Yorkers wind up in Hart Island because their families don't speak English well, and run into confusion while trying to claim their loved one.
Melissa Hunt from the Hart Island Project has been working tirelessly, on her own, for decades to open up Hart Island and restore some humanity to those interred here. She's pushed the DOC to keep better records and to make them public, as well as for family members to be able to reconnect with those buried here. The Project's website focuses on removing the anonymity from those who remain; if you see someone you might know in the "traveling cloud museum," as it's called, then you can add some detail about their life and story. By contributing to their story, the person is no longer "lost," and the clock which measures their time alone on Hart Island stops.
This summer, the DOC actually opened up the island to visitors after settling a class-action lawsuit with the New York Civil Liberties Union about the way it runs things there. Don't start planning your day trip just yet, though -- visitation is limited to family members of those buried here, and is only allowed one day a month. Some say it's a first step in opening the island up fully, others say it hasn't gone nearly far enough. While it's also been mentioned that perhaps mourning families shouldn't be made to feel like prison visitors in this particular moment, that hasn't changed the way the place is run. If you want to go, you'll need to sign in to a DOC visitors' log, and be ready to hand over your camera and phone before you get off the ferry.
Hart Island feels more like it belongs to the New York City of 100 years ago than today. Littered with artifacts of the past, from anonymous dead, to missile silos, to the bleachers from the Brooklyn Dodgers' old Ebbets field - there are 2000 rotting bleachers from the old field on the island - it's certainly unlike any other grave site you'll find.
Hopefully one day it will be opened up and New Yorkers will be able to visit here. We should all be able to pay respects to the dead, but also to tour around this museum to New York City's marginalized and unwanted peoples - and think on how many like them may still be going uncared for in our city today.