At first glance this modest island in New York appears unremarkable. The 131-acre dark speck of land has crumbling buildings, is off-limits to the public, and has not been occupied for the last forty years. Area residents might know of Long Island Sound’s Hart Island, but few are familiar with its long-standing mission as the largest – and least visited – burial ground in the United States.
For one hundred and fifty years the island has also been home to a prisoner of war camp, an insane asylum, a quarantine facility, a tuberculosis sanatorium, a boy’s reformatory, a disciplinary barracks, a Nike Ajax missile base, and a narcotics rehabilitation center.
cover photo courtesy the Hart Island Project
Geography & Early History
Hart Island (map) measures one mile long by a quarter of a mile wide, offering just over 2 tenths of a square mile (or just over a half of one square kilometer) of land mass on Long Island Sound.
Two theories exist behind the island’s name: One suspects in 1775 British cartographers bestowed the name believing the island was shaped like the human organ (the letter “e” was reportedly dropped two years later). Another belief stems from the early existence of a game preserve on the island; “hart” is the Middle English word for deer.
The first recorded ownership was by the Siwanoy Native American Tribe, who then sold the island to Thomas Pell in 1654. In 1774 Oliver Delancey purchased the island and renamed it Spectacle Island for his belief it resembled a pair of spectacles, however his suggestion did not stick.
Nearly 100 years later Hart Island would serve the Union Army as a training ground and barracks during the Civil War. In 1865 it was a Prisoner of War camp for four months as 3,413 captured Confederate soldiers were confined on the island.
Two hundred and thirty five prisoners would die in camp and would be the first to be buried on Hart Island, although their remains would later be moved to Cypress Hills cemetery in Brooklyn in 1941. Today a memorial to the civil war prisoners remains on the east side of the island (map to original Civil War cemetery location).
Under City Ownership
In the late 1860s the city of New York was in search of a location to build a potter’s field. Hart Island offered an ideal location away from the public eye. On May 27th, 1868 the city purchased the first parcel from seller Edward Hunter of the Bronx for $75,000; the second parcel was purchased from architect Charles C. Haight a year later in 1869.
On April 20th of 1869, forty-five acres across the northern tip of Hart Island were designated as a potter’s field.
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When the city was under siege of a yellow fever epidemic in 1870, the island was temporarily used as a quarantine facility.
In 1885 Hart Island was home to a lunatic asylum for women. A structure known as the Pavilion (map) was established on the southern end of the island and handled patient overflow from The Octagon, an asylum on Roosevelt Island.
A Branch Workhouse was established and served as a reformatory, housing almost two thousand aged and infirm men, narcotics addicts, and short-term inmates from the penitentiary on Blackwell’s Island (later known as Welfare Island, today Roosevelt Island).
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Hart Island Branch Workhouse, circa 1900
In 1914 the reformatory prisoners were transferred off Hart Island, leaving the facility as an overflow detention center for the city jail system. The population on Hart Island later moved to Rikers Island in 1935 upon completion of the new penitentiary, opened to spell the dilapidated jail on Welfare Island.
In the early twentieth century Hart Island was also home to a tuberculosis sanatorium, later shut down when deemed unsuitable by a Grand Jury in 1917.
By this time the city of New York owned all but four acres of Hart Island. The final plot of four acres was owned by John Hunter, who offered to sell the remaining land to the city in 1922.
When the city’s mayor refused, Hunter sold to Solomon Riley several years later in 1925. Riley, an enigmatic millionaire, proposed a seaside resort for Harlem blacks previously barred from the city’s “whites only” amusement parks in 1925.
Riley constructed a 200-foot boardwalk, eight boardinghouses, and a dance hall before Department of Correction (DOC) officials balked at the idea, worried his fleet of 60 ferry boats would provide easy access for Hart Island’s prisoners to escape.
The city quickly condemned the property to stymie Riley’s plans and later purchased the remaining four acres of land for $144,000.
Hart Island Chapel
In 1935 a new Catholic chapel was constructed to replace the previous place of worship; it still stands to this day and is one of the best-preserved structures left on Hart Island (map).
During World War II, Hart Island prisoners were moved to Rikers Island while the Navy used the facilities as a disciplinary barracks.
After the war responsibility for the island was returned to the Department of Correction; the jail was reactivated in 1946.
In 1948 the working prisoners erected a 30-foot tall monument for the unclaimed dead buried on Hart Island (map), on the top of what is known as “Cemetery Hill.” On one side is engraved a simple cross; on the other, the word “Peace” (pictured above).
In 1950 the island came under purview of Department of Welfare for the housing of male derelicts; however, because of the rising prisoner population it was later returned to the DOC in 1954.
Cold War Missile Base
After World War II, the political tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union would create a nearly forty-year standoff known as the Cold War. While no major battles took place between the two nations, each equipped itself to prepare for a nuclear-fueled World War III.
In the United States, this meant the creation of Project Nike (a reference to the Greek Goddess of victory). The Nike program called for the implementation of a line-of-sight anti-aircraft missile system designed to protect the country against Soviet long-range bombers. For the next two decades over two hundred Nike sites were constructed in the United States.
Along with nearby Davids’ Island, Hart Island became home to a Nike base in 1955. Battery NY-15 would occupy both locations: The radar and control station was operated by the Army’s 66th Antiaircraft Artillery Missile Battalion at Fort Slocum on Davids’ Island, while the 21-foot missiles of NY-15 and its launch equipment were underground across ten acres on the north side of Hart Island (map).
The two underground missile storage magazines were capable of housing ten Nike Ajax missiles each.
When the Soviet Union began testing intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), the Nike sites had been rendered obsolete and the silos abandoned. The military evacuated Hart Island in July of 1960 and returned the land to the city the following year.
NY-15 never fired a missile.
[ Nike sites were organized in “Defense Areas” identified by a one or two-letter code which indicated city name, followed by a number. The number indicated the site within the Defense Area. Sites starting with the code “NY” were in the New York Defense Area, one of the largest with twenty Ajax sites at its peak. ]
Battery NY-15 was operational for five years – then abandoned for the next fourteen – before the remaining launch equipment was eventually dismantled and removed in 1974.
Life After Nike: The Phoenix House
After the closure of the Nike site, Hart Island would not host accommodations for the living again until the Phoenix House drug and alcohol rehabilitation center was opened in 1966.
That year, changes to the penal code relieved Hart Island of its duty as an overflow jail facility.
The Phoenix House logo is still visible. (map)
The Office of the Narcotics Administrator arranged for a former Branch Workhouse (and Pavilion annex) to house the Phoenix House, with the department spending $3 million on the drug and alcohol rehabilitation center. In addition to rehabilitation, the Phoenix House also conducted occupational therapy exercises such as farming and the repairing of shoes.
However with an operational cost of nearly one million dollars per year, the Phoenix House on Hart Island did not last long. It closed in 1976 and the building has not seen use since.
Many of the shoes are still strewn about the floor today:
In 1977 Hart Island was vandalized and set on fire. Officials reported many important records had been destroyed, including those from 1956-1960 and several years from the 1970s. Immediately afterward, the remaining records were transferred to microfilm and stored at the Municipal Archives in Manhattan.
Watch: A visit to Hart Island, 1978
By 1982 the Department of Correction once again began housing a small prisoner population on Hart Island, primarily to handle the burial and other maintenance duties.
In 1991 the prisoners were transferred back to Rikers Island, leaving Hart Island uninhabited – which it has been ever since.
A City Burial
“Then Judas, which had betrayed him, when he saw that he was condemned, repented himself, and brought again the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders … and they took counsel, and bought with them the potter’s field, to bury strangers in.”
Before 1869, the city of New York used various sites to bury the less fortunate. In the early 19th century they were interred at Washington Square in Greenwich Village. In 1823 the city’s potter’s field was relocated to Fifth Avenue between 40th and 42nd Street in Manhattan – and then later moved again to Fourth Avenue and 50th Street.
In 1857 the remains of 100,000 were transferred from the Madison Square and Bryant Park graveyards to Wards’ Island, where 75 acres had been earmarked for the city’s new burial ground.
Eleven years later the city began buying parcels of land on Hart Island for the same purpose, and by April 20th, 1869, forty-five acres along the northern tip of the island had been designated as a burial ground.
[ Louisa Van Slyke, a 24 year-old orphan who died alone in Charity Hospital, became the first civilian to be buried at Hart Island’s potter’s field. ]
By the end of the first year, 1,875 burials had been performed. Initially, adults and children were buried in mass-grave trenches – in some cases three coffins high and two across.
Coffins for babies were stacked five high and twenty across. Each plot or trench was marked by a single white post (above right). The trenches contain upward of 1,000 bodies each.
After several decades burial space began to reach a premium. Trenches were re-used after sufficient time had passed for decomposition (between 25-50 years).
[ The Department of Correction cost for the maintenance of the City Cemetery on Hart Island for the year 1966, when forty inmates were assigned to cemetery detail, were as follows: ]
|Custodial salaries for two correction officers assigned to cemetery detail||$18,020.00|
|Food for inmates (five days per week)||$7,787.52|
|Clothing for inmates||$4,000.00|
|Miscellaneous supplies such as chlorinated lime, cement for ground markers, tools, as well as depreciation for gasoline pump used for draining graves||$285.55|
The island is free from individual grave markers save for one – dedicated nearly thirty years ago – to the first child in New York City to die from AIDS. A special concrete marker reads “SC – B1 1985” (special child – baby 1. Picture at left courtesy Melinda Hunt).
The operation is funded by taxpayers. Remains are placed in unadorned pine boxes with the burials conducted by volunteer Rikers Island inmates. Up to thirty prisoners will travel to Hart Island during the day with tasks ranging from burial to road repair and general facility upkeep.
The gravediggers are unsung heroes of Hart Island. They dig trenches, place the coffins, and fashion rudimentary memorials made from candy, fruit, stones, and twigs. They categorize, label, and track the location of remains. When they can, they write names and dates on the sides of the boxes.
The inmates earn just 50 cents an hour, but the task of burying the dead can be humbling. Department of Correction officials admit the detail offers the incarcerated perspective, and perhaps helps them re-examine their values and the direction of their lives.
[ In 1966 the city’s cost to bury an adult: $75. The cost for an infant or fetus: $29. ]
Who & How
Who is buried on Hart Island? Urban legend would talk of the destitute, homeless, and vagrants. In fact, the majority are infants, victims of crime, and those in the city morgues unclaimed by family after two-weeks.
If a death occurs in the city and the body is not claimed within a two-week window, the Department of Hospitals is authorized to submit for a burial at the city’s potter’s field.
The body is first sent to the county morgue, where the medical examiner then applies to the Board of Health for a burial permit. If the body remains unclaimed, the deceased is sent to the central morgue in Manhattan. If after two weeks the deceased have not been claimed, they can be queued for burial at Hart Island.
Unfortunately, it is not uncommon if loved ones are not notified in time to claim the dead before they are sent to the potter’s field. In other cases, grieving mothers didn’t realize the “city burial” option meant such an unceremonious fate for their newborns.
In addition to the poor record keeping, the most painful facet of the “city burial” is that relatives are unable to freely visit the burial site. For decades the island has offered no public access; however, since 2007 – and through the efforts of the Hart Island Project – family member visits have been allowed in select “closure cases.”
Visitors are not allowed into the fields, instead restricted to a gazebo by the ferry dock (map).
The Department of Correction notes Hart Island lacks the infrastructure to welcome visitors, including a lack of restrooms or water fountains – and the presence of dilapidated buildings and working inmates presents safety concerns they are not equipped to enforce nor maintain.
Logbook entries from 1949
Despite nearly one million burials, there is just one headstone. While there are no individual grave markers, each burial corresponds to an entry in a ledger which reads like a lugubrious logbook.
Entries listed under Trench 51:
“Baby girl Walburton, died Feb. 12, 1990. Age: 9 days.”
“Baby boy Suazo, died March 20, 1990, five minutes after being born.”
When the city added a gazebo near the ferry dock, a headstone bearing a cross, prayer, and the words “City of New York, Potter’s Field” was included.
Currently the gazebo (pictured at right, map) is the only place on Hart Island members of the public have been allowed to visit and mourn the loss of loved ones.
[ In 2005 there were 1,419 burials in the potter’s field on Hart Island: 826 adults, 546 infants and stillborn babies, and 47 burials of dismembered body parts. ]
Melinda Hunt & the Hart Island Project
One of the chief concerns about Hart Island was the secrecy and lack of information available to the public. Few city residents are aware of the potter’s field at Hart Island; those that do had no way to search records or visit grave sites.
“I’m a native New Yorker, and I know thousands of other native New Yorkers who have never heard of Hart Island.”
-Elaine Joseph, mother of infant buried at Hart
Efforts to rectify these problems have been spearheaded by the non-profit Hart Island Project and the work of its tireless organizer, Melinda Hunt. Since 1994 the Project has been raising awareness and assisting families track down burial records, locate loved ones, and negotiate visits to the island – which as of the date of this post is still off-limits to the public.
One of the chief criticisms is the city’s potter’s field being run like a prison, likely a result of being operated by the Department of Correction. For decades Hunt has lobbied the city to shift control of Hart Island from the DOC to the Parks Department, in hopes to make the potter’s field a public cemetery in name as well as function.
Citing the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), in 2008 the Hart Island Project was able to secure access to the city’s records. The request was granted and 1,403 pages of burial records for 50,000 people buried between 1985 and 2007 were provided. A second request followed for records of burials between 1977 and 1984.
In 2009 the Department of Correction improved burial tracking with global positioning technology. In an effort to digitize records, officials began mapping the grave trenches electronically.
In April of 2013 the DOC announced the introduction of a searchable database of records covering most years dating back to 1977. At the time of its release, the database contained over 65,000 entries.
View above Hart Island sitemap in higher detail (.pdf):
[ In 2010, 1,146 bodies were laid to rest on Hart Island: 670 adults and 476 infants. ]
By 2012 the Project’s efforts started to make traction in government. On April 30th 2012, bill 0848 was introduced which called for the transfer of Hart Island’s jurisdiction from the NYC Department of Correction to the Department of Parks and Recreation; Melinda Hunt and her team later testified in favor of the bill in September of that year.
“New York City is the only municipality to require people to acquire a death certificate prior to visiting their public cemetery.”
Until access to the island is granted to all, the largest taxpayer-funded cemetery in the world will remain a public cemetery closed to the public.
Today, there is no living population on Hart Island. Deteriorating buildings are connected by a web of overgrown streets. Most buildings are abandoned and in danger of collapse; the structures previously used as storage by the DOC still contain unused pine boxes, scattered furniture, and remnants of records – but little else.
The question many ask is “why?”
Why is Hart Island secretive, why is the record-keeping poor, and why are the burials unadorned? Why has the island found no other public use and why does the city disallow the public from visiting?
The answer lies between budgetary limitations and logistical hurdles, but ultimately it’s simply a lack of money and resources.
New York City is the most populous city of the United States with nearly 8.5 million residents. Each year the city is responsible for an average of 1,500 new burials. Due to the number of interments and their expense to the city, the burials must be efficient, inexpensive, and un-elaborate.
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Did You Know?
• Hart Island was a plot point for the 2001 movie ”Don’t Say a Word,” starring Michael Douglas.
• If those buried at Hart Island were still among the living, the island would be the 12th most populous city in the United States.
• Every year between 60 and 80 bodies are exhumed when family and friends have been allowed to claim the deceased.
• New York’s potter’s field does not discriminate: Bobby Driscoll (at right), the child actor and Academy Award winner known for his Walt Disney work on Peter Pan and Treasure Island, is among several of the more famous to be buried at the potter’s field on Hart Island.
A celebrity in the 1950s, his star faded in the 60s before he succumbed to drug and alcohol addiction and died penniless at age 31 in a derelict East Village tenement block in 1968.
• Also buried at Hart Island: In 1951 Jewish playwright, film screenwriter, and director Leo Birinski ended up at the potter’s field when he died alone and in poverty.
• American novelist Dawn Powell was buried at Hart Island in 1970, five years after her death, when her estate refused to claim her remains.
• Pioneering jug band musician Buford “Whistler” Threlkeld was given a pauper’s funeral at Hart Island in 1935 after perishing during his fight with tuberculosis while at the Bellevue Hospital.
• Hart Island is the largest cemetery in the United States – yet it is also the least visited.
• Need to look up a loved one? Visit New York City’s Hart Island database website.
• New York City’s Department of Correction has a Hart Island Lookup Service website.
• As of the date of this post, the Hart Island potter’s field “Find a Grave” site currently has 63,168 persons logged.
photos courtesy the Kingston Lounge
Special thanks to Melinda Hunt, The Hart Island Project, and Ian Ference