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

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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.

Hart-Island-Hospital-1877The 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).

Hart-Island-Ward-Building-IF-10
courtesy the Kingston Lounge

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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.

(click thumbnails to enlarge)

Hart Island 1890
Hart Island photos circa 1890 (photographer: Jacob Riis)

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[ Jump directly to S-I section “City Burials” ]

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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 in 1895 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).

(click thumbnails to enlarge)

Hart Island Branch Workhouse, circa 1900

Hart-Island-Branch-Workhouse-female-barracks-1900-2

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.

Hart Island Branch Workhouse male barracks 1900

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.

Hart-Island-potters-field-markerWhen 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.

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Hart Island Chapel

Hart-Island-Chapel-IF-8
courtesy the Kingston Lounge

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).

Hart Island Chapel (picture courtesy Kingston Lounge)
Hart Island Chapel (courtesy the Kingston Lounge)

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.

Monument in 1948, 2012
Cemetery Hill monument in 1948 and 2012

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.

Hart-Island-1950
Hart Island circa 1950

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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.

Hart-Island-Ajax-today
Remains of Nike’s concrete pads on Hart Island, 2013

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.

The concrete pad covering one of Hart's Nike Ajax magazines.
The remnants of a concrete pad covering one of Hart’s Nike Ajax magazines. The object on the right is a ventilation hood, which provided fresh air to the armaments & personnel below.

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.

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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)

Hart-Island-Phoenix-House-Zoom

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:

Hart-Island-Shoes-IF-5
photo courtesy the Kingston Lounge

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.

Hart-Island-Phoenix-House-1

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A City Burial

Hart-Island-potters-field-Claire-Yaffa-1A potter’s field is a burial place for the indigent and unknown. The term originates from a passage in the Bible – Matthew (27:3-8) – which notes:

“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.

Hart-Island-Potters-FieldIt was not long before the city realized additional land would be needed.

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: ]

ITEM AMOUNT
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
TOTAL $30,093.07

Hart-Island-cover-2*

Hart-Island-SC-B1The 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. ]

  Hart-Island-burials-3 Hart-Island-burials-2

photo courtesy Claire Yaffa
photo courtesy Claire Yaffa

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Who & How

Hart-Island-1990Who 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.

Hart-Island-1990-2In 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.

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Logbook entries from 1949

Hart-Island-Babies-List-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.

Hart-Island-GazeboBaby girl Mieses, died March 19, 1990, 2 hours old.

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. ]

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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.

Hart-Island-Project

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.

[ Read a Melinda Hunt essay taken from her book Hart Island ]

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.

Hart-Island-gravesite-map

View above Hart Island sitemap in higher detail (.pdf):

[ Hart-Island-sitemap-1 | Hart-Island-sitemap-2 ]

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[ 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.

Hart-Island-restricted-area

“New York City is the only municipality to require people to acquire a death certificate prior to visiting their public cemetery.”

-Melinda Hunt

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.

Hart-Island-Records-IF-7
courtesy the Kingston Lounge

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Present Day

Hart-Island-Pavilion-Entrance-IF-3Today, 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.

(click thumbnails to enlarge)

Hart-Island-Ward-Building-IF-10
courtesy the Kingston Lounge

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Did You Know?

Hart-Island-burials-IF-14
courtesy the Kingston Lounge

• 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.

Hart-Island-Bobby-Driscoll• 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.

Hart Island Ward Building
courtesy the Kingston Lounge

• 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.

Hart Island Shoes
courtesy the Kingston Lounge
Hart Island Dynamo Room
courtesy the Kingston Lounge

photos courtesy the Kingston Lounge

Special thanks to Melinda Hunt, The Hart Island Project, and Ian Ference

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53 COMMENTS

  1. Wow. Another fine look at the forgotten. Thank goodness there are people who care enough to keep this facinating history alive. Each new subject you write about is even more interesting than the last.Great job!! Thank you.

  2. I am glad this site exists to remind us of how efemerous life and what’s taken for granted is… This blog is a gem: each story is fascinating.

  3. Wow, amazing! Those shoes in the room is a mighty creepy photo – would not want to be there on a dark and stormy night. Also interesting to see the aerial photograph from 1950, barely a tree on the place and now it appears to be covered with them. I wonder if you could get access to the missile underground storage. I love checking that stuff out…

  4. So the big apple has a mass grave. “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.” The wealthiest city in history lacks the resources to bury its dead with even a modicum of dignity? Good one.

    • And another good question is: how is it possible that the Department of Corrections, the entity which still oversees the Island, has “lost” my brother? What kind of shoddy record keeping was, and probably still is, going on over there that they have no record, and cannot locate where he is buried? I’d give anything to be able to find a bone and bring him home for a proper military burial, which he never got. But . . . they can’t find him!!!

      • Sorry to hear about your loss and situatiom.I recently found out a close friend passed and was not claimed by anyone. About 8 months ago. Would they find someones body for the right amount of money? I’m at the beggining of this process. Dside521@gmail.Com email me if you have any better leads to pursue this then I have right now. Thanks

  5. I have been in the monument business for 25 years and have been in NYC many many times but have never heard of the largest cemetery in the USA, amazing! LKF

  6. It’s very sad to think so many people died with most simply unknown and long forgotten. Each of them had a mother and father, and most had sisters, brothers, wives, husbands, and children. It is a somber thought that there is nobody to shed a tear over their final resting place. They died alone and remain lonely in their eternal sleep. I wish the city would turn the island over to volunteers who could turn it back into a monument where these dead could be visited by friends, even if they are unknown to them.

    • I so much agree, very sad. We certainly don’t know if they are alone in their eternal sleep. In the article I thought it particularly sad about the “star” that played Peter Pan, Not that he was any more important than the other masses of deceased. He died penniless as a burned out drug addict on the lower east side. The Hollywood money machine produces these ex-famous who had the world by the tail for their 15 minutes.
      You can’t dare let the public into the place, look at the rest of that city. Ran down areas are taken over by the ghetto/drug/gang/scum lowlife animals resulting in vast areas of graffiti plastered zones that resemble bombed out post war cities. I fear this would be the result of public access to Hart Island. The city certainly can’t afford to police who goes in and out all day and night. They are apparently helpless to enforce civilized behavior in vast areas they already have in their charge. Taking on another place to “oversee” would not go well.
      You and I would visit with respect for the dead but at least 25% would be there for their demented fulfillment. Sad, but I’m sure it would turn into another disaster after spending? hundreds of millions?

      • I actually disagree. I had, and still have, many ideas for the Island and its resurrection, many of which were shared with Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley when she and I visited the Island in November 2011. It’s the personal connection to the Island that propels, and my passion for the Island knows no bounds. The old saying “where there’s a will, there’s a way” certainly holds true for me. I have not, and will not, give up sharing the story of my brother, who’s been on the Island since 1972. When it’s this personal, you cannot give up . . . ever!

        • Julie,
          I have been in the memorial business for 25 years. I’ve designed, sold, elected everything from small baby markers to large scale Veteran’s memorials. There are as many ways to grieve as there are people. Every person has own their unique story about their loved one. I have lost a 16 yr old son to an accident caused by a moron, so I know about heart wrenching lost of the most cruel kind. Not that it makes any difference but Michael was not my biological son but his father was my best friend, he was killed when Michael was 3. I loved Michael more than you can understand, he was my son spiritually.
          The thing I’ve learned from the countless stories is that we all choose what we do with the grief. It can either destroy people or help them learn and grow into a better person from it. That sounds impossible at first but it can and does happen all the time.
          Please don’t take this wrong but you must allow yourself to go on. I have never put this in writing before but I will here to help you see that there is a positive outcome to grief if you allow yourself to look for it.
          My Michael was killed because the young driver of the vehicle in which he was a passenger went through a stop sign. The other vehicle hit the passenger door and Michael was killed instantly. There were 5 in the car but he was the only one killed. I could make a very long story of this but I’ll leave out much of it here. Lets just say there are many steps one takes during this process. I first wanted to strangle the kid that was driving with my bare hands. I immediately had hate in my heart for this her, so that’s where I started. The driver came from a mixed up family, apparently very unstable, divorced parents etc. etc. To make his life even more difficult he is of mixed race which of course makes other kids crueler than usual growing up.
          Between the accident and the day of the funeral I was lost in that haze of disbelief. After the funeral while outside the church I spotted the 16 year old driver standing near his haggard looking mother. The kid had that blank stare of total bewilderment, I’m sure they had no faith in which to rely. As I covered the distance walking toward the kid I could see his mother saw the look in my eyes but did not know who I was. I am the size of an NFL football player so rather imposing to a young kid. When I got face to face with him it flashed in my mind that this moment will change his life for the better or help ruin it. I explained who I was and what Michael meant to me. He was obviously scared of what was to come and so was his mother as she looked on. Perhaps this was one of those moments that a guardian angel did their work, I don’t know. Looking back this was a life changing 30 seconds for both he and I. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever said, something like: “This is a terrible thing and a terrible moment for all of us. Michael’s father was like my soul brother, we were very close, and Mikie was like my son. I know his father would want you to go on with your life and not live in blame. He would want to forgive you and that’s what I’m doing. Now the question is, can you forgive yourself? So you have 2 choices from here on, to live in guilt and watch your life spiral downward or allow yourself to be forgiven and learn from this. Make your life count for something.” I really couldn’t say anything else, I still don’t understand where this came from, because part of me still wanted to kill him. What happened next will stay with me forever. A look of relief flooded his eyes. His mother grabbed my arm and could barely get out the word “Thank you!”. This truly was a revelation for all three of us. It helps me to write this story here which I have never done before.
          Julie, All of us need to do the things it takes accept death and forgive ourselves and others following a death. I believe you have the faith that tells you your brother is not at Hart Island, his spirit is in heaven and has nothing to do with that old body. The people in charge of Hart Island don’t really have any choice about the past burials there. They can’t change the past and don’t have the funds to even attempt a project of that scope. The reality is it would cost not just many millions but more like hundreds of millions to rectify the past mistakes found there. DNA testing of each bone fragment would be impossible and would take many many years. The city of NY doesn’t have and never will have enough spare money for the kind of operation that would try to correct the problem. Think about it, almost 1 million burials in many states of condition, most unrecognizable and can never again be identified. I am sorry that the location of your brother’s remains are not known and maybe never will. Even with DNA identification it would be an impossibility both logistically and financially.
          A more realistic goal would be to lobby for changing the future to make sure others do not have to suffer the loss of their loved one’s remains. A system of marking and mapping burials with computer records and GPS is very easy to do from now on.
          I wish you well in your journey.
          LF

          • Thank you Larry for your kind words. Believe me, I have moved on and am no longer searching for my brother. The facts, however, of what has brought me to where I am are important. John is now part of the Universe and Nature as he has long been enveloped by the ground in which we he was placed so many decades ago. It’s a much bigger picture, and it is change for the future, and to give respect to those Lost Souls, that I fight for now. John was merely the catalyst. And, while I did not know that when I began this journey, I couldn’t be more certain now. Thank you again.

            • Thank you.
              I wish you well in your endeavor. Hart Island is one of those places I would certainly like to see but if they let everyone in it would turn into a disaster with gang filth etc., too bad. Even life long New Yorkers have never heard of it.

              • Thanks Larry. And, the fact “lifelong New Yorkers” haven’t heard of Hart Island is the problem. Why haven’t they and what’s the big mystery? I’ve a more optimistic view on the situation and I only see positives, not negatives. Take care.

    • Any many still have a sister – me – who’s been fighting for her brother – Honorably Discharged Air Force Veteran, John S. Turner – for years. There are so many stories of who is buried on Hart Island, and how and why they ended up there, but John’s story is most tragic and touched manya heart, including Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley’s.

    • Thank you for your comment Dale R. – couldn’t agree more. Or how about putting the non-violent prisoners from Rikers to work by doing landscaping, swinging a hammer, pouring cement, planting flowers, cleaning out the buildings of remnants from previous lives for a museum. There’s lots that could be done – reasons why it would be too difficult, rather than why it CAN be possible, seem to be what dictates conversations, meetings and conferences.

      • You have a great idea about the non-violent prisoners fixing the place up. Not only would it be rewarding work for them, but it would become a place of reverence — something that is long overdue. Can you briefly tell the story of your brother, or point to a website with his history. Just curious.

        Blessings.

          • I read your blogs, Julie, and you obviously care a great deal about your brother. John’s story is as fascinating as it is tragic and you did a wonderful job of writing about it. He is very fortunate to have you as a sister, Julie….a loving sister who rightly refuses to let go of the memory of her brother.

            If I read everything accurately, it appears the city is unable to locate John. While this is truly sad considering it does not give you proper closure, I would like to perhaps comfort you with a few thoughts.

            The fact that you were able to arrange a Catholic mass in John’s memory was wonderful. You see, God knows John as his child. While you may not be able to bring him home to an earthly resting place, God took him home to a heavenly resting place. With His promise, you know where John is in spirit. This is far greater than knowing where he is in body. With that in mind, I hope your own faith is such that you cling to your own hope that the two will be reunited in God’s eternal kingdom.

            Perhaps in an important way you have already succeeded in your quest to honor John simply by embarking on this incredible effort to find him. Your endeavor is one that virtually no one else buried at Hart Island has ever benefited from. They remain among the forgotten on this earth, but none are forgotten by God. For that effort you are to be commended. How blessed John must feel that he has a sister like you. God bless.

            • Thank you for your kind words. While, it is true, my journey began for my brother, it has morphed into something much bigger than him and THAT is that is the path I am following now. I have no doubt that John’s memory guides me and when I’m just about to give up, he reappears in my mind to push me further. If you care to follow, see the FB page I started in 2011 and have re-launched. Thanks again.
              https://www.facebook.com/pages/Hart-Island-A-Cry-for-Help/233211753403455

  7. I’m curious why no one from the press wants to speak to me regarding Hart Island and my connection. After all, it was my dogged pursuit of Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, and our visit to Hart Island in November 2011, that lit the fire under her to bring change for the Island. My beloved brother, John S. Turner, an Honorably Discharged Air Force Veteran, who’s been buried there since 1972, was the reason for my persistence and if it weren’t for his story, Councilwoman Crowley would not have been so moved to do something. And still my brother, or his story, is nowhere to be read. Breaks my heart a million times over.

    • I apologize for the oversight Julie. Rest assured it was not because I didn’t want to speak with you, I was just limited in resources and time. I appreciate what you have done and will leave your comments here up so that others can read the story about your brother John. Good luck on your journey, I hope you can find him and I wish you well.

      • No apologies necessary and thanks for the well wishes. For the record though, I’m no longer searching for my brother – I know where he is. I also know he was the catalyst toward a much bigger picture – the Island as a whole which is the journey I am on. I still find it curious no one wants to know more from someone who has had a first-hand view and has such a personal connection to the Island, albeit someone with a name no one recognizes; and my personal connection is what creates the deep passion I have for a place that most New Yorkers don’t even know about. And it’s that passion that propels toward the right goal –I’ve no hidden agenda, no ulterior motive, no business that I’m trying to promote, no monetary gain. I will simply continue doing my thing with the hope that sincere intentions and caring about Hart Island will float through the Universe and land in someone’s brain so that we may achieve the goal of respect & recognition for everyone, not just the innocent babies, who call Hart Island their final resting place . . . and by no choice of their own BTW, or families apparently. I appreciate you keeping up my comments – but then again, why wouldn’t you? That being said, I started a FB page in 2011 but it was just too painful so I put it on hold. I have resurrected it and invite anyone to “like” it and follow. And honestly, it was YOUR story here that lit a fire under me to not give up and continue. There are many of us who are trying to bring attention to the Island and its despair – I’m simply one of them. Thank you for your time. https://www.facebook.com/sparkygirl53#!/pages/Hart-Island-A-Cry-for-Help/233211753403455?sk=likes

    • Have you ever been to the Island? I have and there is NO foul odor whatsoever; and what I was permitted to see was quite lovely. Budget could be a consideration but the resurrection of the Island, a very important part of NYC history, does not necessarily have to be funded by the City. The restoration of Ellis Island was approximately 80% funded by “the people” and private donations, not the City, and Chrysler’s Lee Iacocca was appointed by then President Reagan to head the campaign for it’s restoration – “In May 1982, President Ronald Reagan appointed Iacocca to head the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, which was created to raise funds for the renovation and preservation of the Statue of Liberty. He continues to serve on the board of the foundation.” There is plenty of money in NYC, PLENTY, and creating a Foundation and fundraisers can get the ball rolling . . . believe me!!! First step is to have the Island recognized as a Historical Landmark.There is much unnecessary mystery surrounding the Island and the fact so many New Yorkers haven’t a clue, and know nothing about the Island, is a travesity. Not saying it would be easy or happen overnight . . . but it can and MUST be done.

  8. Wow! You really touched a nerve in a good way on this one! And, a lot of hearts. When will you be posting the next fascinating tidbit from the dustbin of forgotten history? I hope you never stop blogging.

    • Cheers, thank you very much for the kind words. I am not the first blogger to feature Hart Island, but if enough of us do hopefully the awareness will be raised for the cause.

      Glad to hear you are enjoying the posts, always reassuring to know I’m not the only one! 😉

    • In 1979 I spent all summer in Manhattan on business living out in Brooklyn for about 3 months. I asked a lady in an office we were working where we could find the best seafood restaurant in the city, she said “Oh that’s out on City Island.” We took her there and bought her dinner, it was fantastic. I have been there several times over the years. I see on the map its quite close to Hart Island. Many New Yorkers have never heard of the restaurants on City Island although more know about City Island than they do Hart Island that is for sure.
      In recent years I needed knee surgery and was able to get an appointment with a man that is one of the best sports medicine doctors in the world, he formerly lived in Manhattan but moved to the mid-west to get his kids into small town schools where he was raised and away from the influences of the city. This guy is a connoisseur of the finest restaurants of the world as he is picked up by private jet and taken all over the globe for his famous clients, many are sports stars. In conversation we talked about the restaurants of NYC and I was amazed that he had never heard of City Island and it’s seafood. He wrote it down and I’m sure was soon there.
      I do not know how many seafood restaurants are left there but I believe there are at least 3 or 4. You would have a hard time finding better food anywhere. There is also a famous Italian restaurant frequented by the infamous mob figures over the years. I can’t recall the name of it.
      So go out to City Island and chow down. Maybe you can see Hart island from the shoreline?

  9. you never fail to amaze me in every topic you write. It keeps me wanting for more and at the same time learn some new things I didn’t even know even existed. Thanks so much

  10. Thank you for this great piece. Your amazing and very informative pieces on history like this is the biggest reason for my devoted return to this site.

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