Hart Island: Where NY Makes Inmates Bury The Dead

History of Hart Island:

Hart Island is an island in the northeast Bronx, New York City, at the western end of Long Island Sound. It is approximately 1 mile long by 13 mile wide and is in the Pelham Islands group, to the east of City Island. Hart Island was part of New York City even before Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx or Staten Island. The island was purchased in 1868 by the Department of Charities and Correction for the purpose of setting up a workhouse for teenage boys from the House of Refuge on Randall’s Island.

The island was originally occupied by the Siwanoy tribe of Native Americans, who were indigenous to the area. It was part of a 0.2-square-mile property that Thomas Pell purchased from the Siwanoy in 1654. Pell died in 1669, and ownership passed to his nephew Sir John Pell, the son of the British mathematician John Pell.

The island remained in the Pell family until 1774, when it was sold to Oliver DeLancey. It was later sold to the Rodman, Haight, and Hunter families, in that order. According to Elliott Gorn, Hart Island had become “a favorite pugilistic hideaway” by the early 19th century. Bouts of bare-knuckle boxing held at the island could draw thousands of spectators.[

The first public use of Hart Island was to train United States Colored Troops beginning in 1864. A steamboat called the John Romer shuttled recruits to the island from the Battery at the southern tip of Manhattan. A commander’s house and a recruits’ barracks was built. The barracks included a library and concert room. The barracks could house 2,000 to 3,000 recruits, although over 50,000 men were ultimately trained there.

In November 1864, construction started on a prisoner-of-war camp on Hart Island, with room for 5,000 prisoners. The camp was used for four months in 1865 during the American Civil War. The island housed 3,413 captured Confederate Army soldiers: of these, 235 died in the camp and were buried in Cypress Hills Cemetery. Following the Civil War indigent veterans were buried in a Soldier’s Plot on Hart Island which was separate from Potter’s Field and at the same location.

Burials on Hart Island began with 20 Union Army soldiers during the American Civil War. On May 27, 1868, New York City purchased the island from Edward Hunter, who also owned nearby Hunter Island, for $75,000. City burials started shortly afterward.  In 1869, a 24-year-old woman named Louisa Van Slyke, who died in the Charity Hospital, was the first person to be buried in the island’s 45-acre public graveyard. The cemetery then became known as “City Cemetery” and “Potter’s Field”.

People were quarantined on the island during the 1870 yellow fever epidemic. The island contained a women’s psychiatric hospital (The Pavilion, built 1885) as well as a tubercularium. An industrial school with 300 students was also on Hart Island.

By 1880, The New York Times described the island as “the Green-Wood of Five Points”, comparing an expansive cemetery in Brooklyn with a historically poor neighborhood in Manhattan. The Times also said of Hart Island, “This is where the rough pine boxes go that come from Blackwell’s Island.” (Blackwell Island, now Roosevelt Island, formerly hosted several hospitals.) The potter’s field at Hart Island replaced two previous potter’s fields on the sites of what are now Washington Square Park and New York Public Library Main Branch in Manhattan.

And In 1924, John Hunter sold his 4-acre tract of land on Hart Island’s west side to Solomon Riley, a Barbados native and millionaire real estate speculator. Solomon subsequently proposed to build an amusement park on Hart Island, which would have served the primarily black community of Harlem in Manhattan. Riley had started building a dance hall, boardinghouses, and a boardwalk, and even purchased sixty steamboats for the operation. The state government brought up concerns regarding the proposed park’s proximity to a jail and hospital, so the city condemned the land in 1925. Riley was later paid $144,000 for the seizure.

Burials of the Unclaimed:

Soon after the workhouse opened in 1869, burials of unclaimed and unidentified people began on Hart Island. Inmates from Blackwell’s Island Penitentiary traveled by ferry accompanied by bodies released for burial from the city morgue at Bellevue Hospital. Riker’s Island inmates accompanied by a morgue truck still travel by ferry on weekday mornings to Hart Island.

More than one million dead are buried on Hart Island. Since the first decade of the 21st century, burials have occurred at a rate of fewer than 1,500 a year. One-third of annual burials are infants and stillborn babies. Those interred on Hart Island include individuals that have not been claimed by their families, as well as the homeless, infants and the indigent. Today, most of the buried are identified. The cemetery is variously described as the largest tax-funded cemetery in the US and the world, as well as one of the largest mass graves in the United States.

A numbered grid system was implemented to facilitate disinterment’s for later identification at the morgue. The workhouses and other buildings are in great disrepair. Yet, the system of burials remains unchanged and the cemetery only recently opened to visitation by relatives.

The Gruesome Details:

The dead are buried in trenches. Babies are placed in coffins of various sizes, and are stacked in groups of 1,000, measuring five coffins deep and usually in twenty rows.  Adults are placed in larger pine boxes placed according to size and are stacked in sections of 150, measuring three coffins deep in two rows. There are seven sizes of coffins, which range from 1 to 7 feet long. Each box is labeled with the age, ethnicity, and the place where the body was found, if applicable. Inmates from the Rikers Island jail are paid $0.50 per hour to bury bodies on Hart Island.

Adults are frequently disinterred when families are able to locate their relatives through DNA, photographs and fingerprints kept on file at the Office of the Medical Examiner. There were an average of 72 disinterments per year from 2007 to 2009. As a result, the adults’ coffins are staggered to expedite removal. Children, mostly infants, are rarely disinterred. Regulations stipulate that the coffins generally must remain untouched for 25 years, except in cases of disinterment.

Approximately fifty percent of the burials are children under five who are identified and died in New York City’s hospitals, where the mothers signed papers authorizing a “City Burial” without knowing what it did. Many others have families who live abroad or out of state and whose relatives search for years. Their search is made more difficult because burial records are currently kept within the prison system. An investigation into the handling of the infant burials was opened in response to a criminal complaint made to the New York State Attorney General’s Office in 2009.[

Potter’s field is also used to dispose of amputated body parts, which are placed in boxes labeled “limbs”. Ceremonies have not been conducted at the burial site since the 1950s.

In the past, burial trenches were re-used after 25–50 years, allowing for sufficient decomposition of the remains. However, since then, historic buildings have been torn down to make room for new burials. Because of the number of weekly interments made at the potter’s field and the expense to the taxpayers, these mass burials are straightforward and conducted by Rikers Island inmates. Inmates stack the pine coffins in two rows, three high and 25 across, and each plot is marked with a single concrete marker.

During the 1980s, AIDS victims were the only people to be buried in separate graves. At the time, it was believed that the bodies of AIDS victims could still carry and spread the disease. The initial AIDS victims bodies were delivered in body bags and buried by inmate workers wearing protective jumpsuits. When it was later discovered that the corpses could not spread HIV, the city started burying AIDS victims in the mass graves.

Destroyed Records:

Many burial records were destroyed by arson in the late 1970s. Remaining records of burials before 1977 were transferred to the Municipal Archives in Manhattan, while records after that date are stored digitally. The 1,403 pages provided by the Department of Correction contain lists of all burials from 1985–2007. A second FOI request for records from September 1, 1977 to December 31, 1984 was submitted to the Department of Correction on June 2, 2008, and New York City has located 502 pages from that period. A lawsuit concerning “place of death” information redacted from the Hart Island burial records was filed against New York City in July 2008 and was settled out of court in January 2009.

Access to Island:

Access to the island is extremely difficult, and the only method of access is by ferryboat. Family members of those buried on the island must request access in advance, and the New York City government only allows 50 to 70 visitors per month as of 2017. Hart Island and the pier on Fordham Street on City Island are restricted areas under the jurisdiction of the New York City Department of Correction.

The City of New York permits family visits, allows family members to leave mementos at grave sites, and maintains an online and telephone system for family members to schedule grave site visits. Those who are able to get an appointment must arrive at a designated time, relinquish cameras and cell phones, sign a legal release, and produce government issued identification. Other members of the public were permitted to visit by prior appointment only. Interested parties were instructed to contact the Office of Constituent Services to schedule a visit to a gazebo near the docking point of the ferry on Hart Island.

The city formerly operated a 24/7 ferry service between City and Hart Islands, which ran every forty-five minutes during the day and less frequently at night. The ferries transported corpses as well. By the 1960s, two ferryboats were used in the Hart Island ferry service: the Michael Cosgrove (built 1961) and the Fordham (in service 1922–1982). By 1977, the city had discontinued frequent ferry service, and instead provided seven trips a day. The city’s Department of Correction offered one guided tour of the island in 2000 at local residents’ requests, and a few other visits to members of the City Island Civics Association and Community Board 10 in 2014. Visitors were allowed to see the outside of the ruined buildings, some of which dated back to the 1880s.

Hart Island is isolated from the rest of the city: there is no electricity, running water or sewage. (So they say) Most of the buildings on the property are falling apart. There is a section of old wooden houses and masonry institutional structures dating back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries that have fallen into disrepair. Military barracks from the Civil War period were used prior to the construction of workhouse and hospital facilities. In the late 2010s, the Hart Island Project and City Island Historical Society started petitioning for Hart Island to be designated a National Register of Historic Places landmark. The New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation labeled the island a “site of historical significance” in 2016, since it passed three of four NRHP criteria.

Hart Island Project:

The Hart Island Project, founded in 1994, has independently assisted families in obtaining copies of public burial records, as well as advocated for easier access to the island.

In 2011 the Hart Island Project completed an online database of burial records dating back to 1980. The Hart Island Project database has made it easier for the relatives and loved ones of the almost one million people buried on Hart Island to get information about the people that they have lost.  Information such as burial location, and other records have been collected on The Hart Island Project’s database.

The Hart Island Project has also digitally mapped grave trenches using GPS. In 2014, an interactive map with GPS burial data and storytelling software “clocks of anonymity” was released as “The Traveling Cloud Museum”.[

The process of visiting the island has been improved due to efforts by The Hart Island Project and the New York Civil Liberties Union. Starting July 2015, up to five family members accompanied by guests may visit grave sites on one weekend per month. The first visit took place on July 19, 2015. Since then, there have been two ferry trips to the island every month: one for family members and their guests, and one for members of the general public. The ferry leaves from the restricted dock on City Island. There is legislation pending that would adjust the ferry trips to permit for more frequent and regular travel to Hart Island.[ In 2017, the City increased the maximum allowable number of visitors per month from 50 to 70. The Department of Correction has opposed loosening any further restrictions on accessing Hart Island, and a New York Times article quoted a Corrections official as saying: “As long as D.O.C. runs the facility, we are going to run it with the D.O.C. mentality,”

More Photos:

Bones Exposed During Erosion

Believe it or not; many photos are protected and wont allow me to upload some. I’m not spending anymore time of the post; google some other photos if you’re interested. It’s would be interesting to find out how many New Yorker’s know about Hart Islands mysterious gruesome history. The weird part is that; It’s still happening to this day.