Nestled in the Pelham Islands, which together make up the northernmost part of the city, Hart Island is an unassuming land mass that sits low in the water. Just a quarter of the size of Central Park, it is far from the biggest island in the area (Zimmer). Obscured by the fog that seems to accompany the island at all times, Hart Island’s dark outline much resembles the cargo ships that glide past it. Through the early morning air, its sparse covering of trees and the smokestack from a long-forgotten factory are all that’s visible. Although it may not seem like much now, Hart Island’s past is one of the most intriguing in New York City.
My interest in Hart Island first started several months ago. At the dawn of spring, I discovered it on an early morning row, and my interest was piqued when I found out that it’s illegal to step foot on the island. Although it may be illegal to physically stand on the island, it’s not illegal to get very close to it, so, naturally, I braved the cold morning air to row the short distance between Hart and City Island to take a closer look.
Upon close inspection, I could see the same trees and factory that were visible at a distance, but several other prominent features became apparent: a dilapidated dock, a sign that says “PRISON KEEP OFF,” some run-down buildings, and several large ostensibly open fields. Not much to see.
However, what is under these open fields is something that sounds like a horror film: over a million unclaimed or unwanted dead bodies buried in unmarked mass graves dug by prisoners. Since the 1800s, Hart Island has been the site of the city’s potter’s field. These graves, and the people who are laid to rest in them, have been forgotten to history and to most people, but some still remember the children, soldiers, and anonymous New Yorkers that have been buried here over the last 150 years. However, the government seems hesitant in allowing people to visit the island and has made little efforts in bringing the dead out of anonymity and allowing families the right to visit their deceased loved ones (Hart Island Project). These things, I believe, should change, and while the government has taken steps in the right direction by allowing visitations once per month, the people who are buried on Hart Island deserve to have respect and dignity brought to their names by placing them in graves that allow their relatives and loved ones to visit more often than the once a month they are currently given. Furthermore, the mass grave system itself is inefficient and unsanitary, causing more problems than it fixes.
Hart Island became a part of New York City before the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, or Staten Island. In fact, Hart Island has been part of New York City for so long that when it became part of the city, New York City wasn’t even New York City yet, it was just Manhattan. At least it was just Manhattan in 1868 when the Department of Charities and Corrections purchased Hart Island; it would take almost another half century before the other boroughs would become a part of New York (Hart Island Project).
Less than a year after its purchase, the first people were buried on Hart Island. Prisoners from nearby Blackwell’s Island Penitentiary would ferry their way to the island, along with the anonymous bodies of children, infants, and unclaimed adults who had been released from the morgue to be buried. This practice continues to this very day as Rikers Island inmates make the same journey on weekday mornings to complete the same task (Speer). Now, for the last 150 years, Hart Island has served as the primary mass burial ground for the city. Although the official number is unknown, estimates claim over a million homeless, convicts, babies, and unclaimed bodies have been laid to rest here since its creation. Interred in mass unmarked graves marked by a frighteningly impersonal grid system, these people are most forgotten (Speer).
However, some folks still remember the people buried here. In 1991, Hart Island gained attention when it was photographed by Joel Sternfeld and Melinda Hunt. Sternfield and Hunt were among the first people who were granted access to the island in order to produce a book of photographs documenting the island and its history. During this event, Vickie Pavia, a woman whose child was buried in a mass grave here, requested to accompany them so she could visit her deceased child. This was among the first instances of civilians visiting the island, and the first instance of an attempt to visit someone buried there (Hart Island Project). More recently, Elaine Joseph, a 59-year-old nurse whose daughter died and was buried on Hart Island, requested a visit to the island. After some deliberation, she was ultimately granted permission, but she could not take photos or videos, and was accompanied by government officials for the duration of her stay. When speaking of her trip, Joseph says that “They treat you as the visitor of an inmate” (ATP). Joseph, who was allowed one visit, was not allowed to go within 50 feet of the grave and was restricted to a gazebo barely within eyesight of the grave (ATP).
This government’s treatment of these people is unacceptable and disgraceful. Fortunately, in 2014, legislation was introduced by the New York City council to open a public park where graves could be visited freely. This legislation, however, has not yet passed. Currently, families are allowed one visit per month, but they still have the following stipulations: no photographs or videos, and the visitor must be accompanied by government officials (Zimmer). The reason for these restrictions is that unlike any other graveyard in the city, Hart Island is owned and operated by the Department of Corrections.
In response to the proposed legislation, the Hart Island Project was created by Melinda Hunt, the same person who photographed the island in 1991, to help families gain information about their loved ones, assist in locating grave sites, and aid families in visitations. Furthermore, The Hart Island Project runs an online database of all burials called “The Travelling Cloud Museum.” This online museum, while incomplete, “offers an innovative new method for preserving the histories of people whose identities are erased by a system of burials dating back to the Civil War” (Hart Island Project). The Hart Island Project is doing important work and is an invaluable asset in assisting families locate and visit their loved ones.
While the Hart Island Project is helping to solve one problem with the burial system, there are several other complications with the system at Hart Island. These are the inefficiencies and unsanitary conditions associated with mass graves.
As far as the inefficiencies go, there are several instances where people were thought to be missing, only to turn up later in the graves. One such example was Kevin Germany, a man who went “missing” in 1990. His family suspected that he ran away and started his own family in Ohio like his great uncle. However, he was actually buried in Hart Island the entire time, only being discovered in March 2018. After all this trouble, confusion, and grief, the man was given a proper funeral and burial, not because of the 27 years he spent in a mass grave, but because of his one-month service in the military. Unfortunately, not everyone gets a proper funeral, and this kind of thing really shouldn’t be tolerated, not to mention that this is not an isolated incident. For example, William Boken, was believed to be alive until March 2018, when it turned out that he had been dead for 35 years, buried on Hart Island (Wilson).
The unsanitary conditions also cannot go unaddressed. Recently, the bones of people who were buried on Hart Island have been washing up on the shore of the Bronx. Orchard Beach, a park located directly across from Hart Island, unexpectedly received bones from children that were washed out from Hurricane Sandy (Duddridge). It should go without saying that stuff like this shouldn’t happen, let alone on a public beach.
While it might be easy to dismiss the idea of a mass grave altogether – after all, this is a first world country – there are several reasons that the island has stayed open. First of all, these people need to be buried somewhere. Second, there simply hasn’t been the political pressure to make such a dramatic change. City councilman Ydanis Rodriguez said that an investment of 10 million dollars would be needed in order to secure and refurbish the buildings on the island to make them safe for the public (Gates). Although with recent political pressure by the families of those buried at Hart Island and the public who are affected, the government has started to open up the island. As mentioned before, there is currently legislation that would allow the families of the deceased to visit their loved one’s graves. However, I believe that, while a step in the right direction, this legislation is not enough and more should be done to open up the island.
Overall, the best possible option for Hart Island is for it to become a public park so that families can visit the people currently buried there, while preserving the history of the Island. This is not unprecedented in New York City. In fact, Madison Square Park, Washington Square Park, and Bryant Park all began as Potter’s Fields similar to Hart Island (Hart Island Project). With a little effort, a similar park could be established on Hart Island, and there could be a better system put in place for burying the dead. I propose that there should be no more people buried on Hart Island; rather, people should be buried in graveyards with proper records taken, so a similar problem does not occur 100 years from now.
AFP. “One Million People Buried in Mass Graves on Forbidden New York Island.” RealClear , 9 Apr. 2014, www.realclear.com/news/2014/04/09/one_million_buried_in_mass_graves_on_forbidden_new_york_island_6494.html.
Duddridge, Natalie. “City Moving To Fix Storm Damage On Hart Island.” CBS New York, CBS New York, 26 Feb. 2018, newyork.cbslocal.com/2018/02/26/hart-island-mass-graves/.
Gates, Moses. “5 Reasons Hart Island, NYC’s Mass Burial Ground, Should Be Open to the Public.” Untapped Cities, 30 May 2018, untappedcities.com/2018/05/30/5-reasons-nycs-hart-island-should-be-open-to-the-public/4/.
Speer, Lonnie R. “Portals to Hell: Military Prisons of the Civil War Excerpts Page 7.” cwpows7, New York Corrections History Society, www.correctionhistory.org/html/chronicl/cw_pows/html/cwpows7.html.
“The Hart Island Project.” HartIslandProject, www.hartisland.net/.
Wilson, Michael. “A Lost Son, a Mother’s Search, and Too Late, the Truth.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 4 Mar. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/03/04/nyregion/hart-island-burial-mistake-identity.html.
Zimmer, Amy. “City Launches Online Database for Massive Hart Island Potter’s Field.” DNAinfo New York, 2003-2018 WNYC, 13 Apr. 2013, web.archive.org/web/20160109181602/http://www.dnainfo.com/new-york/20130411/city-island/city-launches-online-database-for-massive-hart-island-potters-field.