Hart Island: New York City’s Island of the Dead

The dead are coming out of the earth on a New York City burial ground not far from the Bronx borough. Unfortunately, this isn’t exactly the zombie apocalypse I’ve been hoping for seeing as the corpses are not coming back to life, they’re just being exposed due to erosion. However, the recent media coverage of this issue lead me to finally write about a place that has intrigued me for quite some time now — Hart Island.

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Hart Island, located in the western Long Island Sound and spanning over 100 acres in size, was purchased by the city in 1868 for $75,000. The original intent behind its purchase was to establish a workhouse for boys from the House of Refuge on Riker’s Island, but it soon began being used as a burial site for unknown or indigent people. Burial records date all the way back to May 1881 and continuing to the present day. Due to gaps in documentation, it is unsure exactly how many bodies rest on Hart Island, although it is estimated it may be as many as one million. It is the largest tax-funded cemetery in the world.

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To think that this many unidentifiable people have died in New York City that they’ve designated an island to bury them on is mind-blowing, but what is even crazier is that this is not the first of its kind. Most large cities have one of these designated areas, which are known as “potter fields.” In fact, Hart Island is actually NYC’s tenth potter’s field, with previous locations in Washington Square, Bellevue Hospital, Madison Square, the NYC Public Library, Wards Island and Randall’s Island.

Potter’s fields are defined as a piece of land used as a burial place for the poor, or in some places, strangers to the community. The term originates from the Bible’s Gospel of Matthew. Judas Iscariot was paid thirty pieces of silver for betraying Jesus, but his guilt drove him to return the money to the temple. However, the priests at the temple did not want to accept what is known as “blood money,” so they used it to purchase an area of land near Jerusalem where they could bury the poor and the foreign. The area of land was purchased from a pot-maker and thus, the term “potter’s field” was born. Because the land was purchased with the blood money, it is also referred to as “the Field of Blood.”

“Then Judas, which had betrayed Him, saw that he was condemned, repented himself, and brought again the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests… and they took counsel, and bought with them the potters field to bury strangers in.” – Matthew (27:3-8)

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So what determines that a body is sent to Hart Island? Well, when a body turns up, it goes into the custody of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner where it will remain until identified and claimed by relatives. Any bodies that are unclaimed are transferred to the Department of Corrections for burial.

The Department of Corrections? Huh? Yes, you read correctly. The Department of Correction maintains and operates the City Cemetery on Hart Island and the burials are performed by inmates. The video below shows inmates performing a mass burial in 1990.

Today, the inmates are transported from Rikers Island on weekdays where they perform the burials, disinterments and maintenance of the island. They are paid a small hourly fee for their labor. An average of 2,000-3,000 burials are performed each year.

Aside from a massive graveyard, Hart Island has served many purposes over the years. Originally, the island was used as a prison camp for Confederate soldiers during the Civil War in 1865. In 1870, a portion of the island housed patients with yellow fever in isolation. It is around this time that the island first served as a grave site. It is said the first body to be buried was a woman named Louisa Van Slyke. She was a 24-year-old orphan who died from yellow fever.

The island also served as a tuberculosis hospital, a reformatory for men that later housed aged male prisoners and overflow from other New York City prisons. During the second World War, Hart Island became a barracks for Navy, Coast Guard and Military troops. At one point, three German soliders appeared in a U-Boat near Long Island. They were captured and imprisoned on the island. Since WWII, the island operated as a jail and a narcotic rehabilitation program.

Now that you understand the history, let’s talk more about why Hart Island has been popping up in the news recently. This past Monday, 174 exposed bones were recovered from the City Cemetery due to years of storms causing erosion to the shoreline. According to Melinda Hunt of The Hart Island Project, “Entire skeletons are sort of flling out of the hill onto the beach, and then they’re washed away with the tide.”

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According to Hunt, who has been following the ongoings at Hart Island for several decades, the Department of Corrections has been aware of the problem for some time but has not done anything about it until just recently. Archaelogists have been using red flags to mark human remains once identified and the plan is that they will be re-buried by inmates.

Council Mark Levine is just as shocked as you probably are that the island is being run by the Department of Corrections and he is trying to have control of the island transferred to the Department of Parks and Recreation to allow families of the deceased to visit the graves. Levine makes a great point by saying, “It’s simply wrong that people who are neglected in life, who are marginalized in life in the city are now getting the same treatment in this burial ground.”

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The Department of Corrections is claiming it is working on getting its act together, telling CBS2 recently that it will start monthly inspections and reconstruct the shoreline to ensure the graves are stable.

 

Featured image courtesy of The Hart Island Project.

Sources:

Atlas Obscura

CBS News

correctionhistory.org

The Hart Island Project

NYC.gov

Oxford Biblical Studies Online

Untapped Cities

The Word Detective

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