Hart Island, New York
Hart Island is a thin one-mile strip of land located in Long Island Sound in New York. It was once owned by local Native Americans until they sold it to Thomas Pell in 1654. The island had several owners after Pell until the City of New York eventually purchased Hart Island in 1868. Until recently, many people have not heard much about this island because the city has preferred to keep its existence out of the public spotlight. However, once people know about its bleak background, most of them would probably not want to go there.
Site of Sadness
Over the years, Hart Island has been the site of many practical but unpleasant institutions. For instance, it has housed a prison for Confederate soldiers, a workhouse, and a women’s psychiatric hospital. It became a quarantine area for people with yellow fever in the 1870s, and missiles were stored there during the Cold War. Some rundown buildings on the island stand as crumbling monuments to these earlier days. While these institutions have come and gone, Hart Island’s primary use has remained the same since 1869: to serve as a potter’s field for the dead.
Many Lives, One Destination
Business Insider reporter Courtney Verrill describes Hart Island as “the largest mass graveyard in the United States.” Despite the island’s small size, approximately one million bodies are buried there at taxpayer expense. The dead come from a variety of backgrounds. Some of them were unidentified persons, homeless, poor, or a combination of all three at the time of death, such as Bobby Driscoll (see his photo and story below). There are also children and infants who died in hospitals, and their parents authorized a “city burial” for them. According to Wikipedia, even amputated body parts find a final resting place there.
Sadly, some people end up buried in Hart Island due to misplaced paperwork and other administrative errors that cause them to be unclaimed. These burials at Hart Island reflect New York’s nightmarish bureaucracy. If you die in New York, Nina Bernstein of The New York Times explains that there is a limited time frame for your relatives to claim your body:
Under a New York State law rooted in the 1850s and last amended in 2007, next of kin can have as little as 48 hours after a death to claim a body for burial, or 24 hours after notification, “if the deceased person is known to have a relative whose place of residence is known or can be ascertained after reasonable and diligent inquiry.”
If your body remains unclaimed after this short time period, your body is legally considered city property, and you will be buried in a potter’s field. However, before you are buried, the city can legally “loan” you out as a cadaver to a New York medical school or mortuary training program before whatever is left of you takes that one-way ferry trip to Hart Island.
The Burial Process
Currently, approximately 1500 bodies are buried at Hart Island each year. The burial process for mass graves has remained relatively the same over the years. The bodies arrive in simple pine boxes, and they are buried in large trenches. According to Corey Kilgannon in “Visiting the Island of the Dead,” the bodies are “organized into 70-foot-long plots that, with caskets stacked three-high in rows of six, can hold about 150 adults each, or 1,000 infants, who are buried in trenches separate from the adults.” Most of the mass graves have blank markers, but Business Insider reporter Courtney Verrill notes that newer grave markers “hold ID numbers for each coffin.” These numbers are “kept in an online database that helps people find the bodies of relatives and friends.” However, despite these high-tech additions, Verrill points out that the success rate of families reclaiming loved ones from Hart Island remains low: 40 bodies per year.
Oddly enough, Hart Island is run by the New York City Department of Correction, and the City of New York has kept tight control over who visits the island. Only a small number of reporters and photographers have been allowed to see the island in person. Trespassers face a fine and up to two years in prison if they are caught. For many years, most of the living people who came to the island were staff members and prisoners. These prisoners from nearby Rikers Island earn 50 cents per hour for burying the dead.
According to Kilgannon, security concerns regarding these prisoners and safety issues related to the rundown buildings on the island are some of the reasons the city has used to justify the policy of limiting outsider access to the island. In recent years, it has relaxed this policy but not very much. After a class-action lawsuit, the city now allows family members of people buried at Hart Island supervised monthly gravesite visits to the island. A FAQ sheet provided by the Department of Correction outlines this process, which involves advance registration prior to the visit and signing a liability waiver, showing valid photo identification, and signing a visitor book on the day of the visit. Department of Correction staff watch visitors from a “respectful distance” while they visit the graves. The department also offers a monthly general public visit in a gazebo area on the island. This visit also requires advance registration and showing valid photo identification. All visitors to the island are subject to search if the city has “legitimate security concerns,” and they may have to “surrender electronic devices” during their visit as well.
There is great speculation that Hart Island is haunted because of its dark history and high body count. In “An Island Without Heart,” Virginia Lamkin describes accounts of “shadow figures in buildings that are essentially gutted today” and the sound of children whispering in one of the empty buildings. However, no one knows for sure if Hart Island is haunted except possibly the staff and prisoners who work there and people who lived in one of its many defunct institutions in the past, and they remain silent on the issue for the most part. Furthermore, considering its policy towards outsiders, the City of New York is not likely to allow any paranormal investigations of this place anytime soon. Restricted access keeps this small island shrouded in mystery.