Hart Island: Groups try to pull it out of the shadows.

By: Molly Gorny | Date: Thu, February 19th, 2015

Hart Island
A view of Hart Island today (Photo: Luke Rafferty) Source: Narratively. The Invisible Island.

You may not have heard of Hart Island, New York City’s potter’s field. The cemetery covers more than a hundred acres and is said to be home to more than a million people whose bodies were left to the city to bury. Even if you are a New Yorker, it’s not likely that you’ve been to the island since access is extremely difficult to get and regulations once you get there are strict.

Hart Island

Jacob Riis Collection © Museum of the City of New York. From the Hart Island Project Website.

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 older boys from the House of Refuge on Randall’s Island.

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.

Mass burials on Hart Island began in 1875. A numbered grid system was implemented to facilitate disinterments for later identification at the morgue. Today, most of the buried are identified. The workhouses are long closed. Yet, the system of burials remains unchanged and graves inaccessible.

Visit the Official Hart Island Project Website

Despite the fact that the Hart Island cemetery belongs to the public, not just anyone can visit there. The site is controlled by the Department of Corrections and travel to the island must be approved and scheduled far in advance. The DOC transports a small number of people once each month.  While there, visitors must remain near small gazebo that is not among the graves. In fact, no one is permitted to go anywhere near the grave sites. Photographs are off limits and even cell phones are restricted. Journalists have been permitted to visit the island from time-to-time, but it is certainly not encouraged.

About Hart Island

  • Hart Island is the largest tax-funded cemetery in the world.
  • The island was purchased by the City of New York in 1868 for $75,000.
  • Mass burials began in 1875.
  • There is only one individual grave site on the island, the first baby in NYC to die from AIDS.
  • In 1865 the island was used as a POW camp for nearly 3,500 Confederate soldiers.
  • During the Cold War the island was used as a Nike Ajax missile base.
  • During WWII Hart Island was used by the US Navy as a disciplinary center.
  • During the 60s and 70s Hart Island was used as a narcotics rehab center.
  • Prison operations on the island were discontinued in 1982.
  • Hart Island is still used for 2,000 burials each year. Many of these are infants and stillborn babies.
  • The Island has been used as a film and TV location on a number of occasions. Most notable are an appearances in Law & Order Criminal Intent, The Saint of Fort Washington, and Don’t Say a Word.
  • A comic book series, Potter’s Field by Mark Waid, revolves around an anonymous investigation into who is buried at Hart Island.
  • The Island appears in a number of literary works including William Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness and Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale.
  • Bobby Driscoll, the voice of Peter Pan and star of Disney’s Song of the South and Treasure Island is buried there.
  • Other notables buried on the island are playwright, screenwriter and director Leo Birinski and novelist Dawn Powell.
Hart Island

Inmates pause during a burial ©1992 Joel Sternfeld From: The Hart Island Project website

Steps are being taken to improve access to Hart Island and lift the shroud of secrecy that surrounds it. In December 2014, the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a federal class action lawsuit aimed at giving family members access to grave sites. The suit is still pending. In March of last year, the New York City Council introduced legislation to create a public park on the site and there is a grassroots effort to transfer control of the island from the DOC to the jurisdiction of the Parks Department.

It was not until 2013 that the DOC provided access to information on who is buried on the island. With the exception of a few years that are missing due to a fire on the island, there are records dating back to 1881. The DOC now provides a searchable database with information dating back to 1977. Another database, maintained by a group known as The Hart Island Project also provides data on individuals dating back to 1980.  The group’s website, The Travelling Cloud Museum, also offers an interactive map that allows you to search the grave yard by plot. The Project continues to add to it’s data and works with individuals to help them locate family members who are interred on the island.

 Read more about Hart Island


The Mysterious Story of Hart Island


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