Hart Island: The Tragic Story of New York City’s Forgotten ‘Potter’s Field’

hart-island-abandoned (Image: Eileen McNamee – emmcnamee.com)

Hart Island isn’t entirely abandoned, although throughout its long and tragic history, those who were confined there no doubt thought that it had been abandoned by hope. It’s the final resting place for more than one million souls, and that’s just one chapter in the long and sad history of this small island off the coast of New York City.

hart-island-abandoned-8 (Image: Eileen McNamee – emmcnamee.com)

Just 101 acres of space, Hart Island has gone through a number of different phases throughout its history – none of them particularly pleasant. It came into the control of New York City in 1869, just four years after it had been used as a prisoner of war camp for Confederate soldiers during the Civil War.

hart-island-abandoned-2 (Image: Eileen McNamee – emmcnamee.com)

Called the City’s Concentration Camp, conditions were nothing short of horrific. The first POWs were shipped to the island in April of 1865, when 2,029 soldiers were kept in a corral that spanned about four acres of land. Rations were little more than a cup of soup and a scrap of meat – sometimes beef, sometime mule – every day. Occupants were divided into wards, and the first ward – which consisted of men known as robbers, thieves and thugs – kept the other wards in constant fear.

hart-island-abandoned-10 (Image: Google Earth)

Three weeks later, the total number of prisoners there had reached 3,413. Four months later, seven percent of the men had died. Many fell victim to an outbreak of pneumonia, encouraged by lack of medical care, close quarters, insufficient rations, and constantly wet clothing and blankets. The island’s duty as a Civil War camp ended with burials.

hart-island-abandoned-3 (Image: Eileen McNamee – emmcnamee.com)

After it was purchased by the New York State Department of Corrections in 1869, an outbreak of yellow fever struck the city. Many of those who were afflicted were sent to Hart Island in an attempt to keep the illness from spreading. Just a few decades after that, the DOC established a workhouse on the island that would remain a home for aged, infirm or addicted correctional inmates.

hart-island-abandoned-7 (Image: Doc Searls, cc-4.0)

By this time, it was pretty clear what kind of place Hart Island was. It was once said that it was so named because the shape of the island, according to some, vaguely resembled a human heart – an ironic choice of name or a telling one, opinions could go either way.

hart-island-abandoned-14 (Image: via Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

In 1916, some of the Civil War soldiers that died on the island were removed from their rather informal burial sites and re-interred on the mainland – but only Union soldiers.

hart-island-prison-abandoned (Image: nyperson)

During World War Two, the buildings on Hart Island were turned once again into a prisoner of war camp. It served briefly to hold the only German soldiers that got close to U.S. soil – U-Boat sailors that surrendered and were held on the island. It was also the home to military correctional facilities, used for all branches of the U.S. military during the war.

hart-island-abandoned-11 (Image: Google Earth)

In 1955, there was a new construction on the island – a Nike missile base. The base was one of more than 200 similar sites that were created across the country during the Cold War conflict with the Soviet Union. Nikes were the surface-to-air missiles that were established as protection against enemy airstrikes on American soil. But their usefulness had been outlived by the end of the 1960s and the missile base was de-commissioned. The only part of the system that ever sat on Hart Island was the launch system itself – guidance and radar systems were elsewhere – and the remains of the base can still be seen on the northern end of the island.

hart-island-phoenix-house (Image: Eileen McNamee – emmcnamee.com)

The island was also used as a women’s mental asylum throughout the 1970s. First known as the Pavilion then Phoenix House (above and top), the now abandoned, eerie building was once home to women with a chronic history of mental problems. Later, it was opened to habitual drug users; part of the therapy that the women took was occupational – in some parts of the island, the leather shoes they once made can still be seen buried in the underbrush.

If you can get there.

hart-island-abandoned-5 (Image: Eileen McNamee – emmcnamee.com)

Over the years Hart Island has been used as a cemetery for the unnamed, the lost, the forgotten and the unwanted. It’s the final resting place for Civil War soldiers, for the victims of yellow fever, and for those who died from countless other outbreaks throughout the city’s history. It’s the final resting place of convicts forgotten by their families, for bodies unclaimed from the city morgue. As territory of the Department of Corrections, graves were dug by details of inmates whose makeshift grave markers and small offerings were all that would ever be left. A handful of candy or a cross made from twigs was the only marker that many of these graves have ever had.

hart-island-abandoned-12 (Image: Google Earth)

And that’s part of the major, major problem that’s been slowly growing around Hart Island. It’s not just abandoned, it’s off-limits. Buildings that once housed the criminally insane, the sick, the dying and the condemned are as overgrown and as broken as the people who died there. Now, there’s only the ruins and the graveyard.

hart-island-abandoned-4 (Image: Eileen McNamee – emmcnamee.com)

It’s the largest publicly funded cemetery in the world, it’s one of the largest mass grave-sites in the world, and it’s completely off-limits to visitors. Those who find out that one of their loved ones had been buried in the cemetery (usually by finding a blank space or the words ‘City Burial’ on the death certificate) can’t go to visit them without making an appointment with the DOC. And even then, it’s only one day of the month that the ferry runs to the island, and once the few people who have their requests approved get there, they’re only allowed as far as a gazebo near the landing – not into the island itself to wander the potter’s field.

hart-island-abandoned-9 (Image: Google Earth)

In 2013, eight women who had petitioned to visit specific grave sites were granted access. It’s hoped that it’ll be the first group of many allowed back on the island, but even if access is opened to the public, there are still problems. A fire on the island wiped out years’ worth of records, meaning that even if someone finally gets access to the grave of a loved one, they might never know where they’re actually buried.

hart-island-abandoned-6 (Image: Eileen McNamee – emmcnamee.com)

Some of the most heartbreaking cases involve children. The push to open Hart Island to the public is best – sadly – illustrated by one woman who tragically lost her daughter in 1978. Her baby never left the hospital, dying in surgery, and she was unable to claim her child due to heavy snowstorms that shut down the area. By the time she found out what happened, the baby was already buried. It also led to the discovery that there’s a series of records on infant burials that are missing – the years 1977 to 1981.

hart-island-abandoned-13 (Image: Google Earth)

No one really knows how many people are buried on Hart Island. There are few signs of the number of dead that rest there; no formal grave markers bear their names, only a few sad, lonely angel statues among the debris and the abandoned buildings that were as hopeless and empty during the island’s life as they are in its death.

If there’s a Purgatory on Earth, it’s Hart Island.

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About the author: Debra Kelly




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