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Viewed from City Island
Location in New York City
|Location||Long Island Sound|
|Area||131.22 acres (53.10 ha)|
|Length||1.0 mi (1.6 km)|
|Width||0.25 mi (0.4 km)|
|City||New York City|
Hart Island, sometimes referred to as Hart's Island, is an island in the northeast Bronx, New York City, at the western end of Long Island Sound. It is approximately 1 mile (1.6 km) long by 1⁄3 mile (0.54 km) wide and is in the Pelham Islands group, to the east of City Island.
The first public use of Hart Island was to train United States Colored Troops in 1864. Since then, the island has been a location for a Union Civil War prison camp, a psychiatric institution, a tuberculosis sanatorium, a potter's field, a homeless shelter, a boys' reformatory, a jail, and a drug rehabilitation center. Several other structures, such as an amusement park, were planned for Hart Island but not built. During the Cold War, Nike defense missiles were also stationed on Hart Island. The island was used as a prison and a homeless shelter intermittently until 1967, and the last inhabited structures were abandoned in 1977. The island now serves as the city's potter's field and is run by the New York City Department of Correction.
More than one million people are buried on Hart Island though, since the first decade of the 21st century, there are fewer than 1,500 burials a year. Those interred on Hart Island include individuals that have not been claimed by their families, the homeless and the indigent. Access to the island is restricted: the only method of access is by ferryboat, family members of those interred must request access in advance, and the New York City government only allows 50 to 70 visitors per month as of 2017[update]. The Hart Island Project, founded in 1994, has assisted families in obtaining copies of public burial records, as well as advocated for easier access to the island.
There are several versions of the origin of the island's name. In one, British cartographers named it "Heart Island" in 1775, due to its organ-like shape, but the second letter was dropped shortly thereafter.:75 A map in 1777, as well as other subsequent maps, refer to the island as "Hart Island".:75 Other names given to the island during the late 18th century were "Little Minneford Island" and "Spectacle Island"; the latter appellation was given because the island was thought to look like spectacles.:75
Given that "hart" refers to an English word for "stag", one theory is that the island was given the name when it was used as a game preserve. Another version holds that it was named in reference to deer that migrated from the mainland during periods when ice covered that part of Long Island Sound.:19:140
Hart Island is approximately 1 mile (1.6 km) long by 1⁄3 mile (0.54 km) wide at its widest point, and is about 1⁄3 mile (0.54 km) off the eastern shore of City Island.:75 The island's area is disputed; according to some sources, the island is 101 acres (41 ha),:75 while others state that the island is 131 acres (53 ha). Hart Island is isolated from the rest of the city: there is no electricity, and the only means of access is via ferryboat.
The island was originally occupied by the Siwanoy tribe of Native Americans, who were indigenous to the area. It was part of a 0.2-square-mile (0.52 km2) property that Thomas Pell purchased from the Siwanoy in 1654.:75:140 Pell died in 1669, and ownership passed to his nephew Sir John Pell, the son of the British mathematician John Pell. The island remained in the Pell family until 1774, when it was sold to Oliver DeLancey. It was later sold to the Rodman, Haight, and Hunter families, in that order.:75 According to Elliott Gorn, Hart Island had become "a favorite pugilistic hideaway" by the early 19th century. Bouts of bare-knuckle boxing held at the island could draw thousands of spectators.:140
The first public use of Hart Island was to train United States Colored Troops beginning in 1864. A steamboat called the John Romer shuttled recruits to the island from the Battery at the southern tip of Manhattan. A commander's house and a recruits' barracks was built. The barracks included a library and concert room.:75 The barracks could house 2,000 to 3,000 recruits at a time, and over 50,000 men were ultimately trained there.:76
In November 1864, construction started on a prisoner-of-war camp on Hart Island, with room for 5,000 prisoners.:75 The camp was used for four months in 1865 during the American Civil War. The island housed 3,413 captured Confederate Army soldiers: of these, 235 died in the camp and were buried in Cypress Hills Cemetery. Following the Civil War, indigent veterans were buried in soldier's plots on Hart Island which was separate from the potter's field and at the same location. Some of these soldiers were moved to West Farms Soldiers Cemetery in 1916 and others were removed to Cypress Hills Cemetery in 1941.
Burials on Hart Island began with 20 Union Army soldiers during the American Civil War. On May 27, 1868, New York City purchased the island from Edward Hunter, who also owned nearby Hunter Island, for $75,000.:141 City burials started shortly afterward. In 1869, a 24-year-old woman named Louisa Van Slyke, who died in the Charity Hospital, was the first person to be buried in the island's 45-acre (180,000 m2) public graveyard.:138 The cemetery then became known as "City Cemetery" and "Potter's Field".
By 1880, The New York Times described the island as "the Green-Wood of Five Points", comparing an expansive cemetery in Brooklyn with a historically poor neighborhood in Manhattan. The Times also said of Hart Island, "This is where the rough pine boxes go that come from Blackwell's Island." (Blackwell Island, now Roosevelt Island, formerly hosted several hospitals.) The potter's field at Hart Island replaced two previous potter's fields on the sites of what are now Washington Square Park and New York Public Library Main Branch in Manhattan. The number of burials on Hart Island exceeded 500,000 by 1958.
People were quarantined on the island during the 1870 yellow fever epidemic. The island contained a women's psychiatric hospital (The Pavilion, built 1885) as well as a tubercularium. An industrial school with 300 students was also on Hart Island. After an 1892 investigation found that the city's existing asylums were overcrowded, it was proposed to expand the asylums on Hart Island from 1,100 to 1,500 beds.
In the late 19th century Hart Island became the location of a boys' workhouse, which was an extension of the prison and almshouse on Blackwell Island. A workhouse for adult men was established in 1895, followed by a workhouse for young boys ten years later.:141 By the early 20th century, Hart Island housed about two thousand delinquent boys as well as old male prisoners from Blackwell's penitentiary. The prison on Hart Island grew to contain its own band, which only performed on Hart Island, as well as a Catholic prison chapel.:77 The cornerstone for the $60,000 chapel was laid in 1931 and it was opened the following year.
In 1924, John Hunter sold his 4-acre (1.6 ha) tract of land on Hart Island's west side to Solomon Riley, a Barbados native and millionaire real estate speculator. Riley subsequently proposed to build an amusement park on Hart Island, which would have served the primarily black community of Harlem in Manhattan.:141–142 It was referred to as the "Negro Coney Island" because at the time, the Rye Playland and Dobbs Ferry amusement parks in the New York City area barred African Americans from entering, and Riley wanted to make an amusement park that catered to African Americans.:142 Riley had started building a dance hall, boardinghouses, and a boardwalk, and even purchased sixty steamboats for the operation.:142 The state government brought up concerns regarding the proposed park's proximity to a jail and hospital, so the city condemned the land in 1925. Riley was later paid $144,000 for the seizure.
The prison population moved to Rikers Island during World War II, and Hart Island's former workhouse was used as a disciplinary barracks by the United States Armed Forces. However, Rikers Island soon became overcrowded with prisoners.:142 The New York City Department of Correction reopened Hart Island as a prison following the war, but the facilities on the island were considered inadequate. The New York City Board of Estimate approved the construction of a homeless shelter on the island in 1950; it was intended to serve 2,000 people.:78 The homeless shelter operated from 1951 to 1954,:142 and it was also used to house alcoholics. The inclusion of the homeless shelter was opposed by residents of nearby City Island.:142 After the New York City Welfare Department closed the homeless shelter, the Department of Correction regained control of the island.:78 The Department of Correction opened an alcoholism treatment center on Hart Island in 1955. A courthouse, which ruled on cases involving the homeless, was also opened on Hart Island. In the meantime, the island housed between 1,200 and 1,800 prisoners serving short sentences of between 10 days and two years.
In 1956, the island was retrofitted with Nike Ajax missile silos. Battery NY-15, as the silos were known, were part of the United States Army base Fort Slocum from 1956 to 1961 and operated by the army's 66th Antiaircraft Artillery Missile Battalion. The silos were underground and powered by large electric generators.:142 Some silos were also on Davids' Island. The Integrated Fire Control system that tracked the targets and directed missiles was in Fort Slocum. The last components of the missile system were closed in 1974.
Construction of a new $7 million workhouse on Hart Island to replace the existing workhouse was announced in 1959. A baseball field was dedicated at the Hart Island prison the following year. It was named Kratter Field, after Marvin Kratter, a businessman who had donated 2,200 seats saved from the demolished Ebbets Field stadium.:142 The seats deteriorated after being sited outdoors for several years, and were later donated to various people and organizations.
The island continued to be used as a prison until 1966, when the prison was closed due to changes in the penal code.:79:142 After the prison closed, a drug rehabilitation center was proposed for Hart Island. The center became Phoenix House, which opened in 1967 and soon grew to a settlement with 350 residents and its own vegetable garden. Phoenix House hosted festivals that sometimes attracted crowds of more than ten thousand.:141 Phoenix House also published a newsletter known as The Hart Beat, as well as organized baseball games against other organizations such as City Island's and NBC's teams.:79 In 1977, after regular ferry service to Hart Island ended, Phoenix House moved from the island to a building in Manhattan.:142
Since then, proposals to re-inhabit the island have failed. The city considered converting Hart Island into a residential resort in 1972, but the plan was not pursued further. Though New York City mayor Ed Koch created a workhouse on the island for persons charged with misdemeanors in 1982, it failed to gain enough prisoners. Six years later, another proposal called for a homeless shelter and a workhouse to be built on Hart Island, but it was ultimately not carried out because of opposition by residents of City Island.:142
Originally, City Cemetery occupied 45 acres (18 ha) on the northern and southern tips of Hart Island, while the center two-thirds of the island was habitable. In 1985, sixteen bodies infected with AIDS were buried at the southern tip of Hart Island, away from the rest of the corpses, because it was believed that the dead AIDS victims would contaminate the other corpses with the disease. The first pediatric AIDS victim to die in New York City is buried in the only single grave on Hart Island with a concrete marker that reads SC (special child) B1 (Baby 1) 1985.:83 Since then, thousands of AIDS victims have been buried on Hart Island, but the precise number of AIDS victims buried on the island is unknown.
From 1991 to 1993, New York artist Melinda Hunt and photographer Joel Sternfeld photographed Hart Island for their book of the same name, which was published in 1998. Hunt subsequently founded the Hart Island Project organization in 1994 to help the families and friends of those buried on Hart Island.
There is a section of old wooden houses and masonry institutional structures dating back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries that have fallen into disrepair. Military barracks from the Civil War period were used prior to the construction of workhouse and hospital facilities. In the late 2010s, the Hart Island Project and City Island Historical Society started petitioning for Hart Island to be designated a National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) landmark. The New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation labeled the island a "site of historical significance" in 2016, since it passed three of four NRHP criteria.
The island was significantly affected by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and some of the shoreline was eroded, which exposed many of the skeletons buried on the island. Following this, the city announced a $13 million restoration of the shoreline.
Hart Island is the location of the 131-acre (0.53 km2) public cemetery (potter's field) for New York City. The cemetery is variously described as the largest tax-funded cemetery in the United States or the largest in the world, as well as one of the largest mass graves in the United States. More than one million dead are buried on the island, but since the 2000s, the burial rate is now fewer than 1,500 a year. One-third of annual burials are infants and stillborn babies, which has been reduced from a proportion of one-half since children's health insurance began to cover all pregnant women in New York State. In 2005 there were 1,419 burials in the potter's field on Hart Island, including 826 adults, 546 infants and stillborn babies, and 47 burials of dismembered body parts.
The dead are buried in trenches. Babies are placed in coffins of various sizes, and are stacked in groups of 1,000, measuring five coffins deep and usually in twenty rows. Adults are placed in larger pine boxes placed according to size and are stacked in sections of 150, measuring three coffins deep in two rows.:138 There are seven sizes of coffins, which range from 1 to 7 feet (0.30 to 2.13 m) long. Each box is labeled with the age, ethnicity, and the place where the body was found, if applicable. Inmates from the Rikers Island jail are paid $0.50 per hour to bury bodies on Hart Island.
Adults are frequently disinterred when families are able to locate their relatives through DNA, photographs and fingerprints kept on file at the Office of the Medical Examiner. There were an average of 72 disinterments per year from 2007 to 2009. As a result, the adults' coffins are staggered to expedite removal.:138 Children, mostly infants, are rarely disinterred. Regulations stipulate that the coffins generally must remain untouched for 25 years, except in cases of disinterment.:78
Approximately fifty percent of the burials are children under five who are identified and died in New York City's hospitals, where the mothers signed papers authorizing a "City Burial" without knowing what it did. Many others have families who live abroad or out of state and whose relatives search for years. Their search is made more difficult because burial records are currently kept within the prison system. An investigation into the handling of the infant burials was opened in response to a criminal complaint made to the New York State Attorney General's Office in 2009.
Burial records on microfilm at the Municipal Archives indicate that until 1913, burials of unknowns were in single plots, and identified adults and children were buried in mass graves. In 1913, the trenches became separate in order to facilitate the more common disinterment of adults. The potter's field is also used to dispose of amputated body parts, which are placed in boxes labeled "limbs". Ceremonies have not been conducted at the burial site since the 1950s.:83 In the past, burial trenches were re-used after 25–50 years, allowing for sufficient decomposition of the remains. However, since then, historic buildings have been torn down to make room for new burials.:139 Because of the number of weekly interments made at the potter's field and the expense to the taxpayers, these mass burials are straightforward and conducted by Rikers Island inmates. Inmates stack the pine coffins in two rows, three high and 25 across, and each plot is marked with a single concrete marker. A tall white peace monument erected by New York City prison inmates following World War II is at the top of what was known as "Cemetery Hill"; it was dedicated in October 1948.
During the 1980s, AIDS victims were the only people to be buried in separate graves. The initial AIDS victims' bodies were delivered in body bags and buried by inmate workers wearing protective jumpsuits. When it was later discovered that the corpses could not spread HIV, the city started burying AIDS victims in the mass graves.
Many burial records were destroyed by arson in the late 1970s. Remaining records of burials before 1977 were transferred to the Municipal Archives in Manhattan, while records after that date are stored digitally. A Freedom of Information Act request for 50,000 burial records was granted to The Hart Island Project in 2008. The 1,403 pages provided by the Department of Correction contain lists of all burials from 1985–2007. A second FOI request for records from September 1, 1977, to December 31, 1984, was submitted to the Department of Correction on June 2, 2008, and New York City has located 502 pages from that period. A lawsuit concerning "place of death" information redacted from the Hart Island burial records was filed against New York City in July 2008 and was settled out of court in January 2009.
Those interred on Hart Island are not necessarily homeless or indigent. Many of the dead either had families who could not afford the expenses of private funerals or were unclaimed by relatives within a month of death. Notable burials include the Jewish playwright, film screenwriter, and director Leo Birinski, who was buried here in 1951, when he died alone and in poverty. The American novelist Dawn Powell was buried on Hart Island in 1970, five years after her death, when the executor of her estate refused to reclaim her remains after medical studies. Academy Award winner Bobby Driscoll was also buried here when he died in 1968 because no one was able to identify his remains when he was found dead in an East Village tenement.
Since 1994, the Hart Island Project has independently assisted families in obtaining copies of public burial records. The group also helps people track down loved ones and negotiate visits. The Hart Island Project was founded by New York artist Melinda Hunt in an effort to aid the loved ones of the dead buried on Hart Island. Historian Thomas Laqueur writes:
Woody Guthrie's song about the unnamed Mexican migrant dead has had a long resonant history. Hunt, in an emotionally related gesture, has researched, for years, in order to publish the names of as many as 850,000 paupers who lie in 101 acres of Hart Island where the city buries its anonymous dead.
In 2011 the Hart Island Project completed an online database of burial records dating back to 1980. The Hart Island Project database has made it easier for the relatives and loved ones of the almost one million people buried on Hart Island to get information about the people that they have lost. Information such as burial location, and other records have been collected on The Hart Island Project's database. The Hart Island Project has led to reforms of access to Hart Island such as opening the island monthly to everyone and the legislation that requires the Department of Corrections to put burial records online.
The Hart Island Project has also digitally mapped grave trenches using GPS. In 2014, an interactive map with GPS burial data and storytelling software "clocks of anonymity" was released as "The Traveling Cloud Museum". The Traveling Cloud Museum collects publicly submitted stories of those who are listed in the burial record and who are otherwise anonymous. "Traveling Cloud Museum" was created to give people who knew the deceased an opportunity to add stories, photos, epitaphs, songs or videos linked to a personal profile.
An art exhibition of people located through The Hart Island Project with help from Melinda Hunt was held at Westchester Community College in 2012. In July 2015, The Hart Island Project collaborated with British landscape architects Ann Sharrock and Ian Fisher to present a landscape strategy to the New York City Council and the Parks Department. Ann Sharrock introduced the concept that Hart Island is a natural burial facility and outlined a growing interest in green burials within urban settings.
On October 28, 2011, the New York City Council Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice held a hearing titled "Oversight: Examining the Operation of Potter's Field by the N.Y.C., Department of Correction on Hart Island."
Two bills passed in 2013 require the Department of Correction to make two sets of documents available online: a database of burials, and a visitation policy. In April 2013, the Department of Correction published an online database of burials on the island. The database contains data about all persons buried on the island since 1977, and contains 66,000 entries.
A bill to transfer jurisdiction to the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation was introduced on April 30, 2012. The Hart Island Project testified in favor of this bill on September 27, 2012; however, it did not succeed.
The bill was introduced again in March 2014. Proponents of the bill said that it would make it significantly easier for loved ones to visit their dead, and that as a park Hart Island would be the ninth such public cemetery to become a public park. It would join other large parks that were once cemeteries such as Madison Square Park, Washington Square Park, and Bryant Park. Bill 0134 had a public hearing on January 20, 2016. The bill ultimately failed because neither the Parks Department nor the Department of Correction supported the move. The Parks Department stated that the operation of an active cemetery was outside its purview, while the Department of Correction preferred that another city agency take over operation of Hart Island.
In 2018, City Council member Ydanis Rodríguez and three colleagues re-introduced the bill a second time. In supporting the bill, Rodriguez stated that he wanted relatives of Hart Island's deceased to be able to access their loved ones' graves.
The only access to Hart Island is by ferryboat. Hart Island and the pier on Fordham Street on City Island are restricted areas under the jurisdiction of the New York City Department of Correction. Family members who wish to visit the island must request a visit ahead of time with the Department of Correction. New York City offers no provisions for individuals wanting to visit Hart Island without contacting the prison system. The City of New York permits family visits, allows family members to leave mementos at grave sites, and maintains an online and telephone system for family members to schedule grave site visits. Those who are able to get an appointment must arrive at a designated time, relinquish cameras and cell phones, sign a legal release, and produce government issued identification. Other members of the public were permitted to visit by prior appointment only. Interested parties were instructed to contact the Office of Constituent Services to schedule a visit to a gazebo near the docking point of the ferry on Hart Island.
The city formerly operated a 24/7 ferry service between City and Hart Islands, which ran every forty-five minutes during the day and less frequently at night. The ferries transported corpses as well. By the 1960s, two ferryboats were used in the Hart Island ferry service: the Michael Cosgrove (built 1961) and the Fordham (in service 1922–1982).:78 The service was extremely expensive to operate: in 1967, about 1,500 people per month used the service, and the city spent $300,000 per year to keep the ferry running. By 1977, the city had discontinued frequent ferry service, and instead provided seven trips a day. The city's Department of Correction offered one guided tour of the island in 2000 at local residents' requests, and a few other visits to members of the City Island Civics Association and Community Board 10 in 2014. Visitors were allowed to see the outside of the ruined buildings, some of which dated back to the 1880s. An ecumenical group named the Interfaith Friends of Potter's Field has intermittently conducted memorial services on the island.
The process of visiting the island has been improved due to efforts by The Hart Island Project and the New York Civil Liberties Union. Starting July 2015, up to five family members accompanied by guests may visit grave sites on one weekend per month. The first visit took place on July 19, 2015. Since then, there have been two ferry trips to the island every month: one for family members and their guests, and one for members of the general public. The ferry leaves from the restricted dock on City Island. There is legislation pending that would adjust the ferry trips to permit for more frequent and regular travel to Hart Island. In 2017, the City increased the maximum allowable number of visitors per month from 50 to 70. The Department of Correction has opposed loosening any further restrictions on accessing Hart Island, and a New York Times article quoted a Corrections official as saying: "As long as D.O.C. runs the facility, we are going to run it with the D.O.C. mentality,"
Hart Island is mentioned in William Styron's 1951 novel Lie Down in Darkness, which describes the island as occupied by a lone deer shot by a hunter in a row boat. It is also the subject of the novel The Treasure of Hart Island by Mike Monahan, a former detective with the New York City Police Department. Fictional detectives Melinda Warner and Fin Tutuola travel to Hart Island to exhume the body of a former drug addict after a tip that she was buried as a Jane Doe in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit Season 6 episode Haunted (2004). The 1993 film The Saint of Fort Washington also contains footage of Hart Island.:78
The Department of Charities and Correction have bought from Mr. Edward Hunter, Hart's Island, in Long Island Sound, and about sixteen miles from the City, for the purpose of establishing there an industrial school for destitute boys, who may be too large for the school on Randall's Island.
During World War II, the Navy used the workhouses on the island as a disciplinary barracks. After the war, in 1955, the Army installed a Nike missile base to defend against an attack by Soviet long-range bombers. The 21-foot missiles were stored underground, and Miller writes that the complex needed a generator powerful enough to provide electricity for a town of 10,000.
New York's mass burial ground is a grassy place surrounded by the waters of Long Island Sound. By the time the city purchased the island, in 1868, there had already been nine potter's fields around Manhattan.
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