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

by MSO
A horse drawn wagon delivering coffins for burial on Hart Island

This photo by NYC reporter and social activist Jacob Riis was taken in 1890 and showed the coffins of NYC’s homeless and unclaimed being delivered to Hart Island.

Throughout history Hart Island, which is located on the western end of Long Island Sound in New York City, has been put to many different uses. It was a Civil War prison camp for Confederate soldiers and a disciplinary camp for WWII soldiers, a women’s asylum, a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients, a Nike missile base during the Cold War, a reformatory school for boys,  a workhouse for the poor and it even was the site of a once successful shoe factory.

It’s most important function however was as Potter’s Field for New York City’s unknown and unclaimed dead. The cemetery on Hart Island is the largest tax funded cemetery in the world.

Many of the dead were homeless, foreigners, people unclaimed by family and about one third of the burials are of stillborn and infants whose parents couldn’t afford the cost of the burial. Most bodies that go  unclaimed after 14 days are transferred to Hart Island for burial.

New York City purchased the island in 1868 to use as a public burial ground. Burial records date back to May 1881 according to the NYC Department of Records and Information Services. Since that time about one million people have been interred there in mass graves that each stretch about 70 feet and hold the coffins of about 150 adults. There is only one single grave on the island and that is for an infant who was the first to die from AIDS in New York City in 1985. The marker reads SC (special child) B1 (Baby1) 1985.

Hart Island, which houses the world's largest tax payer funded cemetery is about 15 miles from NYC.

An aerial shot of Hart Island which is located in the lower right of the photo. It’s about a 15 mile ferry ride from NYC.

Hart Island Cemetery is only open on a limited basis due to the fact that it is isolated and that it is operated and maintained by the Department of Corrections however you can call 718-546-1500 to arrange a visit. Inmates from nearby Riker’s Island, who are serving short sentences, take care of the daily burials and also the maintenance of the acreage. Most visitors can only visit a gazebo built at the site near the dock but at times some people are granted access to the cemetery area as well.

The Department of Corrections has created a searchable database called Hart Island Lookup Service of people interred there since 1977. People are urged to check the death certificates when searching for people who died prior to 1977. The death certificate will indicate either “City Burial” or “Hart Island”. Death certificates dated from 1949 to present can be accessed through NYC Department of Health. Before 1949 records can be obtained through NYC Department of Records. Vandalism and a fire on the island in the late 1970s destroyed some records kept for the years 1956 and 1960 as well as a number of years during the 1970s.

Melinda Hunt is the founder of The Hart Island Project. She first found out about he island when she decided to photograph the landscape. She discovered what it was and made it her mission to help families of loved ones find out if relatives are buried there. You can visit The Hart Island Project for more photos, a detailed history and burial records. To date according to the website, the database is complete from 1980-2011 with 32,765 adults and 27,769 children listed. To keep this project going, The Hart Island Project is also asking for donations to expand the database.

Today all that remains on the island that once held the living too are the dilapidated remains of the boys reformatory school along with a chapel. These buildings too are being razed to make room for more burial space as there are about 1,500 people buried there every year.

On March 12, 2014, five city councillors reintroduced legislation to put Hart Island under the care of the Department of Parks and Recreation instead of the Department of Corrections. Melinda Hunt was the driving force behind this legislation with her vision that one day family and friends will be free to visit the grave sites of loved ones whose final resting place is on Hart Island.

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