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Hart Island (New York) facts for kids

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Hart Island
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Location Long Island Sound
Archipelago Pelham Islands
Area 131.22 acres (53.10 ha)

Hart Island, sometimes referred to as Hart's Island, is an island in New York City at the western end of Long Island Sound. It is approximately a mile long and one quarter of a mile wide and is located to the northeast of City Island in the Pelham Islands group. The island is the easternmost part of the borough of the Bronx. The island has been used as a Union Civil War prison camp, a psychiatric institution, a tuberculosis sanatorium, potter's field, and a boys' reformatory.


USCGS Chart number 361 (1884)
1884 Nautical Chart
USCS Chart LIS (1836) sheet 1
1836 Nautical Chart

The island was part of the 0.2 square miles (1 km2) property purchased by Thomas Pell from the local Native Americans in 1654. On May 27, 1868, New York City purchased the island from Edward Hunter of the Bronx for $75,000.

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.

Others sources indicate that "hart" refers to an English word for "stag." One version of this 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. A passage in William Styron's novel Lie Down in Darkness describes the island as occupied by a lone deer shot by a hunter in a row boat. Styron provides a vivid description of the public burials following World War II including the handling of remains from re-excavated graves.

At various times during its history, Hart Island has had a workhouse, a hospital, prisons, a Civil War internment camp, a reformatory and a Nike missile base. The island's area is 0.531 km² (0.205 sq mi, or 131.22 acres) and had no permanent population as of the 2000 census. Currently it serves as the city's potter's field and is run by the New York City Department of Correction. The first public use of Hart Island was to train United States Colored Troops beginning in 1864.


Hart Island was a prisoner-of-war camp for four months in 1865. 3,413 captured Confederate soldiers were housed on the island. 235 died in the camp and their remains were buried in Cypress Hills National Cemetery. Following the Civil War indigent veterans were buried in a Soldier's Plot on Hart Island which was separate from 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, Brooklyn in 1941. People were later quarantined on the island during the 1870 yellow fever epidemic and at various times it has been home to a women's psychiatric hospital (The Pavilion, 1885), a tubercularium, delinquent boys, and during the Cold War, Nike missiles.

The Department of Correction has from time to time used the island for a prison, but it is currently uninhabited. Access is controlled by the Department of Correction. However a bill (0848) transferring 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. The bill was introduced (0134) again in March 2014 and a public hearing took place at City Hall on January 20, 2015. Bill 803 requires the Department of Correction to post its database of burials on-line. Bill 804 requires the Department of Correction to post its visitation policy on-line. These passed into legislation in December 2013.


A trench at the potter's field on Hart Island, circa 1890 by Jacob Riis
A trench at the potter's field on Hart Island, circa 1890 by Jacob Riis

Hart Island is the location of a 101-acre (0.41 km2) potter's field for New York City, the largest tax-funded cemetery in the world. Burials on Hart Island began shortly after the American Civil War. Hart Island was sold to New York City in 1868. In 1869, the city then began using it as a cemetery when a 24-year-old woman named Louisa Van Slyke was the first person to be buried in the island's 45-acre (180,000 m2) public graveyard. Burials of unknowns were in single plots, and identified adults and children were buried in mass graves. In 1913, adults and children under five were buried in separate mass graves. Unknowns are mostly adults. They are frequently disinterred when families are able to locate their relatives through photographs and fingerprints kept on file at the Office of the Medical Examiner. Adults are buried in trenches with three sections of 48 individuals to make disinterment easier. Children, mostly infants, are rarely disinterred and are buried in trenches of 1,000. Hart Island's southern end continued to accommodate the living up until Phoenix House moved in 1976. In 1977, the island was vandalized and many burial records were destroyed by a fire. Remaining records were transferred to the Municipal Archives in Manhattan.

More than one million dead are buried on the island—now fewer than 1,500 a year. One third of them are infants and stillborn babies – which has been reduced from 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 five coffins high and usually twenty coffins across. Adults are placed in larger pine boxes placed according to size and are stacked three coffins high and two coffins across. Burial records on microfilm at the Municipal Archives in Manhattan indicate that babies and adults were buried together in mass graves up until 1913 when 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, and no individual markers are set except for the first child to die of AIDS in New York City who was buried in isolation. In the past, burial trenches were re-used after 25–50 years, allowing for sufficient decomposition of the remains. Currently, historic buildings are being torn down to make room for new burials.

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. Those interred on Hart Island are not necessarily homeless or indigent; many are people who could either not afford the expenses of private funerals or who were unclaimed by relatives within a month of death. Approximately fifty percent of the burials are children under five who are identified and died in New York City's hospitals. The mothers of these children are generally unaware of what it means to sign papers authorizing a "City Burial." These women as well as siblings often go looking many years later. 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 on April 1, 2009.

In 2009 the digital mapping of grave trenches using the Global Positioning System was started. In 2013 the New York City Department of Correction created a searchable database on its website of the people buried on the island starting in 1977 and it contains 66,000 entries.

A Freedom of Information Act request for 50,000 burial records was granted The Hart Island Project in 2008. The 1403 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. New York City has located 502 pages from that period and they will soon be available to the public. A lawsuit concerning "place of death" information redacted from the Hart Island burial records was filed against New York City on July 11, 2008 by the Law Office of David B. Rankin. It was settled out of court in January 2009. On May 10, 2010, New York Poets read the names of people buried and located through the Hart Island Project.

The New York City Department of Transportation runs a single ferry to the island from the Fordham Street pier on City Island. Prison labor from Rikers Island is used for burial details, paid at 50 cents an hour. Inmates stack the pine coffins in two rows, three high and 25 across, and each plot is marked with a single concrete marker. 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. 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" prior to the installation of the now abandoned Nike missile base at the northern end of Hart Island.

The Jewish playwright, film screenwriter, and director Leo Birinski 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. 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. His daughter, Aaren Keely, submitted a poem in his memory to the Hart Island Project.

Convalescent Hospital on Hart Island
Convalescent Hospital on Hart Island, 1877.

Boys' workhouse

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's Island, now Roosevelt 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. These are now being torn down to provide new ground for burials. Military barracks from the Civil War period were used prior to the construction of workhouse and hospital facilities. None of the original Civil War Period buildings are still standing. In the early 20th century, Hart Island housed about two thousand delinquent boys as well as old male prisoners from Blackwell's penitentiary. This prison population moved to Rikers Island when the prison on Roosevelt Island (then called Welfare Island)) was torn down in 1936. Remaining on Hart Island is a building constructed in 1885 as a women's insane asylum, the Pavilion, as well as Phoenix House, a drug rehabilitation facility that closed in 1976.


The island has defunct Nike Ajax missile silos, battery NY-15 that were part of the United States Army base Fort Slocum from 1956–1961 and operated by the army's 66th Antiaircraft Artillery Missile Battalion. Some silos are located on Davids' Island. The Integrated Fire Control system that tracked the targets and directed missiles was located in Fort Slocum. The last components of the missile system were closed in 1974.

Panorama showing Hart Island (lower right) and City Island (left) in 2010


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, accompanied by guests, may visit grave sites of their family members on one weekend day per month as of July 2015. The first visit took place on July 19, 2015. Family members who wish to visit the island must request a visit ahead of time with the Department of Correction. As part of a lawsuit settlement, the City of New York agreed to permit family visits, allow family members to leave mementos at grave sites, and maintain an online and telephone system for family members to schedule grave site visits.

Other members of the public are permitted to visit by prior appointment only. Interested parties must contact the Office of Constituent Services to schedule a visit to a gazebo located near to the docking point of the ferry on Hart Island.

As of today, there are 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 a restricted dock on City Island. There is legislation pending that would adjust the ferry trips to permit for much more frequent and regular travel to Hart Island. New York City currently offers no provisions for individuals wanting to visit Hart Island without contacting the prison system.

The New York City 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 dating back to the 1880s. An ecumenical group named the Interfaith Friends of Potter's Field has intermittently conducted memorial services on the island.

In 2017, the City increased the number of allowable visitors per month from 50 to 70.

Public engagement

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." Testimony was presented by Melinda Hunt for The Hart Island Project, Michael Miscione as Manhattan Borough Historian, Picture the Homeless, Daniel Stevelman, Deputy Commissioner for Operations at the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, and Gregory McLaughlin, Warden of Support Services Division of the Chief Medical Examiner. The Committee, chaired by Elizabeth Crowley, amended the Administrative Code § 21–110 directing the Department of Correction to post an on-line database on their website as well as clear instructions regarding public access. In April 2013, the Department of Correction published an online database of burials on the island.

A New York City Council public hearing on bills introduced to remedy public access to Hart Island took place on September 27, 2012.

An art exhibition of people located through The Hart Island Project with help from Melinda Hunt was held at Westchester Community College in 2012.

The Hart Island Project and current reforms

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 the 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. The New York artist Melinda Hunt in an emotionally related gesture has spent years of research 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." 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 legislation that requires the Department of Corrections to put burial records on-line. Starting July 19, 2015 the city began to run a once a month ferry service to the island to allow relatives to visit the graves of their kin buried on the island.

In 2011 the Hart Island Project completed an on-line database of burial records dating back to 1980. In 2014, an interactive map with GPS burial data and storytelling software "clocks of anonymity" were developed and 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.

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.

The process of visiting the island has been improved due to efforts by The Hart Island Project and the New York Civil Liberties Union. Despite this work, it is still a long and complicated process for the family members of those interred on the island to be able to visit. Settlement of the class action lawsuit permits a once a month to Hart Island for families in groups of no more than five people. 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. In an effort to make access easier, another bill 0134 has the goal of transferring jurisdiction of the island from the Department of Correction to the Department of Parks and Recreation. On a rare visit by non-family members to the island, the Vice President of the City Island Chamber of Commerce noted, “In terms of space, there are beautiful views, I think it would be a great addition to the Parks Department." Proponents of this action claim 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 famous 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.

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