New York, New York

Hart Island

New York City is a collection of islands, and one, Hart Island, is completely inaccessible, possibly because it’s reserved for the dead. A report on the home of potter’s field and an abandoned missile base.

The best way to get a glimpse of Hart Island—about the only way, in fact—is to travel to City Island, a long, thin spit of land just off the Bronx shore, at the western edge of Long Island Sound. Stand on the northeastern shore, and you can’t miss it: Hart Island is long and thin, like its neighbor, only about a third as large. But while City Island is heavily populated, Hart Island is off limits. And though City Island is best known for its late Victorian-era houses, Hart Island is best known for the giant cross-emblazoned memorial planted near its northern end.

Most people never think about it, but New York is an archipelago; outside of the Bronx, the city’s 8 million people live on a collection of 50 islands. There are the big islands—Manhattan, Long, and Staten—as well as a number of medium-sized ones—Ward, City, Governor’s, Roosevelt. There are small islands, like Ellis and Liberty, well-known and heavily touristed.

A majority of the city’s islands, however, are inaccessible to the public—which is unfortunate, because in many cases they are also the most interesting. There’s U Thant Island, just below Roosevelt, originally called Belmont Island but changed after followers of the guru Sri Chinmoy landed there and built a memorial to the former U.N. secretary general (himself a close friend of Chinmoy). There’s North Brother Island, which sits between the Bronx and Riker’s Island and for 26 years was the home of ‘Typhoid Mary’ Mallon.

But where most New York islets are lucky to have one claim to fame, Hart Island has several: It has been, at times, a prisoner of war camp, a sanitarium, a missile base, and the city’s potter’s field. In fact, though its other uses have come and gone, it’s this last function that has remained a constant: since the 1869 burial of Louisa Van Slyke, 24, almost 800,000 bodies (most unidentified) have been interred there, stacked three deep across a wide open swatch of land in the center of the island.

The burials are performed by prisoners, bused from Riker’s Island and then ferried aboard the ‘Michael Cosgrove’; they are paid 25 cents an hour and they refer to themselves as the ‘death patrol’ and ‘potter’s navy.’ It was a group of inmates who appealed to the Board of Corrections in the mid-1940s to build a memorial to the forgotten dead, and in 1948 a 30-foot tower went up on the north side of the field. One side bears a cross, another the word ‘peace.’

While the island is uninhabited today, for most of its history it was home to a variety of penal facilities. Toward the end of the Civil War it held Confederate soldiers; at the turn of the century it was, alternately, an old men’s home, a tuberculosis hospital, and a reform school for juvenile delinquents. During World War II the navy built a disciplinary barracks there, and after a German U-Boat was captured nearby, the island held the sub’s crew.

Today the buildings that housed the prisoners—and the generations of support staff—are abandoned, adding yet another level of desolation to the ‘island of the dead.’ Michael Harling, who visited Hart Island a few years ago, said ‘it was eerie and a bit melancholy to see lanes, sidewalks, street lamps, and houses in the middle of that desolation. It was a cool autumn day when I visited and I recall the dead leaves, barren trees and unkempt yards and how they, as much as the derelict homes confirmed the long absence of any living person. I tried to see the town as it once was, a tiny but thriving community set—despite its purpose—in an idyllic location: children, their fathers at work in the nearby prison, laughing and playing on the tidy lawns and gardens, house wives hanging laundry outside in the fresh summer sun and families enjoying a stroll in the warm evenings.’

In 1955, the Army built a NIKE missile base on a 10-acre plot on the north end of the island, one of 10 such facilities in the New York area (and the only one within city limits). By the end of the decade, however, the Soviet Union had shifted its strategic forces to ballistic missiles, rendering the NIKE obsolete; the base was closed in 1961. But other than the missiles themselves, the facility was left largely intact, and the rare visitor can still walk among their rusting armatures and sealed ventilation shafts. (And among the bleachers of Ebbetts Field, which were dumped nearby after the field was torn down.)

Access to Hart Island is strictly prohibited, and it takes an official pass or a heavy amount of bureaucratic wrangling to get permission to visit. Not surprisingly, the city doesn’t want people snooping around a mass grave (though Michael Douglas pays the island a visit in his less-than-memorable film Don’t Say a Word). This hasn’t stopped filmmakers, though—in addition to Don’t Say a Word, the z-grade horror flick Island of the Dead, starring Malcolm McDowell and Mos Def, is set almost entirely on Hart Island, where a group of people are trapped on the island and then attacked by man-eating flies.

Every once in a while, according to the Department of Corrections, a body will be ordered disinterred, usually because a relative has arrived to claim it. And not everyone who ends up in the potter’s field is unknown or forgotten; playwright and novelist Dawn Powell ended up there, as did Academy Award winner Bobby Driscoll—the former because no one wanted to claim the body, the latter because no one was there to identify him when he was found in an East Village tenement in 1968. ‘The souls that rest there may have made great contributions to the City, but we will never know them or be able to memorialize them,’ said Alice Blank, a Manhattan architect who has studied the city’s lesser-known islands. ‘The act of city prisoners—another forgotten and isolated community—burying these souls is perhaps New York’s most poignant and profound drama , one that none of us is entitled to see.’

For those not disposed to taking on the city government in the hopes of winning the right to visit Hart Island, there’s always Joel Sternfeld and Melinda Hunt’s ‘Hart Island: Discovery of an Unknown Territory.’ Sternfeld, a photographer, managed to gain virtually unfettered access to all parts of the island, and his black-and-white pictures render its various features -abandoned dormitories, leaf-strewn roads, rows upon rows of white burial markers—in a stark, eerie detail.

Those who have been to Hart Island invariably refer to it as ‘lonely’ and ‘creepy,’ an island so full of the dead that it has, itself, ceased to exist in any real sense. Prisoners arrive, bury their daily load, and then leave quickly; no one stays very long. They hurry back to City Island, where, standing on the shore, you can still feel the loneliness, wafting across the water.


TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is a senior staff editor at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen