Hart Island, New York

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"Hart Island" is also the former name of Heart Island which is located on the northern border of New York State, on which Boldt Castle sits.
Hart Island
Hart Island, New York is located in New York City
Hart Island, New York
Hart Island, New York
Geography
Location Long Island Sound
Coordinates 40°51′9″N 73°46′12″W / 40.85250°N 73.77000°W / 40.85250; -73.77000Coordinates: 40°51′9″N 73°46′12″W / 40.85250°N 73.77000°W / 40.85250; -73.77000
Archipelago The Pelham Islands
Area 131.22 acres (53.10 ha)
Length 1.0 mi (1.6 km)
Width 0.25 mi (0.4 km)
Country
United States
State  New York
City New York City
Borough The Bronx
Hart Island (lower right) and City Island, Bronx (left), 2010.

Hart Island, sometimes referred to as Hart's Island, is a small 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.[1][2] The island has been used as a Union Civil War prison camp, a lunatic asylum, a tuberculosis sanatorium, potter's field, and a boys' reformatory.[3]

History[edit]

The island was part of the (0.2 sq miles) property purchased by Thomas Pell from the local Native Americans in 1654.[4] On May 27, 1868, New York City purchased the island from Edward Hunter of the Bronx for $75,000.[1][2]

1836 Nautical Chart
1884 Nautical Chart

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 middle letter was dropped shortly thereafter.[1]

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.[5] 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.[6] A passage in William Styron's novel Lie Down in Darkness[7] 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.

Prison[edit]

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, along with those of Union soldiers buried there, were moved to Cypress Hills Cemetery, Brooklyn in 1941.[8]

At various times, the Department of Correction has 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.[9] Bill 803 requires the Department of Correction to post its database of burials on-line.[10] Bill 804 requires the Department of Correction to post its visitation policy on-line.

Cemetery[edit]

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.[11][12][13] Burials on Hart Island began during the American Civil War. Hart Island was sold to New York City in 1869.[2] 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.[14] Burials of unknowns were in single plots, and identified adults and children were buried in mass graves.[15] 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.[16]

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. People were quarantined there during the 1870 yellow fever epidemic and at various times Hart Island has been home to a women's lunatic asylum (The Pavilion, 1885), a tubercularium,[17] delinquent boys,[18] and during the Cold War, Nike missiles.[19]

More than one million dead are buried there—now approximately 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.[20][21][22][23][24] 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.[14] 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.[20] 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.[25][26] 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.[27]

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, as hearsay has it, but people who could either not afford the expenses of private funerals or who were unclaimed by relatives who are frequently not notified within a two-week period. 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.[28] 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.[28]

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.[3]

A Freedom of Information Act request for 50,000 burial records was granted the Hart Island Project in 2008.[29][30] 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.[31] 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. Only private addresses are now redacted from publicly available records, according to the NYC tax code. On May 10, 2010, New York Poets read the names of people buried and located through the Hart Island Project.[32]

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.[25] 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.[33] 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.[34] His daughter, Aaren Keely, submitted a poem in his memory to the Hart Island Project.

Boys' workhouse[edit]

Convalescent Hospital on Hart Island, 1877.

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.[citation needed] 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 Welfare Island (formerly Blackwell's 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.

Missiles[edit]

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.[14] 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.[35]

Access[edit]

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 can show that a relative is buried on Hart Island are allowed to visit the island every third Thursday of the month.[36] New York City currently offers no provisions for individuals wanting to visit Hart Island without contacting the prison system. Press are not allowed access. The New York City Department Of Correction offered one guided tour of the island in 2000 at local residents' requests. Visitors were allowed to see the outside of the missile silos and peace monument nearby and saw the ruined buildings, some dating back to the 1880s.

Since 1994, The Hart Island Project[37] has independently assisted families in obtaining copies of public burial records. The group also helps people track down loved ones and negotiate visits.[38][39] An ecumenical group named the Interfaith Friends of Potter's Field has intermittently conducted memorial services on the island.[40]

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."[41][42] 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. However, visitors are still not permitted to visit actual grave sites or unaccompanied by correction officers beyond a small gazebo. A New York City Council public hearing on bills introduced to remedy public access to Hart Island took place on September 27, 2012.[43]

An art exhibition of people located through The Hart Island Project with help from Melinda Hunt was held at Westchester Community College in 2012.[44][45][46]

In popular culture[edit]

  • William Styron's first novel, Lie Down in Darkness (1951), contains a description of the island.
  • Mark Helprin's novel Winter's Tale (1983) contains a short scene set on Hart Island.
  • 1940s character actor Al Hill was sent to prison on Hart Island in the 1920s. He wrote about his experiences there in his memoir, Easy Pickings (1933).
  • The movie The Saint of Fort Washington (1993) was shot on Hart Island with actual Correction Officers performing a burial. This is the last time that a feature movie was actually shot on Hart Island.[21]
  • Most of the horror movie Island of the Dead (2000) is set on Hart Island but was not shot on location there.
  • The finale for the film Don't Say a Word (2001) is set on Hart Island, but was shot in Canada.
  • Potter's Field is an ongoing comic book series written by Mark Waid and published by Boom! Studios about an anonymous investigator who takes it upon himself to discover the identities of those buried on Hart Island.
  • A Hart Island mass burial is featured in the Law & Order: Criminal Intent episodes Blasters and Sound Bodies.
  • Olivia Benson and Fin Tutuola travel to Hart Island to exhume a body in the Law & Order: Special Victims Unit Season 6 episode Haunted.[47]
  • Hart Island is featured in the book, Gideon's Sword (2011), coauthored by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child.
  • Hart Island is also featured in the book Ironside (2007), by Holly Black.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c Santora, Marc (January 27, 2003). "An Island Of the Dead Fascinates The Living". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-04-04. "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." 
  2. ^ a b c "Purchase of Hart's Island". The New York Times. February 27, 1869. Retrieved 2010-04-04. "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." 
  3. ^ a b Corey Kilgannon (November 15, 2013). "Visiting the Island of the Dead. A Rare Visit to New York’s Potter’s Field on Hart Island". New York Times. Retrieved 2013-11-17. 
  4. ^ Lustenberger, Anita A. (2000). "A Short Genealogy of Hart Island". New York Genealogical and Biographical Society. Retrieved 2006-11-05. [dead link]--Not verifiable and price unknown--site requires subscription.
  5. ^ "The Islands of Pelham Bay". New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. Retrieved 2009-11-15. 
  6. ^ Hunt, Melinda; and Sternfeld, Joel (1998, p. 19). Hart Island. Scalo Zurich, Berlin, New York. ISBN 3-931141-90-X.
  7. ^ "William Styron - About William Styron | American Masters". PBS. 2002-10-08. Retrieved 2014-04-11. 
  8. ^ "cwpows7". Correctionhistory.org. Retrieved 2014-04-11. 
  9. ^ "Testimony". Legistar.council.nyc.gov. Retrieved 2014-04-11. 
  10. ^ "Bill 803". Legistar.council.nyc.gov. Retrieved 2014-04-11. 
  11. ^ "Finding relatives in Potter's Field | 7online.com". Abclocal.go.com. 2009-02-04. Retrieved 2014-04-11. 
  12. ^ "CCM News". Clients.ccm-news.com. Retrieved 2014-04-11. 
  13. ^ "One Million People Buried in Mass Graves on Forbidden New York Island". RealClear.com. 9 April 2014. 
  14. ^ a b c Emily Brady (November 12, 2006). "A Chance to Be Mourned". The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-08-21. "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 four potter’s fields around Manhattan. In 1869, a 24-year-old woman named Louisa Van Slyke became the first person interred in the island’s 45-acre graveyard. The island’s southern end continued to accommodate the living; people were quarantined there during the 1870 yellow fever epidemic, and at various times Hart has been home to a sanitarium, prisoners and, during the Cold War, Nike missiles." 
  15. ^ "Where the Unknown Dead Rest". The New York Times. February 1, 1874. p. 8. Retrieved 2010-04-10. 
  16. ^ Hunt, Melinda; Joel Sternfeld. Hart Island. ISBN 3-931141-90-X. http://books.google.com/books?id=epwFAAAACAAJ&dq
  17. ^ "Grand Jury Says Hart's Island Tuberculosis Ward is Unsuitable". The New York Times. November 10, 1917. p. 13. Retrieved 2010-04-10. 
  18. ^ Likes Life in Workhouse: Inmates Writes of "Good Eats, No Work, and Bum Arguments." The New York Times, October 13, 1915.
  19. ^ Nike Base on the Way to Hart Island, The New York Times, February 14, 1955.
  20. ^ a b Hunt, Melinda; Joel Sternfeld. Hart Island. ISBN 3-931141-90-X. 
  21. ^ a b Thomas Antenen, NYC Department of Correction Interview 2002
  22. ^ "Sadness in Our Hearts". The New York Times. May 30, 2007. Retrieved 2007-08-21. "In the 16 years that I have been helping family members and others locate stillborn babies buried on Hart Island, New York City's potter's field, I have never had anyone complain about not having a birth certificate for a stillborn child. People I help are concerned that burial records from the last 25 years are inaccessible and that going through the prison system to visit a baby's burial site adds additional grief." 
  23. ^ Final Exits: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of How We Die by Michael Largo. HarperCollins Publishers, New York City: 2006, ISBN 0-06-081741-0, pages 407-408.
  24. ^ "Third world America: Bodies driven to a pauper's burial in a U-Haul as tough economic times lead to more mass graves". Mail Online. 19 January 2012. 
  25. ^ a b Hunt, Melinda;& Sternfeld, Joel (1998, p. 83). Hart Island. Scalo Zurich, Berlin, New York. ISBN 3-931141-90-X.
  26. ^ In Essentials, Unity; In Non-Essentials, Liberty; and in All Things Charity: A Historical Account of the Mission of the Diocese of New York of the Protestant Episcopal Church to the Institutions and the Potter's Field on Hart Island, by Wayne Kempton, archivist of the Episcopal Diocese of New York
  27. ^ "Island of the Dead (Island Week)". Google Sightseeing. 2006-08-31. Retrieved 2014-04-11. 
  28. ^ a b "Hart Island Babies". myFoxNY.com. Fox Television Stations. [dead link]
  29. ^ Buckley, Cara (March 24, 2008). "Finding Names for Hart Island's Forgotten". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-04-10. 
  30. ^ Chan, Sewell (November 26, 2007). "Searching for Names on an Island of Graves". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-04-10. 
  31. ^ "About - Home Page". Hartisland.net. Retrieved 2014-04-11. 
  32. ^ [1][dead link]
  33. ^ Municipal Archives of The New York City.
  34. ^ "Hart Island", The Morning News
  35. ^ Vanderbilt, Tom (March 5, 2000). "When Nike Meant More Than 'Just Do It'". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-08-25. 
  36. ^ Arnade, Chris (November 21, 2014). "A Prison for the Dead". The Awl. Retrieved 2014-11-25. 
  37. ^ [2][dead link] Hart Island Project web site
  38. ^ Remizowski, Leigh (March 11, 2012). "New Yorker helps people track down loved ones who died unknown". CNN. Retrieved 2013-08-25. 
  39. ^ Silverman, Alex (November 14, 2011). "Melinda Hunt Follows NYC's Lonely Dead To Hart Island". WCBS 880. Retrieved 2013-08-25. 
  40. ^ A reflection by one of the organizers of the memorial services.[dead link]
  41. ^ Hennelly, Bob (October 28, 2011). "Council Looking Into City Cemetery". WNYC. Retrieved 2013-08-25. 
  42. ^ Mathias, Christopher (October 30, 2011). "Hart Island Cemetery: City Council Reviews Operations Of New York's Potter's Field (VIDEO)". Huffington Post. 
  43. ^ Velsey, Kim (September 28, 2012). "An Open Hart Island: Off the Coast of the Bronx Lie 850,000 Lost Souls—the City Council Hopes to Pay Its Respects". The New York Observer. Retrieved 2013-08-25. 
  44. ^ Hodara, Susan (December 30, 2011). "Giving Voice to the Legions Buried in a Potter's Field". The New York Times. Retrieved 2013-08-25. 
  45. ^ Blotcher, Jay (November 30, 2011). "The Art of the Forgotten". The Art of the Forgotten. Retrieved 2013-08-25. 
  46. ^ Rojas, Marcela (November 12, 2011). "Peekskill artist helps families find those buried at Hart Island". The Journal News. Retrieved 2013-08-25. 
  47. ^ http://www.springfieldspringfield.co.uk/view_episode_scripts.php?tv-show=law-and-order-special-victims-unit&episode=s06e10

Further reading[edit]