Hart Island

It’s an island off the Bronx in New York City, not far from where I grew up. It’s not very big. Roughly a mile long by a third of a mile wide. Exact acreage is argued: some say its 101 acres and other claim its 131 acres.

I put this map together while researching Hart Island for my book, Hell of a Town.

It’s adjacent to City Island, a small enclave of the Bronx. There is no bridge to Hart Island and no power. A ferry runs from City Island to Hart Island. It’s near Orchard Beach which my family used to visit, and also Pelham Bay Park.

Hart Island was originally occupied by Native Americans of the Siwanoy Tribe. It was purchased by an English physician, Thomas Pell, in 1654, as part of a larger land deal. The island remained in that family for 120 years. In 1774 it was sold several times to a variety of families. There are some records that illegal bare-knuckle fights were held on the island with thousands attending and betting on the outcomes.

The first official use of the island came in 1864 when it was used to train “colored” troops of the 31st Infantry Regiment. Eventually, over 50,000 troopers were trained there.

The island transitioned from training troops to housing Confederate prisoners in November of 1864. 3,413 rebels were held there. 235 died. Interestingly, they were buried in Cypress Hills Cemetery, off-island.

The first recorded burials on the island were indigent Union soldiers during the Civil War. In 1868, New York City bought the island for $75,000. The city began burying the indigent and unclaimed soon after. The first person recorded as buried in the 45 acre plot was Louisa Van Slyke, who had died in Charity Hospital.

Hart Island’s “Potter’s Field” replaced two earlier graveyards the city had been using. Those were located in what are now Washington Square Park and where the main branch of the New York Public Library is located. There are numerous former burial all over New York City, lost in time, including the African Burial Ground, covered in another article.

Frankly, researching these books in the Will Kane series, you don’t want to know how many bodies lie under New York City. In an earlier book I referenced the African Burial ground north of Wall Street. This was because it was forbidden by law for Africans to be buried inside city limits which was then Wall Street, which literally was a wall protecting the city. There is a monument to the African Burial Ground at 290 Broadway.

By 1958 over a half million people had been buried on Hart Island. Other parts of the island were used for different things over the years. A quarantine during the 1870 Yellow Fever Epidemic. A women’s psychiatric hospital. A school for troubled boys. A prison.

An entrepreneur in 1924 proposed building an amusement park in a small tract of land on the island for African-Americans since they were not allowed at Rye Playland or Dobbs Ferry Parks. The city nixed that due to the proximity to prisoners.

In 1956 the military got back in on the act and stationed a battery of Nike Missiles on the island to protect New York City. The launch pads are still there.

The island was closed as a prison in 1966. A drug rehab center, Phoenix House, opened. It closed in 1977 after regular ferry service to the island ceased.

Hart Island primarily became a potters field. In 1985, sixteen bodies infected with HIV were buried on the southern end of the body, away from the other bodies because it was feared even the dead bodies could infect others.

Adults bodies are buried in trenches, the wooden coffins stacked three deep in two rows, totaling 150 per section.

Children and infants are stacked five deep and in rows of twenty with one thousand per section.

Bodies are buried by prisoners from Riker’s Island. Who, despite being on a nearby island, have to be bussed to City Island to take the ferry over. Currently, Hart Island is the largest potter’s field in the United States. It’s estimated over one million people are buried there. Its use has dwindled in the past two decades. Sadly, indigent mothers who lose their baby have signed a paper for a “city burial” not understanding it means Hart Island.

Some who are buried there that we know: Academy Award Winner Bobby Driscoll. T-Bone Slim. Novelist Dawn Powell. And many whose names are lost to history.

Hart Island is now entering a new chapter with the COVID-19 virus. Let us hope it is a brief and short one. Stay safe!

New York City. 1970s. Jack Reacher meets the Equalizer by NY Times Bestselling Author, West Point graduate and former Green Beret One of the top five new series of the year. https://bobmayer.com/fiction/

A free slideshow on this topic and many others about interesting history, survival, writing and other topics is on my web site at www.bobmayer.com/workshops