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Hart Island: The Little Known Place Where NYC’s Nameless & Penniless are Buried

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Some of Hart Island’s dilapidated buildings from it’s very disturbing past. Photo from The Kingston Lounge.

BY HANNAH HARKNESS

Why the hell don’t more New Yorkers know about Hart Island?

There is an island off the coast of the Bronx that currently serves as NYC’s potter’s field-a site where unclaimed dead are buried. There are over a million bodies buried here. Some unclaimed dead such as homeless, Jane/John Does, or people without immediate family. Some are victims of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980’s that were isolated for fear of contamination, including the first infant who died of AIDS, who is buried in a separate grave marked “SC-B1 1985” (special child baby 1, 1985).

Many are relatives of families who could not afford to bury their dead and signed off on a “city burial”. There are countless stories of people who did not know that this meant they would be sent to an island with limited public access either as a result of lack of information or in many cases, a significant language barrier. Many are buried here simply due to clerical errors and records mismanagement at city morgues. As many as 1,100 bodies buried here annually are stillborn infants and fetal remains. The island is currently owned by the NYC Department of Corrections and managed by Rikers Island. Rikers inmates bury the dead in 70 foot trenches three graves deep for a whopping 50 cents an hour.

Is this enough of a ghoulish Dickensian horror story yet? Tip of the iceberg: this island was also once the site of a psychiatric hospital, both juvenile and adult prisons, a Civil War POW camp where 205 people died, a tuberculosis ward, a military training ground, NIKE MISSILES during the Cold War, and like the majority of places in America, land that Native Americans were forced off. This place also ALMOST had an amusement park, which means on top of everything else it narrowly missed having clowns and what would have probably been an abandoned amusement park (all according to the Hart Island wikipedia page).

I learned about this island of horror movie tropes before I moved to NYC a year and a half ago and ever since then I have found myself paraphrasing the beginning of this article over and over again in disbelief to tons of people. I felt like something that on paper sounded like a horror script written by a first-year film student would be common knowledge here, but usually the only people that knew what I was talking about were native New Yorkers. Even then, it’s only like one out of five natives I’ve spoken to, and most only knew that it’s a potters field. The fact that it’s owned and operated by Rikers or the history of everything else that used to be there is barely known, at least by the people I talked to. And trust me, I’m the kind of person that brings shit like this up at parties when I should really just be making small talk. The only people I’ve met with full knowledge of what is happening there are residents of the Pelham Bay park area of the Bronx and City Island. NYC transplants? Usually completely clueless.

What the HELL is going on?

I shouldn’t have to have a weird fascination with East Coast islands in order to know about this shark-jumping horror show off the coast of the nerve center of the world, but here we are.

When I got to Hart Island on the list of weird islands, my mind was blown and I immediately went down a horrifying internet rabbit hole. Obviously I am not the first or the fortieth person to to call attention to this in an article. I’m a morbid comedian, not a journalist, and you should google what professional journalists and historians have to say about Hart Island, and even more importantly, the testimonies of the families of the deceased. The most comprehensive resource available is the Hart Island project, founded by Melinda Hunt in 1994. The mission statement on their website is as follows:

The Hart Island Project is a public charity incorporated in 2011. The project maintains an on-line database of people buried between 1980 and present as well as maps of their grave locations.

This database is the foundation for a system of storytelling and visualization called the Traveling Cloud Museum in an attempt to preserve the histories of who is buried for present and future generations. The Hart Island Project advocates for increased transparency of New York City burial procedures and assists individuals in gaining access to actual graves and information.

The charity supports creative projects about Hart Island which serve to restore the identities of the buried or invent new artistic forms inspired by submissions to the Traveling Cloud Museum or other creative works concerning Hart Island. As a direct result of efforts by The Hart Island Project, the New York City Council updated the administrative code for operations on Hart Island requiring the Department of Correction to put their burial records on-line and publish their visitation policy.

The Hart Island Project continues to advocate for graveside visitation rights for families of the buried and for legislation transferring jurisdiction to the Department of Parks and Recreation or a more appropriate city agency to manage public access to City Cemetery.

Two things I want to highlight here: The advocacy they reference for graveside visitation rights is necessary because currently, only two visits occur per month, capped at a limited number of people (one ferry goes out). You have to sign up for the visit through the Department of Corrections right here. One of these is gravesite visits for family members. Remember, these are not individual graves, they are trenches, there’s no way of knowing where specific coffins actually are, just the trench number. The non-graveside visits are restricted to a gazebo on the edge of the end of the island.

Burials on Hart Island | Photo © 1992 Joel Sternfeld/The Hart Island Project

There are also two tours a year for a limited amount of accredited press outlets, these are two hour tours. The scarcity of visits is largely due to the island being managed by Rikers. The same precautions that are taken when someone visits inmates at Rikers are applied to people who visit Hart Island because inmates are present. This includes searches and accompaniment by armed officers…not exactly an amazing mourning environment.

The other thing I want to highlight is the current legislative battle. Bills have been presented that would hand over Hart Island to the Parks Department, but the Parks Department has resisted taking over Hart Island largely because they feel they’re not qualified/do not have the expertise to manage city burials. The Department of Corrections on the other hand, wants to maintain control of the island, as they have since 1868, even though this is against the wishes of the families of the deceased.

Most press outlets in NYC periodically run a story about Hart Island, especially when new legislation is being proposed on how to handle it. There are multiple documentaries and news pieces on YouTube. The NY times even released high-definition drone footage of the island a few years back. And again, you have the Hart Island project which has a collection of infuriating stories of bureaucratic mismanagement and heartbreaking testimonies from families of the deceased. The one that got to me the most was the story of Juan Gabard, originally published in Rapid City Journal. It still makes me choke up every time I read or think about it:

Fifteen years after a Manhattan hospital sent her stillborn baby to New York City’s potter’s field for burial, MJ Adams heard the name Hart Island for the first time.

“MJ and I were reading the paper one Sunday morning last year, as we do, and I looked over and saw she was crying,” said her husband, Walter Albasi. “She handed me the story (about Hart Island) and said “Is this where my baby is?”

Adams, the owner of Rapid City’s Corn Exchange restaurant, was living in New York City and struggling to make ends meet in 1995 when she and her then-husband, Carlos Gabard, learned the full-term baby boy she was carrying had died in utero. Devastated by grief and seeking a medical explanation that her doctor couldn’t provide, Adams agreed to an autopsy and was told it would take four to six weeks to get the results. The young couple didn’t have money for a funeral, so they signed paperwork to have the baby buried at public expense in what Adams was told was a “city cemetery.”

“We were so poor. We had a crib and the baby clothes that I’d gotten at a baby shower, but we didn’t have money for a funeral or a mortuary,” she said.

When Adams returned to the hospital six weeks later for a post-partum checkup, she inquired about the results of the autopsy. She learned it was never performed. Her baby had already been buried, she was told. No one – not St. Vincent’s Hospital nor the New York City Office of Vital Records – could ever answer her one, simple question: Where?

Juan Carlos Gabard and his small pine box coffin had vanished into the mass-grave trenches, the sloppy record-keeping and the inaccessible bureaucracy of Hart Island, but Adams would not learn that for another 15 years.

Rikers Island inmates maintaining Hart Island burial grounds | Photo © 2010 Melinda Hunt/The Hart Island Project

The wealth of information available is why I’m so confused that tragedy of Hart Island not more common knowledge. Nobody is actively trying to keep it a secret and yet it continues to sit off the coast of the Bronx largely ignored by NYC residents. At the VERY LEAST, this should be common knowledge among morbid people like any other famously haunted location. Hart Island has to be the most aggressively haunted place on Earth. Yet there are psychiatric hospitals and jails way more nationally famous than a place that housed multiple jails and hospitals, plus five other fucking terrifying things, located on an island of a million skeletons, off the coast of the toughest borough in the city.

While my goal of writing this isn’t to draw a bunch of horror nerd tourists to City Island so they can Instagram Hart Island from across the water (which I did – guilty as charged – but I made sure to blow a lot of money at local businesses and not be annoying), I’m willing to take that risk if it means that maybe more eyes will be on the problems it’s currently having. This is likely to be one of a million articles about Hart Island buried under the public consciousness, but hopefully one day there will be a breaking point and the families of the deceased will finally have the visitation rights they deserve, and prisoners will no longer have the physically and emotionally taxing job of burying the dead for $4 per 8 hour shift. This horror movie needs to end.

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Hannah Harkness

Hannah Harkness

Hannah Harkness is a stand up comedian, writer, and neo vaudeville human surviving in Brooklyn, NY.