Hart Island, NY – A Real Life Island of the Dead

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I watched a creepy film recently called “Island of the Dead”.  The film was average, but I was surprised to learn that the subject matter – Hart Island – is a real place, far spookier than the movie, where over 800,000 bodies – adults and infants, and even dismembered body parts, are buried.hartisland11

Warden's House

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Hart Island is a 101-acre desolate and grim-looking slip of land in the western Long Island Sound that functions as a landfill for human bodies.  In 1869 it was established as the New York City’s public cemetery for the burial of those persons who died indigent or whose bodies went unclaimed, also referred to as a potter’s field –a biblical reference to a burial place for the unknown or misfortunate.  Given the photos, it is not a warm and welcoming place – quite the contrary, it looks cold and menacing and dismal and scary, not a shock given its tragic history.

In addition to being a potter’s field, Hart Island has been home to:

* A prison for Confederate soldiers

* An isolation zone during a yellow fever epidemic

* A women’s tuberculosis hospital

* An insane asylum

* An old men’s home

* A young men’s reformatory

* A WWII Navy disciplinary barracks

* A narcotic rehabilitation centre

Today Hart Island is overseen by the Department of Corrections, which ferries over inmates from nearby Riker’s Island to perform the mass burials and occasional disinterment that take place on the island. More than 800,000 dead are buried there—approximately 2,000 a year—one third of them infants and stillborn.  According to the Department of Correction, in 2005 there were 1,419 burials on Hart Island: 826 were of adults, 546 were of infants or stillborn, and 47 were of dismembered body parts.

The dead are buried in trenches. There are no maps of the graves.  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 priced according to size, and are stacked three coffins high and two coffins across.  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”.

If you are interested, the following sites have more detailed information and photographs of the island.

The Hart Island Project

The Department of Correction – Hart Island

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