The exact number of islands in New York City varies depending on the methodology one uses. Sharon Seitz and Stuart Miller’s definitive tome on the subject counted 42 in total; others have arrived at slightly different figures. But almost all of the city’s islands — however many there are — are of little consequence to most New Yorkers. Many are unpopulated, and most are shrouded in mystery, guarded furiously by officials to prevent trespassing and vandalism. They have been enigmatic for as long as there has been a New York City; back in November 1880, the New York Times quipped that New Yorkers “know less, usually, about their own little islands than they know about any other inhabited part of the world.”
To the extent that it has been the subject of a certain morbid curiosity among some New Yorkers, Hart Island is among the more infamous of the city’s islands. From the time the city’s since-dissolved Department of Charities and Correction bought it from the family of Edward Hunter in 1868, it has served as a burial ground of last resort for the city’s homeless, stillborn, and other unclaimed dead. Burials have followed a set of protocols that are more or less unchanged from the end of the 19th century, designed to make it easy — in theory if not in practice — for claimants to disinter loved ones and rebury them elsewhere. A reporter from the Times interviewed a foreman at the island in 1878, and recorded this description of the process:
“We put 150 coffins in each grave,” says the foreman. “Each trench is 40 feet long by 14 wide and 6 feet deep. First, we put in two rows of coffins on the bottom, 25 in each row, making a layer of 50 coffins. A little earth is thrown in, just a sprinkling, and then another layer of 50 is made; a little more earth, then 50 more, and the trench is covered up. There is plenty of earth on top. Every coffin has its number burned in the lid, and a record is kept of each one.”
How these poor fellows are numbered to death! A thief goes through the General Sessions as case No. 285, in the Tombs he is No. 42, on Blackwell’s Island he is No. 1,104, in the hospital he is No. 96, and he is buried with another number burned into his coffin-lid. He has no name.
There were many poor fellows then, and there are plenty more now. Amid the surge in coronavirus-related deaths, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio promised that there would be no “mass burials” of victims on Hart Island. Drone footage from the Hart Island Project — a non-profit organization that catalogues the city’s public burials — seems to suggest otherwise. According to the Department of Corrections, which controls the island and uses inmate labor from Rikers Island to conduct burials on Hart Island, there has been a 96 percent increase in the number of interments there in the first three months of 2020. The city’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner told Reuters that while it hopes the situation doesn’t devolve to a point where this would be necessary, it is prepared to conduct mass burials on the island if city morgues begin to overflow. The city has even hired contract laborers to perform Hart Island interments instead of the Rikers inmates for “social distancing and safety reasons,” according to a DOC spokesman.
Such chaos reveals that while much on the island has changed, the simultaneously slapdash and calculated way in which the city buries its unclaimed dead remains more or less the same as ever.
“This is where the rough pine boxes go that come from Blackwell’s Island,” the Times wrote of Hart Island in 1880. The paper called the island “the Green-Wood of the Five Points,” in a tongue-in-cheek reference to the comparatively upscale Brooklyn cemetery. The “potter’s field,” as it came to be known, was not alone on the 103-acre island: Hart was home to an almshouse, an asylum, and an industrial school, according to the Times. Teachers in the school allowed students a “half-holiday on Saturday afternoons” to “go out and play among the graves,” in a ritual of the morbid marriage between the living and the dead that would characterize the island until the middle of the 20th century.
When the Department of Charities and Correction purchased the island in 1868, its proximate aim was to build a workhouse for the older boys at the so-called “House of Refuge” on Randall’s Island, a juvenile “reform school” that won the plaudits of such varied luminaries as Alexis de Tocqueville and Charles Dickens. Two years later, a quarantine site was erected on the island to segregate patients infected by Yellow Fever. An asylum for women called “The Pavilion” was opened in 1885; its original stone sign remains atop the Roman arch of the crumbling Pavilion building, which would later be repurposed for Phoenix House, a drug-rehabilitation facility that, when it closed its Hart Island location in 1975, was the last vestige of life on New York’s island of the dead.
The towering brick façades that dot the island are an unintentional monument to the various institutions that once housed its temporary inhabitants. But it is Hart Island’s permanent inhabitants that are the isle’s lasting legacy. Not long after the workhouse was built in 1868, the public burials began. In 1869, the city started ferrying inmates from the penitentiary on Blackwell’s Island to Hart Island alongside the unclaimed deceased from Bellevue Hospital. On April 20th of that year, 24-year-old Louisa Van Slyke, who had died at Charity Hospital on nearby Roosevelt Island, became the first person interred on Hart Island. A priest who consecrated the ground that day reportedly read the following passage aloud from St. Matthew’s Gospel:
Then Judas, who betrayed him, seeing that he was condemned, repenting himself, brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and ancients, Saying: I have sinned in betraying innocent blood. But they said: What is that to us? look thou to it. And casting down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed: and went and hanged himself with an halter.
But the chief priests having taken the pieces of silver, said: It is not lawful to put them into the corbona, because it is the price of blood. And after they had consulted together, they bought with them the potter’s field, to be a burying place for strangers.
The burial ground at Hart Island was thereafter called “Potter’s Field.” A headstone, enveloped by moss and overgrown shrubbery, remains on the island. It reads:
THE CITY OF NEW YORK
Blessed are the poor
In spirit . . . For theirs is
The Kingdom of Heaven
Peace I leave to you,
My peace I give to you.
Has His own purposes
He must have loved them
He made so many of them
Cry not for us
For we are with the Father
No longer do we cast shadows
On the ground as you do
We are at peace.
Another monument, erected in 1948, was built by prisoners detained in New York’s Hart Island Workhouse. The shaft of the monument rose about 30 feet vertically, and sat atop a square, seven-foot base. “Peace” was written in gold lettering on the north side of the shaft, and Christ’s words to Martha outside the tomb of Lazarus — I am the Resurrection and the Life — were inscribed on its southern face. A priest in attendance remarked that while it “is customary to raise monuments to the famous,” New York “can claim the unique honor of raising a monument to the city’s unknown.”
The shaft remains on the island to this day, and the number of those it honors grows by the hour.