Hart Island, a Potter’s Field where New York City’s Poor and Unclaimed Dead are Buried

This sounds more like a Charles Dickens novel than it does about a 21st century news story. It seems that millions of formerly impoverished but now deceased citizens, along with many whose bodies were unclaimed by family, are buried in Hart Island. The 101-acre sliver of land in the waters far, far north of the Manhattan is the final resting place of more than an estimated 750,000 deceased persons. Hart Island is not open to the public.

Most of the graves are unmarked. The records of the coffin row-and-column placement are kept between five and 10 years, depending upon the effect of plot soil conditions on attempted disinternments. When disinternment attempts are no longer practical and appropriate, those plot burial records are turned over to the Municipal Archives.

The region’s hurricanes and nor’easters have scoured the island for years, disinterring remains across an area that Department of Corrections officials call “bones beach.” As a result, the city has finally promised to fast-track a $13 million restoration of the shoreline, and to send out archeologists for monthly surveys.

Hart Island is maintained by the New York City Department of Correction. Prison inmates are bused from Rikers Island and ferried from City Island on weekdays to perform the burials, disinterments and maintenance tasks. The Island is 101 acres, measuring approximately one mile long and one-eighth to one-third of a mile wide.

Hart Island has had a long and varied history. In 1865, as the Civil War was ending, the Federal government used the Island as a prison camp for Confederate soldiers. Burials of impoverished and unclaimed persons started in 1869. In the following years, the island was always a cemetery but also had a hospital during a yellow fever epidemic, a charity hospital for women, an insane asylum, an old men’s home, a tuberculosis hospital for women and a jail for prisoners who worked on the Potter’s Field burial detail.

During WW II, the Island was turned over to the Navy for use as a disciplinary barracks for Navy, Coast Guard and Marine personnel, with as many as 2,800 servicemen in custody. In fact, probably the closest WWII ever got to the shores of America came when three German soldiers surfaced in a U-Boat near Long Island. They were taken into custody and imprisoned for a time on Hart Island. From 1955 to 1961, the U.S. Army maintained a NIKE missile base on a ten-acre area of the Island.

You can read a lot more about the sad history of Hart Island in the New York City Department of Correction web site at: http://www.correctionhistory.org/html/chronicl/nycdoc/html/hart.html and in JSTOR Daily at: https://daily.jstor.org/burying-nycs-forgotten-dead-at-hart-island as well as at https://sometimes-interesting.com/2014/09/20/buried-from-the-public-hart-island-new-york.

2 Comments

So does the Municipal Archives answer requests from family historians who want to know if ancestors are buried there?

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I think you will find the best information at this website https://www.hartisland.net/about They are a non profit organization dedicated to making Hart Island more accessible.
One of the main problems is that the Island is under the jurisdiction of the Department of Corrections. In 2014 I thought there was bill passed to transfer it to the Parks & Recreation Department, but I don’t know where that stands.
There is a lookup screen at this dept. of corrections website http://a073-hartisland-web.nyc.gov/hartisland/pages/search/search.jsf but I don’t know what period it covers.

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