Friday, May 30, 2014

Island of Death

Off the east coast of the Bronx, in the middle of Long Island Sound, lies the mile-long Hart Island. It is estimated that one million bodies have been buried on the forbidden island since 1869. Not your typical cemetery, Hart Island specializes in the burials of still-born babies, homeless, poor, and unclaimed bodies, stacked one upon the other in a mass grave. As if the Bronx couldn't get scarier, the island was used throughout the centuries for a multitude of other macabre purposes.

Image source: Wikipedia


The "Island of Death" was used as a prison for captured Confederate soldiers, mental asylum, Cold War missile base, tuberculosis sanatorium, boys' reformatory, quarantine for the 1870 yellow fever epidemic, and housed disciplinary barracks for Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine personnel.

The 101-acre cemetery on Hart Island began at the end of the Civil War and is one of the largest cemeteries in the United States. The graves are anonymous and only small white posts in the ground mark every 150 adult bodies. Nearly 1,000 children and infants are buried together in each grave except the first pediatric AIDS victim to die in NYC, whom occupies the only single grave on the island. The departed whose families couldn't afford the expense of a funeral or who were unclaimed by relatives make up a majority of the bodies buried in the cemetery, with half being children who died in NYC hospitals. Families would simply sign their loved one to be given a "city burial" unbeknownst they would end up on scary island.

Image source: CNN


Visitation to the island is forbidden and filming or photographing the island is off limits. The families of the deceased may only visit if given authorization by the Department of Corrections. Even then, finding a specific grave is nearly impossible and parts of the cemetery are always off limits, as the convict gravediggers from nearby Rikers Island are working diligently, carrying the 1,500 new bodies that arrive each year to their graves. The records of who is buried on the island are poor, and within the last few years bills have been enacted to enforce the Department of Corrections to post its database of burials and visitation policy online.

Image source: Untapped Cities


There are remnants of Hart Island's past still standing. Although none of the Civil War buildings are still intact, the women's insane asylum (constructed in 1885) and the Phoenix House drug rehabilitation facility (which closed its doors in 1976) remain. The dilapidated wooden houses of the Boys' workhouse, an extension of a nearby prison (which date back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries), are in the process of being torn down for additional cemetery space.

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