Last week we uncovered some of New York City’s former cemeteries that are now populated with park-goers and hotel residents. This week, we’re taking a closer look at a cemetery that rarely receives any visitors. Located in the western Long Island Sound, Hart Island lies in close proximity to the Bronx–yet it is often unheard and unspoken of. As reported by Narratively, the island doesn’t appear on the MTA Subway Map or the Department of Transportation’s bicycle map. The 101-acre island serves as a separate burial ground, the city’s last potter’s field, for those who are either unclaimed or whose families couldn’t afford a funeral. The island is uninhabited today, but more than 1,000,000 dead have been buried there since 1869, making it the largest tax-funded cemetery in the world.

Even so, there are some “notable” people buried at Hart Island, discovered after. Bobby Driscoll, the Disney child actor is buried there. He was the voice of Peter Pan in the animated film and stared in Disney’s Song of the South. He died unknown, thought to be homeless, so was taken here. The grave of the first child to die of AIDS is also on Hart Island.

The history of Hart Island dates back to the mid-1800s, and reveals an intriguing past that extends far beyond the island’s current purpose as a public burial ground. Like North Brother Island and Rikers Island, Hart Island was often associated with society’s “unwanted.” The strip of land was first used as a prison camp for Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. After the war, New York City purchased the island in 1869 and began using it as a cemetery; right after the first civilian burial of Louisa Van Slyke took place. From the time of the Civil War until World War II, other uses for the island included:

  • A prison workhouse for delinquent boys
  • A women’s insane asylum
  • An isolation zone during the yellow fever epidemic
  • A old men’s home
  • A tuberculosis hospital
  • A reformatory

Photographer Jacob Riis chose Hart Island for his very first photograph, in 1891 and described the place in his famous book, How The Other Half LivesAt the time, he estimated that one in ten New Yorkers were buried on Hart Island. On the 100th Anniversary of Riis’ first photograph, Melinda Hunt of The Hart Island Project and photographer Joel Sternfeld photographed the island using the same 8×10 format Riis used. At the time, Hart Island was used as an overflow facility for Rikers Island and inmates performed daily burials in the morning.

During World World War II, Hart Island was handed over to the Navy to use as disciplinary barracks, but soon after it was returned to the Department of Correction in 1946 after the war ended. The reformatory prison system resumed activity until the island was transformed into a site for a narcotics rehabilitation center in 1966. This lasted until 1976, by which the Community Mental Health Centers Act had replaced a large number of institutions with less isolated community clinics. The Department of Correction took control of Hart Island once again, and made a final attempt to operate a small prisoner contingent in 1982 until the program was terminated due to the lack of convicts.

From the 1990’s until now, Hart Island is an area purely dedicated to burials. Inmates from Rikers Island are ferried over on weekdays to perform the burials, disinterments and maintenance tasks. Every year, an average of 2000 burials are conducted, and about one third of them are infants and stillborn babies. Despite the island being a public burial ground, the Department of Correction has prohibited people from accessing Hart Island, with the exception of family members of those buried in the cemetery. But even so, families of the deceased are overwhelmed with red tape when attempting to arrange a visit.

According to Melinda Hunt of The Hart Island Project, New York City is the only municipality that demands people to provide a death certificate before visiting the public cemetery. Visits are limited to one day a month, there’s no map of the burials, and no one is permitted to visit a specific grave. The Hart Island Project is a non-profit dedicated making Hart Island visible and accessible, “so that no one is omitted from history.”

In late 2012, the City Council was met with Intro848, a bill that would make Hart Island a more open and accessible place by placing it under the jurisdiction of the Parks Department. However, the council has not taken up the bill yet.

The Hart Island Project has an archive of photos, including vintage ones by Jacob Riis,

For more information and photos, check out The Hart Island Project. Melinda Hunt will be giving a talk at the Museum of the City of New York on Wednesday about Hart Island. The Kingston Lounge is a blog on historic modern ruins by historian and photographer Ian Ference, click here for more photos. 

12 thoughts on “Abandoned Hart Island: New York City’s Mass Burial Ground

  1. Hello. A newborn sibling of mine was buried on Hart Island in 1953 – Series 1, plot 10B, grave 618. Apparently plots this old were bulldozed and reused for new graves. Could someone tell me where this grave was located on the island? I couldn’t find any old grave mapping for plot 10B, Series 1, etc., and the newer maps don’t show it. Thank you.

  2. I was researching the location of my great uncles burial plot on Hart’s Island. I found that he was listed as deceased on 2/1/1975 and the location of 84-86 Chamber’s Street, New York. Would this be the plot location of his burial? I would like to find out if there is anything I can do to claim his remains and bring them home for a proper burial. I don’t have much money but I made a promise to my dad that I would do what I could to bring Cletus home. I have his social security number if that is something that would help locate his remains.

    1. Hello Kelly-Jean, your best bet is to contact the Hart Island Project which can assist you in your search.

  3. I lived there as part of Phoenix house when I was 15 years old from summer of 1972-1974. There were about 15-20 of us teenagers. Al the others were former repeat offenders, who went there instead of back to prison. It was run by all former addicts. You could get straight there, but just about everyone was there returned to their former life. but I moved on. very harrowing experience for a kid. taught me plenty.

  4. My sister, Patricia Ann Veley, stillborn on November 11, 1948 at Lenox Hill Hospital, New York City, NY is buried here at the Manhattan City Cemetery, permit number was 4343. The grave site was Plot 3B, Grave 857.
    Anyone with information on the exact location of her final resting place, please contact me.
    I would like to finance a headstone for her.
    Gerard Veley
    PO Box 116
    Banks, Oregon 97106

    1. Mr. Veley, it doesn’t work that way. I just came back from an annual visit to Hart’s Island where a Catholic Mass is said EVERY Ascension Thursday by a priest from St Mary’s Star of the Sea parish on City Island. If you visit New York City in May, I will see to it that an invitation is sent to you. However, it an active cemetery and we do not visit the gravesites. There are close to 1 million people buried on the island and there is nothing to visit.

      Tom Vasti, vice president of THE EAST BRONX HISTORY FORUM

  5. Hart Island looks like a good setting for a horror film. Now the relatives who did not want to claim the bodies (and incur the expenses of properly burying them) want the city to incur the expense of arranging sightseeing trips for these relatives.
    In a horror film, the unclaimed could rise as zombies and attack and kill these relatives that did not claim them but who are now visiting Hart Island.

  6. My granfather is buried there we presume Philip a Carey B July 25th 1895 Providence RI

  7. My father’s mother died at Creedmore Insane Asylum in Queens. I assume that since no family member acquired her remains, she is buried at Hart Island. Several years ago, Melinda Hunt and I corresponded by email, since I wanted to find any information about my grandmother. Due to the HIPPA laws, the red tape is a road block. So, I hope Mamie Mahon is happy where she is, and that her granddaughter, who is now 70, still thinks about her and wishes that life hadn’t been so terrible for her.

    1. Janice Mahon, what year did she die at Creedmore? And are you positive she did die there? If it was back in the 1930s and 40s, many Creedmore patients were moved upstate to Harlem Valley Hospital, and they had their own burial site on the grounds.

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