When New York City purchased Hart Island––a small island at the western end of Long Island Sound––in early 1869, it had already functioned as a prisoner-of-war camp for Confederate soldiers. Since then, the island has had an increasingly disturbing history. Perhaps its creepiest use: housing the Hart’s Island Lunatic Asylum in the late 19th century.
Hart Island is no stranger to society’s outcasts. At various points in time, the island has housed a prison workhouse for juvenile delinquents, a tuberculosis hospital, a missile base, a quarantine zone during the yellow fever epidemic, and the largest tax-funded cemetery in the world. Many of these uses left few visible traces.
But unlike some of Hart Island’s former purposes, the asylum’s crumbling ruins still remain on the island as the “Pavilion building.” The building––most recently transformed into the 1960s Phoenix House narcotics rehabilitation center before it was closed in 1976––was built in 1885 to handle human overflow from other places in New York, much like the Hart Island potter’s field was for burying the unknown.
When the Blackwell Island Insane Asylum (subject of Nellie Bly’s notorious exposé, Ten Days in a Madhouse, and still visible in part on what is now called Roosevelt Island) became overcrowded to the point where it necessitated action, the women who could not fit were shipped to the gender-specific asylum on Hart Island. This asylum generally took only chronic cases. Interestingly, mentally disturbed men were considered insane, whereas women of similar afflictions garnered the title of lunatic––thus, the Hart’s Island Lunatic Asylum.
The building’s later purpose as an incarnation of Phoenix House is no less unsettling. As part of their “occupational therapy,” Phoenix House residents worked on making leather shoes, which still litter the Pavilion’s lawn and pile up in abandoned heaps on the building’s second floor.
Those who want to visit the eerie remnants of the asylum will have a hard time doing so: Citizens must contact the prison system to visit Hart Island at all, and visits are limited to a small gazebo with burial records near the ferry dock every third Thursday of the month, according to the Department of Correction.
However, the Hart Island Project helps individuals with family members buried on the Island track down loved ones and negotiate visits. Their next event, an exhibition and lecture by Melinda Hunt, will take place at 5 PM on November 14th at the Chappaqua Public Library in Westchester.