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NYC's Hart Island: The past and future of the nation's largest mass burial ground

It took 36 years for Elaine Joseph to reunite with her daughter.

Over the years, she searched fruitlessly for the baby girl she had given birth to in a New York City hospital in 1978 but who had lived for only five days.

The girl’s body had been taken by the city to what she was told was a public burial site that she’d be able to visit. But Joseph could never learn where it was located. It took decades before she learned that her baby girl’s body had been taken to Hart Island, a 100-acre slab of hook-shaped land off the Bronx that serves as the city’s potter’s field: the resting place for nearly a million indigent souls as well as stillborn babies.

Like most New Yorkers, Joseph had never heard of the place, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Department of Correction. And she quickly learned the island was largely closed off to anyone but a few — though that may change soon as city lawmakers consider whether to transfer jurisdiction of the island from jail officials to the Parks Department so that it can be opened to the wider public.

An emotional reunion

With the help of Melinda Hunt of the
Photo Credit: Melinda Hunt / The Hart Island Project

With the help of Melinda Hunt of the Hart Island Project, which advocates for opening up the island to the public, Joseph was finally able to identify where her baby was located and to press for the right to visit by threatening to sue jails officials who control access.

They relented, and in March 2014, on a bitter cold day, she boarded a ferry at City Island meant only for the dead, inmates and jail officials, for the journey to Hart Island. Refusing transport in a van, she walked from the pier, following a dirt path past crumbling buildings to a desolate, unkempt field where a lone bouquet of flowers wrapped in purple tissue paper stood near a dirt path.

Joseph said she had promised herself she would not break down. She was not going to cry. But when she saw those flowers, she lost it. Her son was with her, and the two held onto each other in the blustery cold, a gray field of mass graves sprawled before her.

"Here you are," she said to the place where her baby lay. "Finally, I found you."

An uncertain future

Though Joseph was finally reunited with her child,
Photo Credit: Getty / AFP / Don Emmert

Though Joseph was finally reunited with her child, there are many more people who have been denied the chance to do the same -- or don't even know the island exists. But that may change soon.

A movement to open up the island to the wider public has gained traction in recent months among elected officials. In January, members of the City Council, which is considering legislation that would transfer the island's oversight to the Parks Department, visited on a guided tour.

Councilman Mark Levine, the parks committee chair, said he came away from the experience "feeling that it's a place that more New Yorkers should be able to visit."

"You could easily conceive of a visitation schedule perhaps only on the weekends," he said. "That's not incompatible with it remaining an active burial site."

A spokesperson for the Department of Correction said that the agency has "administered the city cemetery for more than a century and considers this a solemn responsibility." In recent years, the DOC has allowed "regular monthly visits" for family members to visit a "specially designated space within the cemetery."

But the DOC says the island lacks the infrastructure for larger numbers of people. However, it is actively searching to meet the request of relatives seeking greater access to the island.

If the city were to open the island to a wider number of New Yorkers, they would find a rich trove of history that is marked by memorials, decaying buildings and even abandoned missile sites. And, of course, it would mean many more reunions.

A look back

Hart Island was not the city's first potter's
Photo Credit: © 1992 Joel Sternfeld / The Hart Island Project

Hart Island was not the city's first potter's field. Public cemeteries existed at Washington Square, Bryant Park, Ward's Island and other sites.

In 1868, the city's Department of Charities and Correction bought the island for $75,000 to initially establish a school for "destitute boys," as The New York Times reported. The following year, part of the island began to serve as a potter's field, with inmates from the jails serving as workers.

The first person to be buried there was a 24-year-old woman named Louisa Van Slyke, whose life would have remained relatively anonymous if not for this fact. An orphan, she died at the Charity Hospital at Blackwell Island (what is now Roosevelt Island).

Since her burial, the potter's field has been in almost continuous use, with graves initially dug on the northern side of the island (about 60 acres). As space has filled up, the graves have moved southward.

Based on current records, about a million people are buried on the island. The Department of Correction operates and oversees the potter's field to this day.

Today, burials are scheduled Tuesday through Friday. Separate mass graves are dug for adults and for babies. About 150 adults fit into a mass grave; about 1,000 babies.

An island of many uses

Over the decades, the city has sought to
Photo Credit: © 2004 Melinda Hunt / The Hart Island Project

Over the decades, the city has sought to find other uses for the island, establishing an industrial school, a lunatic asylum, an almshouse and a school for traffic violators. In 1925, a developer sought but failed to build an amusement park on the island for Harlem blacks who were prohibited from going to the "whites-only" amusement parks in Rye and Dobbs Ferry.

During World War II, the city opened a disciplinary barracks on the island, and following the war, jails officials sited a workhouse there for inmates.

Several structures were built on the island, many of them in a state of advanced decay.

Rarely seen memorials

The island is also home to unique memorials,
Photo Credit: © 2004 Melinda Hunt / The Hart Island Project

The island is also home to unique memorials, such as an obelisk built to commemorate indigent Civil War veterans who had been buried in a special section of the island. While all the remains of the soldiers were either moved to Old West Farms Cemetery in the Bronx in 1916 or Cypress Hills National Cemetery in 1941, the 14-foot-tall monument remains.

Cold War remnants

In the 1950s, at the height of the
Photo Credit: © 1992 Joel Sternfeld / The Hart Island Project

In the 1950s, at the height of the Cold War, the U.S. Navy sited bases on the island for its Nike supersonic anti-aircraft missile systems. Stored underground and transported on rails, they were intended to defend against bombers. But after about six years on the island, the Navy removed the missiles, leaving behind the remains of the bases.

Memories of Ebbets Field

In the 1960s, a workhouse ball field was
Photo Credit: © 1991 Joel Sternfeld / The Hart Island Project

In the 1960s, a workhouse ball field was outfitted from salvaged bleachers from Brooklyn's Ebbets Field before it was demolished. According to The New York Times, some 2,200 bleachers found their way there; the bleachers fell into disrepair over the years. Some were salvaged and given to former Brooklyn Dodger players, or to honor a long-serving correction officer, the Times said.

Reminders of the AIDS epidemic

At the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in
Photo Credit: © 1992 Joel Sternfeld / The Hart Island Project

At the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, the city began to bury unclaimed victims of the virus in a 4-acre section of the southern end of the island. According to a 1985 report from the New York City Department of Sanitation, 16 AIDS victims were buried 14 feet underground at this remote location.

"This area, in our opinion, should be closed off from use until there are soil samples and test borings taken of the surrounding area," the author of the report stated.

Hunt said she visited the section in 1992 and photographed what corrections officials said was a marker of the first child AIDS victim buried on the island.

Further records of these grave sites have not been made available to the public, if they do exist, Hunt has said.

The Department of Correction could not confirm any of these details.

A place of reflection

In 2006, with increased calls to open up
Photo Credit: © 2010 Melinda Hunt / The Hart Island Project

In 2006, with increased calls to open up the island to visits, the Department of Correction constructed a gazebo as a reflective spot set aside for relatives and others who wanted to visit the island. Advocates for more access to the island say the gazebo is far from any of the gravesites, making it impossible for people to commemorate the dead where they are buried.

Melinda Hunt of The Hart Island Project, which has recently launched the Traveling Cloud Museum where people can search online through public records and locate burial sites using GPS, said visiting the actual gravesites was critical to human history.

"It's probably the beginning of human history, returning to a gravesite and telling the stories of the people who came before you," she said.


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