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Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Hart Island

By Michael T. Keene

In 1654, a 130 acre island, located at the western end of Long Island Sound, was purchased by English physician Thomas Pell. Upon Pell’s death, in 1666 the land passed to his nephew, John Pell of England. In 1774, his heirs sold it to Oliver Delancey, a Loyalist politician, soldier and merchant during the American Revolution.

In 1775, British naval cartographers chartered what they originally named “Heart Island” because of its general shape, which seemed to resemble a human heart. Other historic reports claim that the island was named after deer, known as "Harts" who roamed the area. The island was the ancestral home of the Siwanoy Indians.

In 1864, as the Civil War gained momentum, construction of barracks began at the southern tip of the island to hold approximately five thousand prisoners of war. The island was also used as a training facility for new soldiers. Between two thousand and three thousand raw recruits were initially expected, but more than fifty thousand men ultimately trained there.

When visitors and family members of the Union recruits came to Hart Island, they were required to get a pass from General Dix’s office on Bleecker Street in Lower Manhattan (Greenwich Village) and had to pay fifty-five cents to board the ferry, John Romer, before it sailed twenty-one miles from the Battery to Hart Island.

Leaving the island was more difficult than landing on it. Visitors were hurried onto their return boat trip as the ferry docked only a half-hour before sailing back to Manhattan. Once travelers accomplished this part of their trip, they would board a tugboat to New Rochelle and hire a rickety carriage at twenty cents per person to take them to the designated railway station in Manhattan. The railway charged fifty-five cents for the next part of the trip to the Twenty-Seventh Street station, which was the last stop.

From here, weary riders would disperse before finally reaching their homes. Any leftover enjoyment from a day spent on Hart Island was soon overshadowed by fatigue and empty pockets. Many soldiers who occupied the island during wartime died in the line of duty, but many also died from diseases. They were buried on Hart Island.

In 1868, the City of New York, under the auspices of the Department of Public Charities and Correction, purchased Hart Island from the John Hunter family for $75,000. Since then, Hart island has been used, besides the aforementioned Union Civil War prison camp, as a psychiatric institution, tuberculosis sanitorium, homeless shelter, boys reformatory, a jail, drug rehabilitation center, and incredibly, during the Cold Way, as a Nike missile base.

In 1869, forty-five acres at the northern end of the island were designated as a cemetery for the poor and the unclaimed. A 24-year old woman named Louisa Van Slyke, who died in Charity Hospital, was the first person interred in what would become known as New York City's"Potters Field".

150 Years Later

In April 2018, an official from the Department of Corrections alerted a well-known Hart Island activist to skeletal remains that had been seen scattered on the beach—some even protruding from the shoreline! After arranging a boat, the activist and a Newsday reporter set out that very day to see for themselves. They photographed and confirmed the sighting.

The following day, a forensic anthropologist from the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner conducted an investigation that resulted in the recovery of 174 human bones, including six skulls.

The remains discovered that day unearthed a secret kept hidden for more than 150 years. Lying beneath the ground of this almost forgotten tiny island were the remains of nearly one million people, buried in wide, deep pits dug by convicts from nearby Rikers Island.

The dead included stillborn babies, unclaimed paupers, Union and Confederate soldiers, the insane, the addicted and the unidentified. The bones would reveal tales of war, abuse, fraud, epidemic, and mental illness, which would tell stories of NewYork’s most forgotten people.

After nearly a century and a half, as the result of recent advances in DNA and fingerprint technology, forensic anthropology, and access to previously withheld burial records, we now have identified some of these anonymous lost souls and are able to finally reveal the hidden history of Hart Island—America’s largest mass graveyard.

Introduction to: New York City's Hart Island: A Cemetery of Strangers, by Michael T Keene, The History Press, 2019. ISBN:9781467144049

About the author: Michael is the author of eight books. He is also the producer of the documentary film Visions: True Stories of Spiritualism, Secret Societies, and Murder, as well as eight audiobooks.

Although employed for more than twenty-five years as a financial advisor, Michael has combined his interest in local history, writing, music, and filmmaking to explore unique and fascinating chapters of nineteenth-century New York folklore and stranger-than-life legends.

His books and videos can be found at

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