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New York's Spooky Island of the Dead

New York City is home to many famous places: Broadway. Times Square. Central Park. The Statue of Liberty. The Empire State Building. Wherever you are in the world, you've probably heard of these big-name attractions, located only in The Big Apple.

What you probably haven’t heard about are the 1,000,000 bodies located just offshore.

Yes, bodies. On Hart Island, a small plot of land in the Long Island Sound, approximately one million people are buried in a potter’s field. The lonely island has a long, eerie history that stretches into the present... where the freshly dead are still buried in open graves.

  Hart Island, New York.

Hart Island, New York.

  Hart Island satellite image.

Hart Island satellite image.

Hart Island’s history began during the Civil War, when the island - only a mile long and a quarter mile wide - was used as a prisoner-of-war camp. Over 3,000 Confederate soldiers were held there for four months in 1865; 235 of them died and were buried there, marking the island’s beginning as a massive gravesite.

Over the following decades, Hart Island became a place to isolate outcasts of society. In 1870, the island was used to quarantine patients during a yellow fever epidemic. In the late 19th century, it was the site of a women's lunatic asylum. Well into the 20th century, the facilities also functioned as a tuberculosis hospital, a workhouse for delinquent boys, a prison again, and a drug rehabilitation center. The island was even briefly a missile base - all the while amassing the bodies of men, women, and children in its public potter's field.

  Hart Island burial, 1890.

Hart Island burial, 1890.

Along with the Civil War soldiers buried there, the dead of Hart Island are primarily the remains of the destitute, the unidentified, and the stillborn; even dismembered body parts have been disposed of in the mass graves. Called “City Cemetery,” the graves of Hart Island make up the largest tax-funded cemetery in the world. On a weekly basis, the bodies, in plain pine boxes, are stacked three high and 25 across in trenches. The process, carried out by inmates of nearby Rikers Island prison, is unceremonious, straightforward, and stoic.

For a long time, the burial sites were even reused: after 25 to 50 years of being buried (long enough to sufficiently decay) new bodies were interred on top of the old, crumbling ones. In 1977, vandals started a fire on Hart Island that destroyed most of its burial records to date, sadly eliminating the only remaining proof of existence for many of the deceased.

Also adding to its grim history are the deaths of four teenagers who drowned when they attempted to sneak onto the island. Only one body was ever found, washed up on the Hart Island shore.

  Women's lunatic asylum on Hart Island.

Women's lunatic asylum on Hart Island.

Even though burials continue to occur each week, access to eerie Hart Island is very restricted. The public can only venture to the island by boat, once a month, and can go no further than a memorial and waiting gazebo at the dock. For those who have family buried on the island, a monthly visit is permitted to the burial site, but they must be accompanied by a member of the Department of Corrections. No public photographs are allowed, and paperwork to visit must be filed well in advance. Part of the restriction is a safety issue, as Hart Island is now a ruin of abandoned buildings from its previous incarnations. Among the structures are rusted hospital beds, old documents, discarded shoes, and empty caskets, creepy remnants of the island's long history. But it could be supposed that the restriction is also to ensure that the island graveyard, where so many unclaimed and unwanted have been laid to uneasy rest, stays out of the public eye. 

  Mass graves, 1992.

Mass graves, 1992.

Despite its spooky history and mass corpses, a formal paranormal investigation has never been conducted on Hart Island. It is the belief of paranormal investigators that souls of the dead are undoubtedly trapped on the island, as witnesses and inmates who have been there have reported hearing the whispering of voices - many of them children - and the feeling of being watched. Hart Island has even made it onto lists of the nation’s “Most Haunted Islands.” But with so much difficulty accessing the site, it may never really be known how many of the dead still “live” on Hart Island.

  Bones eroding from the earth on Hart Island.

Bones eroding from the earth on Hart Island.

Recently, however, it has been made known that the Hart Island dead are rising, in a very literal sense! After enduring years of storms, Hart Island is eroding. As the shoreline deteriorates, skeletons in the mass graves are being unearthed. Some of the bones are collected and reburied as they wash down the beaches, but still others are carried out to open ocean. Miranda Hunt of the Hart Island Project has revealed, “Entire skeletons are sort of falling out of the hill onto the beach, and then they're washed away with the tide.” The problem is so significant that the area of erosion has even become known as "bones beach." The rising skeleton situation has been ongoing since the 1990s, but only lately have efforts been made to stabilize the surfacing bones. The city is finally in the process of repairing the damage, but those repairs aren't scheduled to begin until sometime in 2019, giving ample time for many more displaced remains to simply wash away.

With its creepy past and gloomy present, it’s no wonder that Hart Island is not usually mentioned along with New York City’s famous landmarks. Indeed, there are actually a number of eerie New York islands that are kept quiet from the public, including similarly spooky North Brother Island - the strip of land where Typhoid Mary met her demise and New York saw its biggest loss-of-life disaster prior to 9/11. After over a century and a half of death and more than one million corpses, Hart Island is well-deserving of the title, “Island of the Dead.”

For more stories, facts, and photos of Hart Island, check out "Buried from the Public: Hart Island, New York" on Sometimes Interesting.

  Hart Island burial trench.

Hart Island burial trench.