Day 682: New York’s Island Of Lost Souls

originally published November 12, 2013

A quick test for non-New Yorkers: how many of New York’s islands can you name off the top of your head? Manhattan… Staten… Long… maybe Roosevelt… but don’t forget about Hart’s Island. Hart’s Island is a little-discussed but crucial slab of land in the city’s history. It’s also where’s you’ll find what might be the city’s only mass grave – at least I hope it is. The 80’s were a rough time.

You won’t find the place in the Zagat directory, nor will any of the city’s trademark open-air double-decker buses cruise by and announce it to a swarm of nodding be-cameraed tourists. While every city has its dark history cached beneath its modern edifices, this is a small kernel of New York’s dark present.

Hart’s Island appears to have been destined for an ongoing slot under the carpet of humanity for as long as humanity will be taking residence in the five boroughs. Take a trip way north of Queens and along the easternmost fringe of the Bronx, to where the ground is unstable and the air smells rank. Just be sure to tread lightly – there’ll be a heap of bones beneath your feet.

Some say the island was named because of its heart-like shape, but the ‘e’ was dropped over time. The thing isn’t shaped at all like a heart, so I’m not buying that explanation. It could refer to “hart” being an English word for “stag”, and that the island was once a game preserve. It doesn’t matter – the island’s first assignment was as a prisoner-of-war camp for a few short months near the scrappy end of the Civil War.

Over 3400 Confederate troops called the island home during this time – a fairly dense demand for a chunk of land that’s only about a mile long and a quarter-mile wide. After the war, the New York City Department of Correction has occasionally made use of the facilities as a prison, but that fell out of favor, in particular once Riker’s Island opened up to house the city’s most nefarious.

Later in the 19th century the Civil War barracks were edged out and the island was used to house the overflow from Blackwell’s Island. Blackwell’s Island (now known as Roosevelt Island) is that tiny sliver of land and buildings between Queens and Manhattan under the 59th Street Bridge, and back then it was home to a workhouse for delinquent boys. Hart’s island has also been home to a women’s insane asylum and a drug rehabilitation facility, neither of which really fit snugly with the ultimate function of the island: a cemetery.

Hart’s Island is the largest tax-funded cemetery in the world. The city bought it in 1869 and has operated it ever since. This is where the never-identified John and Jane Does were to end up. Abandoned lives at their unfortunate terminus, bodies for whom no one wanted to dole out funeral costs. Burials of the unknown folks were done in single plots, those who were identified were tossed into mass graves. Sometimes families might identify the unknown remains through fingerprints or photos kept on file, so keeping the unknowns separate made sense for easy disinterment.

So how many soul-vessels now call the underside of Hart’s Island home? The icky truth is that there are roughly 850,000 bodies underneath that ground, and that number continues to rise every year. Stillborn babies, amputated body parts, and heaps of unclaimed grown-ups. There have been no ceremonies on this island since the 1950’s, and only one individual marker stands for the only body to be buried on its own, separate from the clutter.

This is the grave of the first child to die of AIDS in New York City back in 1985; his or her name is not known. Hart’s Island isn’t necessarily where the homeless are to be buried as local legend will boast; many are simply folks whose relatives couldn’t afford the exorbitant expense of a private funeral. Roughly half are children under five who have died in city hospitals; often the distraught mothers didn’t know what they were signing when they checked off that they wanted a “city burial”.

Finding out if your loved one is packed snug below the Hart’s Island turf hasn’t been easy. The records are all housed along with New York’s prison system files, and sifting through all that paperwork would be nothing short of a Sisyphean chore. Hart Island’s intertwining link to the city’s penal system doesn’t end there; the weekly interments of New York’s fresh crop of City-Burial bodies are handled by Rikers Island inmates. That’s right – every week mass graves are being dug and maintained by convicted felons, just a few miles from where the Yankees are suiting up to play ball.

In 2008 a 1,403-page document was procured at the behest of a Freedom Of Information Act request, containing the names (where known) of all Hart’s Island interments between 1985 and 2007. All 50,000 of them. Another request has retrieved the names going back to 1977. This should make the search for bodies at least somewhat easier, though I imagine the logistics for locating a casket for disinterment can be somewhat weighty.

It’s interesting to note that the drug rehab facility on Hart’s Island operated up until 1976. Imagine struggling to kick some horrid habit that had you imagining bugs crawling out of your skin along your arm-hair follicles, only to be dumped on an island where your sole company is a few hundred thousand dead bodies and body parts. I’m thinking the therapeutic value of this would be fairly low

A handful of notable names ended up among the Hart’s Island residents. Novelist Dawn Powell died in 1965, leaving her body to the Cornell Medical Center. When Cornell finished up with her innards, they offered to return the remains so her sister could provide a proper burial. Her sister refused, and they were shipped off to Hart’s Island. Leo Birinski, playwright and screenwriter, is also stashed in the island’s soil. He wrote Mata Hari which starred Greta Garbo and The Song of Songs which featured Marlene Dietrich, but died in poverty in 1951, with no one to step up and claim him.

Perhaps most disturbing is Academy Award winner Bobby Driscoll, who not only starred in some of Disney’s biggest live-action films of the pre-TV era (Treasure Island, Song Of The South), but was also the animation model and voice actor for Disney’s 1953 Peter Pan cartoon film. Bobby found the allure of hard drugs irresistible, and came to an ugly end in 1968. His family tracked him down the following year, but opted to erect a cenotaph with his name rather than transfer his bodily remains off the island.

A darker topic would be hard to come by, and for that I apologize. I didn’t mean to drag down your Tuesday into such an ugly mire. But gruesome as it may be, this story is fascinating to me – a murky vortex of finality, just off the coast of the nation’s most bustling city.

I promise – tomorrow I’ll sing you a happier tune.

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