Saturday, September 28, 2013

An Island Without Heart

There is a tiny uninhabited island that sits on the western edge of Long Island Sound-- it holds untold sorrow. This oppressive 131 acres, across from the Bronx is known as Hart Island, but at one time it was named “Heart” Island. 

It is somehow fitting that along the way it lost the “e” for this island has no heart. 

Today no one is allowed on this island except for convicts and the guards who supervise them. But hundreds of others are brought to the island every month-- they are all dead.

In 1865, during the American Civil War, Hart Island for a brief time was a POW camp where over 3,500 Confederate Prisoners were kept. Two hundred and thirty-five of these prisoners died and were buried on the island. 

With an outbreak of Yellow Fever in New York in the 1870s, the island became a place where many people were quarantined. 

By 1885 a women’s insane asylum was built, the building that housed these women still stands. The island then was used as a reformatory school, with a workhouse for delinquent boys.

During World War ll, the Navy took over the island. Over 2,800 servicemen from the Navy, Coast Guard, and Marines were brought to Hart to be held in custody and disciplined. 

Hart also housed tuberculosis patients, and at another time, it was used as a rehabilitation center for alcoholics. Today, the New York City Department of Corrections manages the island.

Trench waiting for more
pine  caskets
This history alone could be the reason that Hart is considered haunted today. But there is one other misery that makes the island’s history even darker. 

Since the 1800s, Hart Island has served as a burial ground for those who are forgotten. This tiny island hosts the largest publically funded potter’s field * in the world.

Over 850,000 people who died alone, without relatives or friends to claim them, are placed in bulldozed trenches without prayer or remembrance. One hundred and fifty coffins are stacked in each adult mass grave. Inmates from Rikers Island do this labor. 

The mass graves on Hart are filled with the souls of the homeless, mentally ill, children--most of them orphans and the indigent--those that are too poor to pay for a proper burial. 

One prisoner that was recently released recalls with sadness the small boxes of babies that would regularly arrive for burial. From 1980 until 2011, there were 27,769 infants and 32,765 adults placed in mass graves. **

Prisoners placing infant
caskets in a mass grave.
It is felt that many restless spirits make their presence known. 

Witnesses have reported feeling someone watching them. Others in years past have seen shadow figures in the buildings that are essentially gutted today. 

In fact, several of these structures have been torn down to make room for more graves. In one of these abandoned structures, whispers are heard, they sound like children’s voices. Investigations of this noise always come up empty.

The only witnesses to these hauntings today are the inmates, and staff that work there. No others are allowed on the island. 

Even people that have relatives buried on the island have a hard time gaining authorization to visit their deceased relatives. ** 

No Trespassing rule is strictly enforced. If broken this offense is punishable by a fine of over 600 dollars, and up to two years in prison.

* “Potter’s Field” is a biblical term meaning place of burial for unknown or indigent people.

** In the past, the burial trenches were re-used after 25 to 50 years, allowing for sufficient decomposition of the remains. Until recently, one-half of the infants that were buried were stillborn. This changed with the onset of children’s health insurance. It now covers all pregnant women in New York State.

*** The Hart Island Project’s mission statement is to make “the United State’s largest cemetery visible and accessible,” so everyone knows its history. 

On their home page, they have a video that shows pictures of the island. In 2012 two Bills were passed that require the Department of Corrections to post its database of burials and its visitation policy online.

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