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What We Found at Hart Island, The Largest Mass Grave Site In the U.S.

What We Found at Hart Island, The Largest Mass Grave Site In the U.S.

It’s a place where few living New Yorkers have ever set foot, but nearly a million dead ones reside: Hart Island, the United States’ largest mass grave, which has been closed to the public for 35 years. It is difficult to visit and off-limits to photographers. But that may be about to change, as a debate roils over the city’s treatment of the unclaimed dead. Never heard of Hart? You’re not alone—and that’s part of the problem.

Hart Island is a thin, half-mile long blip of land at the yawning mouth of Long Island Sound, just across the water from City Island in the Bronx. Depending on who you ask, it was named either for its organ-like shape or for the deer (or hart) that thrived here after trekking across the frozen sound in the 18th century. Hart is dense with history; it’s been used as a prison for Confederate soldiers, a workhouse for the poor, a women's asylum, and a Nike missile base during the Cold War.

What We Found at Hart Island, The Largest Mass Grave Site In the U.S.

Its most important role has been to serve as what’s known as a potter’s field, a common gravesite for the city’s unknown dead. Some 900,000 New Yorkers (or adopted New Yorkers) are buried here; hauntingly, the majority are interred by prisoners from Riker’s Island who earn 50 cents an hour digging gravesites and stacking simple wooden boxes in groups of 150 adults and 1,000 infants. These inmates—most of them very young, serving out short sentences—are responsible for building the only memorials on Hart Island: Handmade crosses made of twigs and small offerings of fruit and candy left behind when a grave is finished.

What We Found at Hart Island, The Largest Mass Grave Site In the U.S.

Image copyright Joel Sternfeld and Melinda Hunt. From their 1998 book, Hart Island.

There are a few ways to end up on Hart Island. One third of its inhabitants are infants—some parents couldn’t afford a burial, others didn’t realize what a “city burial” meant when they checked it on the form. Many of the dead here were homeless, while others were simply unclaimed; if your body remains at the city morgue for more than a few weeks, you, too, will be sent for burial by a team of prisoners on Hart Island. These practices have given rise to dozens of cases where parents and families aren’t notified in time to claim the body of their loved one. It can take months (even years) to determine whether your missing mom, dad, sibling, or child ended up at Hart.

Even if you do learn that a friend or loved one is buried at Hart, you won’t be able to find out exactly where. Though Hart Island is the largest publicly funded cemetery in the world, it’s been closed to the public since 1976, when the Department of Corrections took control of the site. Family members can request a visit on the last Thursday of every month, but they aren’t allowed to visit specific graves—in fact, there’s no official map (not to mention burial markers) of the mass graves on Hart. The Hart Island Project, a nonprofit organization led by an artist named Melinda Hunt, is spearheading the fight to change that: Hunt has worked for decades to convince the city to transfer control of the island from the DOC to the Parks Department, making it into a public cemetery in name, as well as in function.

What We Found at Hart Island, The Largest Mass Grave Site In the U.S.

Hunt got involved with Hart during the 1980s, when the AIDS epidemic put the island into the public spotlight for the first time (the first New York child to die of the virus is buried here in the only individual grave on the island). Her book about the island was published in 1998, and represents the last time an artist was allowed to work on-site. Since then, Hunt has single-handedly acted as the sole legal and political advocate for families of the deceased buried here, and in the process, become the foremost historian and keeper of knowledge about the island.

Part of her self-assigned job is to liaise with family members searching for information about their loved ones—like Elaine Joseph, a lifetime New Yorker and veteran who now serves as Secretary of the Hart Island Project. It’s taken Joseph more than 30 years to find out that her child was buried on the island—not an unusual scenario, it turns out, though no less heartbreaking. It’s women like Joseph, who have come forward to tell their stories, who are helping Hunt to raise awareness of the gross mishandling of Hart Island.

On a dreary, lukewarm morning last month, Gizmodo—myself and co-worker Leslie Horn—along with two other reporters, met Hunt and Joseph in the quaint town of City Island. They had graciously offered to include us on a tour of the island, and we were about to become some of the first members of the press to visit since the 1980s.

What We Found at Hart Island, The Largest Mass Grave Site In the U.S.

Because inmates perform weekly burials on Hart Island, the DOC treats outside visitors with a certain amount of caution. The two polite employees we met on the rundown dock at City Island asked first for our IDs, then for any electronics we had, storing our phones, tablets, and laptops in manila folders inside a DOC trailer on the dock, where we also used the restroom (there are none on the island). Inside the stall, someone had taped up a picture of a manatee—a reference to this meme—with the following mantra: Everything will be OK.

After everyone was ready, we boarded a small ferry and chugged off into the fog. To overly-dramatic loons like me, stepping aboard felt like crossing the River Styx or sailing out to Arnold Böcklin’s Isle of the Dead—except, in this scenario, the gatekeepers were clad in NYC corrections uniforms. As Joseph recounted her story, and our ferry slogged across the channel, it became clear that, for the loved ones of people buried here, the fight for Hart Island isn’t about entering an underworld—it’s about seeking the right to mend ties with the living.

What We Found at Hart Island, The Largest Mass Grave Site In the U.S.

Image: David Trawin.

35 years ago, Joseph gave birth to a baby girl who needed surgery a few days later. The operation took place at Mount Sinai Hospital during the Great Blizzard of 1978, which shut down the city’s roads and phone lines for days. When a recovering Joseph got through to the hospital, she learned that her baby had died during surgery. Eventually, she was connected with the understaffed city morgue—which informed her that her child had already been buried with other infants. When the death certificate finally arrived, no cemetery was listed.

In city parlance, a blank spot next to the cemetery means one thing: A Hart Island burial. But, in a time before the internet, that fact was lost on anyone without inside knowledge—and Joseph spent the next decade trying to find out where her daughter was buried, visiting the Medical Examiner’s office and digging through the municipal archives. It was as if her child had never been born. “It came to a standstill,” she says, speaking over the phone later. “Over the years, I went on with life.” But every so often, she’d try again—fruitlessly searching the city’s archives for a trace.

It was only in 2008, 31 years after she gave birth, that Joseph’s first lead emerged—thanks to the internet. A Google search for “potter’s field” returned a mention of Hart Island, and then, the Hart Island project—headed up by one Melinda Hunt. She sent her an email. A few months later, after a Freedom of Information request granted them access to burial records, the duo made a heartbreaking discovery: Two volumes of infant burial records, spanning 1977 to 1981, were missing. The lead had gone cold.

What’s perhaps even more painful about city burials is that the relatives whose loved ones are buried on the island—thousands of the living—can’t freely visit it. Instead, they must request a visit formally from the Department of Corrections, which will usually grant the right to visit a small gazebo near the dock, rather than any of the actual burial sites. Our tour was Joseph’s second time on the island, and she visibly fumed about being forced to sign into a DOC visitor’s book as we disembarked.

It’s a grim scene: A trash-covered shoreline gives way to scrubby brown grass and a gravel driveway, where two rusting vans are parked beside a handful of officers waiting to check our IDs. The only sign of the island’s purpose are several tiny white angel statues that line the rotting pathway around a nondescript garage building. The cherubs seem like new additions, judging by the tags still visible on their behinds.

What We Found at Hart Island, The Largest Mass Grave Site In the U.S.

The two DOC guides flanked our small group closely on either side, guiding us along the shore. Our “tour” of the island was, in a sense, over even before it began: The final destination is less than 20 yards from the dock, where a small wooden gazebo—someone in the group calls it a “chicken coop”—gives shelter to mourners who visit the island. The DOC’s regulations prevent us from walking further into the patchy grass that covers the island, so we sit down on the benches inside the hut.

A few feet away, a small gravestone represents the only sign of a burial memorial. The stone was paid for by the family of the island’s long-time backhoe operator when he passed away. Behind it, a Victorian-era administrative building, likely left over from the island’s one-time psychiatric hospital, lies in ruins. Any real grave markers that remained were removed years ago by the DOC; today, Hart looks like a dreary but nondescript spit of land you might find anywhere else along the mid-Atlantic.

Hunt and Joseph pull out a pen-marked map (pieced together by Hunt using satellite imagery) and try to locate the general direction of where her daughter—along with many other misplaced infants from the same year—might lie. It’s woefully inadequate, not to mention unnecessary given the advent of GPS. Even if the DOC doesn’t create markers for each gravesite, they could certainly make the information available online. But Hart—right down to its decaying Victorian buildings—is stuck in the past. As Hunt explains, much of the way Hart operates dates from the Civil War. “This is a very 19th century kind of place,” she adds.

What We Found at Hart Island, The Largest Mass Grave Site In the U.S.

Image: Francisco Daum.

But it doesn’t have to be. Hunt, who qualifies as nothing short of a hero, is working to extract answers to painful questions—not only at the personal level, but at a legal one. Do loved ones have a legal right to visit a family gravesite? In some states—mostly in the South, where Civil War graves often lie on private land—yes. But, in New York, things are more ambiguous: State public health laws codify the common law right to a decent burial, but it is unclear whether that includes the right to visitation. In 2012, a New York Ob/Gyn named Dr. Laurie Grant, whose stillborn daughter was buried on Hart Island without her consent in 1993, brought a lawsuit in New York State Court seeking an injunction against the DOC that would allow her to visit the gravesite.

Thanks to years of testimony by Hunt, things are slowly changing on the city side of things: In April, the DOC set up an online database of burial records. And in September, Hunt tweeted that the DOC would grant access to GPS information, too. Just this week, a request to visit grave sites made by Joseph and seven other women received a response that promised their petition is being considered.

What We Found at Hart Island, The Largest Mass Grave Site In the U.S.

After all, the Department of Corrections isn’t to blame, since it’s their job to run prisons—and they do this well—but prison guards simply aren’t a good match for running a massive cemetery. The next big push will be a bill first introduced last year, which would mandate the Department of Parks to assume control of the island. A big part of getting the bill off the ground—and mothers like Grant and Joseph to their children's graves—is rousing public awareness and support. In many cases, New Yorkers just haven't heard about what's going on at Hart.

What’s most curious about the situation, in some ways, isn’t whether the city will eventually open up Hart Island to the public—that seems all but inevitable—but what will happen to the island afterward. Hunt’s hope, which she described in a New York Times op-ed last month, is that the island will become the city’s next public park and memorial to the city’s past inhabitants. “I like to think of Hart Island as New York City’s family tomb,” she wrote. “We don’t always get along, but we do live and die and are buried close to one another.” Joseph, for her part, would just be happy with grave markers. “I have nothing to lose by continuing to fight for these rights,” she added as we left the island last month. Today, she’s hoping that Bill de Blasio’s election as mayor will speed up the process.

The big question, of course, is why? Why hasn’t the city taken over control of the island? Why hasn’t anyone attempted to make it easier for families to visit? Where is the harm or danger in letting people mourn near where their loved ones lie? Tragically, the answer is similar to the reason people end up at Hart Island in the first place: A mixed bag of budgetary issues and pure practicality, wrapped up in a painful and banal truth. In a city of eight million, some things—whether people or whole islands—slip by unnoticed.

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