As one of the oldest cities in the country, New York City has more than its fair shares of ghosts sightings and haunted houses. And yet, one of the most unsettling true tales about New York City doesn’t involve a house or a building, but a little known uninhabited and prohibited island that’s tucked away from public view. A mile long, a quarter mile wide, and just northeast of City Island, Hart Island is the stuff of campfires stories, and it checks all the right boxes in the horror formula to end up in a nightmare near you. There are over a million people buried in the unmarked mass graves on Hart Island. And that’s only scratching the surface of why ending up there would be the worst idea this side of Amityville.
Like many spooky things on the East Coast, Hart Island’s origins can be traced back to the Civil War. Hart’s humble beginnings began as a prisoner camp for Confederate soldiers; 245 of whom would die in poor conditions before ever returning home. It was then officially sold to New York City where it would take on all manners of dark and dubious roles including time as a turn of the century psychiatric institution, a tuberculosis ward, a yellow fever quarantine, boys reformatory, and even a nuclear missile silo. But it was the graves that would serve the biggest function on Hart.
By 1869 mass burials had begun, and they’ve continued to this day. Some 1,500 bodies are buried there every year. At this point, it’s the largest graveyard in the United States, and the largest tax funded one in the world. It’s also the least visited. The island is run by the New York State Department of Corrections which oversees all operations. Even people who discover they have loved ones buried there have a difficult time gaining access. If and when they do, they can’t even visit the actual grave sites. No video is allowed nor photography.
“They check your ID, and ask you to hand over your cell phone, any electronic equipment and they put it in an envelope and lock it and then you get to the island, they ask for your ID again,” Said one recent visitor.
The heavier security could be due to the fact that the DOC runs a tight ship by nature, and because the fast, expedient burials are performed by the inmates themselves. Bodies are placed in Spartan wooden coffins then stacked into trenches, five coffins high/ twenty coffins across. Mostly all inhabitants are people who were unclaimed at the time of their deaths or unknown. 1/3 of all bodies are infants or stillborn babies. The graves are also used to dispose of amputated body parts that are placed in boxes labeled “limbs”.
The graves are completely unmarked. No names; no numbers. Interment is swift and expedient. No ceremonies or religious rites are ever held. There are no markers save for one: the first child known in New York City to die from AIDS is buried here. Yet at the site, one won’t find a name; just the designation “SCB1” which stands for “Special Child Baby 1.”
Obtaining records of those buried is almost as difficult as earning entry onto the island. For years record keeping wasn’t done proficiently, and much of what little existed was destroyed in a mysterious fire. Because the site is run by the overburdened DOC who has the majority of its attention focused on running the prison system, it’s extraordinarily challenging to successfully gain any insight into the deceased residents, even for families who are certain they have relatives there.
Ideas have been put forward to make the island more accessible to the public; to build structures, parks, and form better record keeping. None of those plans have advanced past the stage of conception, and don’t appear able to any time soon, however. At the present time, the only developments in actions are plans to tear down historic buildings to make room for more grave sites. Now and through the foreseeable future, unknown souls will continue to find their final resting place among the company of a million others—without ceremony—and on the fringes from attention, on Hart Island.