The Invisible Island
Hart Island is a hard place to get to if you’re alive, but an easy place to get lost if you’re dead. Technically part of the Bronx, it sits on the westernmost edge of Long Island Sound, crowding the entrance to the East River. Between its abandoned prisons slowly sinking into the forest, its spools of razor wire, and the rise at its northern end called “Cemetery Hill,” the island does a terrific job of looking spooky.
Simply going near Hart Island is dangerous. First, there is the shoreline, which is shallow most of the way around and studded with sharp, submerged rocks. Then there is the current, particularly strong off the northern tip; and the wind, which comes in from the sound so hard and raggedly that it occasionally catches experienced captains by surprise. A map drawn in 1777 by the British Navy warned captains to avoid Hart Island as they left New York on their frequent raids to shell and pillage the Connecticut coast: “You Muft obferve not to borrow towards the Eaft-fide” of Throggs Neck Peninsula, lest the King’s ships strike the mud flat off “Heart Ifland.”
A map drawn by the British Navy in 1777 showing Hart Island
The place has bedeviled boaters pretty much ever since. The Brookville, a schooner that spent most of the 19th century hauling freight along the northern coast, ran so far aground on Hart Island during the winter of 1879 that her owners abandoned her as a total loss. The Montauk Steamship Line’s Shinnecock ferry was carrying 150 passengers on its regular route from Rhode Island to New York when it struck Hart Island on the morning of July 15, 1907, in fog. It took seven hours, two tugboats and high tide to pull her free.
Sonar helps, but only so much. Dominick Cerbone grew up boating near City Island, which sits a half-mile west of Hart Island. Four days a week he takes fishermen out on the “Apache,” a charter fishing boat with modern navigation equipment. Sometimes he stops near Hart Island to cast lines for fluke, which like to burrow into the black rocky bottom, but he rarely lingers. Sailing near Hart Island, “you’re taking your chances all the time,” says Cerbone, 81.
Some boats wind up on Hart Island by means more criminal than accidental. On the night of November 27, 1855, someone scuttled the freighter Eudora Imogen off Hart Island by boring four holes in her bow. The bodies of William Palmer and Gilbert Pratt, the Eudora’s captain and mate, were never found, although their shirts were discovered onboard the sunken ship, slit open by a knife and soaked in blood. The only survivor was George Wilson, an African-American and the ship’s cook, who was arrested by a mob of City Island fishermen.
What ensued was among America’s first murder trials cum racially charged media circuses. Despite Wilson’s claim of innocence and the lack of inculpatory evidence, the New York press joined rowdy crowds at the Westchester County Courthouse in denouncing “the murderous negro” and calling for his execution. “That [Wilson] should escape conviction altogether, because the bodies could not be found, was unanimously declared to be a monstrous outrage upon all justice,” read a news story in the New York Times, which suggested that Wilson should be suspended by his wrists until he starved to death. “Hanging, or even burning alive, was too expeditious an exit.” The 4,000 people who came to watch the execution on July 25, 1856 enjoyed a “jubilee” atmosphere, the Times reported, including vendors selling beer, cider, oysters, clams, cakes, pies and cigars. They did not have long to wait, however. Wilson was hanged.
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The Eudora case was likely the last time a majority of New Yorkers knew where Hart Island was. In the century and a half since, the island has faded almost entirely from public view. But for those who do know it, Hart Island is a place synonymous with death, a place where New York can do the dark work of being a city.
Hart Island does not appear on the MTA’s subway map or the Department of Transportation’s bicycling maps. The AAA map in my car shows the blue dotted line of a public ferry from City Island to Hart Island, but the ferry closed to the public in 1976. Panorama, the room-sized Robert Moses-commissioned sculpture at the Queens Museum of Art—which displays every street and nearly every building in New York City—excludes the island entirely.
From an airplane at night, Hart Island is invisible from the west. It can be seen only on clear nights, only from the east and by inference, when lights from the city bounce off the water of the Sound and leave the island backlit. It appears as negative space, the darkest ink spot on a page of black.
Hart Island can be found on Google Maps, which labels the northern half of the island “Potter’s Field,” a term commonly used to refer to a place where unknown or unclaimed bodies are buried. The location is no longer accurate, and the name never was. When the city bought Hart Island for $75,000 in 1868, the new potter’s field was set on 45 acres at the island’s northern tip. Administration was handed over to what was then called the Department of Charities and Correction, which operated a prison and a technical school for delinquent boys on the island. Inmates were given the job of burying the dead, a practice that continues to this day. The Department of Correction estimates that more than 850,000 people are now buried on Hart Island, noting that the actual number may be somewhere between 750,000 and a million, a standard deviation that is jarring when you think about it.
In the last few years the old cemetery filled up, so the burials moved to Hart Island’s south side. In 2010, there were 695 adults and 504 babies buried there. Four days a week, prisoners from Riker’s Island lay plain pine boxes into two mass graves. In the adult grave, coffins are stacked three high. It will be filled with between 150 and 165 bodies (depending on the number of extra-wide coffins), plus separate coffins for body parts, and covered with 36 inches of dirt. The other grave, for fetuses and stillborn babies, will be loaded with 1,000 miniature coffins buried five deep. Both trenches are already open, dug by a yellow Caterpillar backhoe.
And then there is the name. In Matthew 27:3-10, Judas cast the 30 silver pieces he received for betraying Jesus onto the temple floor, and then hung himself in shame. The priests, concerned that adding blood money to the temple’s treasury would violate church law, “bought with them the potter’s field to bury strangers. Therefore that field has been called the ‘Field of Blood’ to this very day.” We are lucky the name “potter’s field” stuck, since printing the alternative on maps would be rather purple.
Lots of unidentified people are buried on Hart Island, and lots of poor people, too. But not everyone interred there is unknown and destitute. The first person buried in the potter’s field died in Charity Hospital on Roosevelt Island—then called Blackwell’s Island—with no relatives or friends to claim her body, but we do know her name: Louisa Van Slyke, and she was 24. It’s reasonable to assume that Slyke was laid in the ground by inmates because the wife of Fred Bartels, the island’s first warden, recorded the burial on April 20, 1869. Since then, Hart Island’s dead have included victims of yellow and typhoid fever; veterans who died in Veterans Administration hospitals (whose names were known, and who should have been buried in individual graves in a national cemetery); and the first child to die of AIDS in New York, who received the field’s only private grave and the only personal gravestone, reading “SC B1 1985″ [Special Child, Baby 1, and the year of death]; well-known writers and actors including Bobby Driscoll, who played Peter Pan in the 1953 Disney movie; and Lewis Haggins, who founded an advocacy group calledPicture the Homeless. Haggins was buried as an unidentified body in 2004 even though he had received food stamps, spent time in prison, and lived in city shelters, which meant at least three government agencies held his fingerprints on file. His friends later had him disinterred and buried elsewhere.
“Sometimes people wind up in city cemetery when they shouldn’t be there at all,” says Amy Koplow, executive director of the Hebrew Free Burial Association, which works to arrange burials for indigent Jews and keep them out of the potter’s field. “They’re not indigent. They’re not unknown. Sometimes they just slip through the system.”
One person who is buried on Hart Island who should not be is Laurie Grant’s daughter. Grant was an obstetrician and gynecologist with a successful private practice in Westchester County. Her pregnancy in 1993 was hard. She felt nauseous for months, became dehydrated and malnourished, and required a feeding tube. At 33 weeks she was admitted to Lenox Hill Hospital. Tests on July 12, 1993 found the fetus had no heartbeat.
Grant’s stillborn baby was delivered by Caesarian section. Grant nearly died. The epidural numbed only one side of her body, leaving the other half in stabbing pain. A few days later, a nurse asked what she wanted to do with the body.
“The city can arrange it,” Grant remembers the nurse saying.
“How?” Grant asked.
The city could take care of the burial, the nurse said. Grant would be able to visit the grave, which would be marked with a number instead of a name. Grant was grieving, malnourished and delirious with pain. She was on so much medication she was barely conscious.
“I don’t remember signing any papers. I was really out of it,” says Grant, who is now 59.
As a doctor, Grant easily could have afforded private burial in the cemetery plot her family already owned in the Valhalla area of Westchester County, a few minutes’ drive from her current home. Grant was too sick to think if it, however, and hospital staff did not ask her relatives about other burial options. So the baby’s body was placed in a pine coffin and buried in a mass grave on Hart Island.
Grant’s experience was typical, says Melinda Hunt, an artist who has been fascinated with Hart Island since the early 1990s, and went on to publish a book and produce a film about it. In 2011 she founded the Hart Island Project, a charity that helps families around the world search for relatives who went missing in New York, and who may be buried in the potter’s field. Many families were told by hospital nurses or social workers to “Let the city handle it,” Hunt says, maybe to smooth the ordeal’s jagged edges, and possibly to speed things along. Parents are commonly assured that the grave will be marked (which is sometimes true, but not always), and that parents will be allowed to visit the graves (which is almost never true).“It’s not explained that this is a mass grave and you can’t go visit it,” Hunt says. “If families were made aware of that, I think most would opt for a private burial.”
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Sometimes it’s adults who get buried on Hart Island by mistake. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and the police department’s missing persons unit use personal records, prescription bottles and fingerprints to identify people who die in hospitals, nursing homes and on the street without identification. They do a good job. Of the nearly 1,200 people buried on Hart Island last year, only about fifteen were unidentified, says Dan Stevelman, deputy commissioner for operations at the medical examiner’s office.
But some advocates doubt whether officials are as diligent about tracking down next of kin as they are about identifying the deceased. Hunt regularly receives emails from family members who can easily afford an individual grave in a private cemetery, but who never received word that a loved one was dead. Leonard Melfi, an influential playwright in the 1960s, was buried on Hart Island by mistake when he died in 2001. His family had the body disinterred and re-buried in a private grave. Amy Koplow remembers a man who was buried on Hart Island despite his sizable pension from his career as a backstage technician at CBS television studios. The man had the misfortune of dying on Presidents’ Day weekend; that meant city employees responsible for locating his family did not get to his case until the man was already buried on Hart Island.
“His case got lost in the shuffle,” Koplow says. “There’s all kinds of rotten stuff that happens.”
Elaine Joseph’s daughter Tomika was born premature at Beth Israel Hospital during the blizzard of 1978. The baby suffered Tetralogy of Fallot, a heart deformation. Joseph was sent home to Brooklyn, and her baby was transferred to Mt. Sinai Hospital for surgery. There, the baby died. With the subways closed and all transportation to Manhattan shut down, Joseph called the hospital morgue for four days, getting no response. When someone finally answered, Joseph was told that she had signed papers allowing Tomika to be buried in the potter’s field.
This was impossible, since the storm had prevented Joseph from ever getting to the hospital.
“People say, ‘Who cares about the potter’s field? It’s just a bunch of bums,’” says Joseph, 58, who went on to serve 23 years in the Navy and retire as a lieutenant commander. “Well, I’m no bum. My daughter was not a bum.”
Even families who know their relatives are headed for the city cemetery may not discover what burial on Hart Island really means until it’s too late. Laurie Grant, the OB-GYN, first tried to find her baby’s remains in 1997. She called various government agencies, but no one knew where the potter’s field was, or what New York City does with stillborn babies. Finally, someone mentioned Hart Island. The details were sketchy. It was a public cemetery for the poor. The Department of Correction was involved somehow.
“When I first heard about it, I said, ‘What the hell is Hart Island? Why would my baby be buried in a potter’s field?” says Grant.
She called the Correction Department about a dozen times, she says, but received no reply. Grant didn’t know that the department keeps a log of everyone buried on Hart Island. Even if she did, the logbooks were still closed to the public. The books were not released until 2008, after Melinda Hunt pressed the Department of Correction with a Freedom of Information Act request, years of pestering and threat of a lawsuit.
“Getting anything done with the D.O.C. is a pain in the ass. And yes, please quote me,” says David Rankin, an attorney who volunteers his time to help the Hart Island Project. “You basically need a lawyer and be willing to sue to get anything out of them.”
In 2011, Grant heard Hart Island mentioned on NPR. She went online, found the Hart Island Project’s website, and searched the database for her daughter. The baby was listed with the wrong death date, and the year of death was recorded as 1994 instead of 1993.
“They make a lot of mistakes,” Hunt says. “You would not believe how many times they misspell Bellevue Hospital.”
All it took was a short, garbled conversation under heavy sedation, and a few incorrect pen strokes in a secret book, for Grant’s daughter’s body to go missing on Hart Island. From death to burial, it took a matter of weeks.
Grant’s attempts to see the grave have taken significantly longer. To visit, she must obtain a copy of her daughter’s death certificate from the city’s health department. Grant requested the certificate in March; five months later, she had received no response. Once she gets it, she will file a formal request with the Correction Department to allow her access to the island.
The department’s decision process regarding who may visit Hart Island and who may not occurs in secret, and no written policy exists, Gregory McLaughlin, the city administrator in charge of Hart Island, told the City Council last October. After much consideration and lapsed time, most close relatives of the deceased are allowed to go. In addition, a delegation of Picture the Homeless members and clergy is allowed to conduct a prayer service on the island every month. Journalists are barred, and the department does its best to prevent visits by people its leaders perceive as critics, including Hunt. The Correction Department threatened to ban Picture the Homeless from Hart Island unless the group removed a reference to “mass graves” from its website. (The department prefers the term “communal burial plots.”)
“This is ludicrous,” says Owen Rogers, a Picture the Homeless member who helped lobby for visits to Hart Island after the organization’s founder was discovered buried there. “Who ever heard of a cemetery you can’t go to, guarded by armed guards? It should not be run like a prison.”
Even if Grant eventually gets permission to visit Hart Island, she will not be allowed anywhere near her daughter’s grave. Instead, prison guards will escort her to a wooden gazebo a few steps from the ferry dock, where the Department of Correction allows people to gather during “closure and spiritual solace” visits.
“It’s nice and restful there,” McLauglin told the City Council.
Hart Island is probably the quietest place in all of New York City, and among the most beautiful. Most of the time, the only sound is the waves flapping against the shore. Sailboats, tugs and barges glide past. To the west, the Throggs Neck and Whitestone Bridges arc gracefully over the water, and to the east the peninsulas and inlets of Long Island Sound slip into the foggy distance.
“You could do a lot worse than getting buried on Hart Island,” says Michael Miscione, Manhattan’s Borough Historian. “These people may be forgotten for the most part, but they’ve ended up in a peaceful, lovely grave.”
Some family members who visit the gazebo find the place deeply depressing, however. It is far from any of the graves, and surrounded by former prison buildings.
“It’s disgusting,” says Elaine Joseph, who visited in March to commemorate the death of her baby.. “The buildings are crumbling, there are feral cats running around, it’s strewn with garbage. And they expect you to find solace from that? Well, I didn’t.”
Laurie Grant is preparing to file a lawsuit against the Department of Correction to win permission to visit her baby’s grave. She will argue that in addition to being left alone, the dead’s right to sepulcher includes the right to visitation from family.
“What they’re doing is wrong,” says Grant, who is now a board member of the Hart Island Project. “I think it’s a basic human right for the family to go and see the grave and pay their respects.”
The Department of Correction has two good reasons for keeping people off Hart Island. First, walking around it is dangerous. The twenty or so buildings there have not been maintained in decades, and most are falling down. A three-story prison that later was converted into the Phoenix House drug rehabilitation center has a tree growing through a wide hole in its roof. The walls of what may be a Union Army stable from the Civil War appear solid, but looking up through the windows, one sees only sky.
“The terrain is overgrown; there are no cleared roads that are safe to walk; there is no infrastructure for the public (bathrooms, water fountains, benches, etc…),” Sharman Stein, the department’s longtime spokeswoman, said in an email.
The second problem is the prisoners. Most committed only misdemeanors, Stein says. Their sentences are correspondingly short, and most hope to keep it that way.
“There’s kind of an understanding between the prisoners and the guards,” says Pat Walsh, a retired Correction Department prison guard who supervised burials on Hart Island in the 1960s and ’70s. “It’s a sought-after job because they’re not in the prison, they’re outside all day. They don’t want to lose their spot.” Even so, Correction leaders worry about possible violence between visitors and prisoners. Visitors also could leave drugs on the island, or weapons, which inmates could use to escape.
This is not an idle fear. So many jailbreaks have happened on Hart Island it’s a wonder why anybody stayed put. Inmate John Cavanagh escaped to City Island in January 1893 by walking across the ice, the Times reported. Joseph “The Eel” Farrell bragged that he escaped Hart Island’s prison once in 1919 by swimming to Long Island, and again in 1921 by swimming to the Bronx.
Three men imprisoned on Hart Island for misdemeanors gave guards the slip by hiding behind a barn on Nov. 14, 1913. They sprinted to shore and climbed into a waiting motorboat. From her house on the hill above the potter’s field, Mrs. Breen, the assistant warden’s wife, saw the men running in their prison stripes and sounded the alarm. What ensued was one of the earliest police chases of the automobile age, and certainly the slowest. Guards aboard the prison’s steam-powered ferry chased the motorboat down and leveled their guns. Everyone surrendered except an escapee named Louis Miller, who pushed a rowboat overboard and started for Long Island. Out of fuel, the guards returned to Hart Island, gassed up, and launched again, landing minutes after Miller ran up the shore and jumped in a waiting car. The guards commandeered a touring car, caught up and fired their automatics at Miller, who jumped from the car and into some bushes. The triple recapture was described by the Times as a “feather in the cap” of Hart Island’s brand-new warden, John J. Murtha, who was fired three years later for drinking whiskey and firing a revolver in his office.
Prisoners who didn’t escape Hart Island lived in danger of fire, torture and poisoning. It took 150 prisoners to extinguish a fire in the workhouse in April 1918. Fire destroyed another building in 1925; an investigation by the state Commission of Prisons described two prison buildings on the island as “tinder boxes.”
Conditions were especially bad at the Hart Island reformatory for delinquent boys. A City Council investigation in 1915 found that the reformatory’s guards regularly ordered boys to beat each other with clubs, kneel for hours in a room called “the cooler,” and perform “stand-up,” in which they were roused from bed and forced to stand in line half the night, for weeks on end. James Meeney, a reformatory inmate, told the council, “Why, we haven’t got a chance on the island.”
A few months later, some boys broke into the infirmary by forcing open a skylight and climbing down a rope. They stole all the drugs they could, hoping for morphine and cocaine but taking instead bottles of Belladonna, an herbal muscle relaxer that is fatal in large doses. The boys distributed the bottles to their friends during a baseball game. Within minutes, 46 children keeled over on the grass, clutching their stomachs and kicking. Dr. Armister, the reformatory’s surgeon, administered enemas and stomach pumps right on the field.
The Correction Department’s mishandling of the potter’s field started at about the same time, and continued until quite recently. In 1917 a Bronx grand jury found the practice of burying people in mass graves “insanitary, unsightly and revolting,” and called for the city to build a crematorium on the island. The earliest grave markers were made of wood. They burned up in forest fires, and the graves were lost. Later markers were cast in concrete, which should have helped matters. But when Hunt, the artist and founder of the Hart Island Project, first visited Hart Island in the early 1990s she took pictures of gravestones toppled over in the grass or moved far from the graves, making it impossible to know where the dead are located.
Other graves were lost in the effort to defend New York City from Soviet nuclear bombers. From 1955 to 1961, the Department of Defense operated a battery of Nike Ajax missiles near the northern tip of Hart Island. The battery included two underground magazines that stored 10 missiles each. In an attack, missiles could be transported to the surface using missile elevators (commonly, and incorrectly, called silos), pushed by two soldiers along waist-high tracks to a launch pad, and fired. No one knows which graves were destroyed during the battery’s construction, or how many bodies were lost.
For the Department of Correction, destroying graves became something of a seasonal event. Prison employees would open old graves using a bulldozer. Because bodies buried on Hart Island are not embalmed, and because many graves were dug below the water table, water seeped in and destroyed most of the remains and all trace of coffins. Inmates climbed into the open pits, picked up the few scattered bones and moved them to one side, making room for fresh pine coffins.
“Oh yeah. We used to reuse the graves in the summertime,” says Pat Walsh, the retired guard, who worked on Hart Island from 1968 through 1971.
The Correction Department has since stopped the practice.
“While I’m in charge there, we have not done that,” McLaughlin told the City Council last October.
In a place so few people have ever seen, where extreme and tragic things are commonplace, precedents once established take deep root. Perhaps because Hart Island operates in such obscurity, however, those traditions sometimes break down.
Long-standing practice holds that every mass grave on Hart Island receives its own number. The grave number and the position of each coffin is recorded in a logbook. That way, even if each individual coffin is unmarked, someone can go back years later and find every person buried there (provided the grave is left intact).
But in 1989, something strange happened. Inmates filled mass grave No. 50 with 1,000 baby coffins, and on June 28, they moved on to the next grave. This new grave received the same number as the last one: 50. After about 700 miniature coffins were buried there, the grave number was switched to No. 100. That number also belonged to an existing grave, dug in the 1970s.
“So which people are buried where? There’s no way to tell. It’s not in sequence at all,” says Hunt, who discovered the error twenty years later while studying the Correction Department’s burial logbooks. “It’s not like they had a bad day. This was a long time, and a lot of babies.”
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From 1869 to today, the Department of Correction has recorded each Hart Island burial in handwritten books. A fire on the island in 1977 destroyed the books from 1956 to 1960, plus most of the 1970s. No backup existed. About 25,000 people were lost, McLaughlin told the City Council. Also missing are two logbooks that tracked baby burials between 1977 and 1980, including the record of where Tomika Joseph is buried. For decades after the fire, the Correction Department continued to record all the burials in a single, handwritten logbook stored on Hart Island. Only in recent years did the department create a duplicate book, also written by hand, which is stored in the main prison complex on Riker’s Island.
“In 2011, the notion that we have any sort of handwritten logs for any city government-related” function, City Councilman James Oddo said at the Council hearing in October, “I don’t think it’s worthy of New York City.”
Recently, the Correction Department hired a private vendor to create a digital database of Hart Island burial records. The company started the work, but then stopped.
“What’s the difficulty?” Oddo asked.
“It’s money, frankly,” McLaughlin said. From its $1 billion annual budget, the department spends $500,000 to bury the dead on Hart Island, he told the City Council.
For the foreseeable future, then, Hunt’s database is the most complete that exists, and the only one accessible to the public. It is based on copies made by Correction employees, who sometimes were not careful as they laid logbooks across the photocopier. Hunt stood over a desk in her office in downtown Peekskill recently, flipping through stacks of photocopied logbooks. On a page from April 1989, the left column of names is invisible because a Correction worker failed to fully fold the previous page. Thirty-six people wiped away by a staple. A book from the 1990s contains page after page of illegible handwriting. Poor penmanship has made thousands of names and grave numbers disappear. Other people are hard to find because guards printed the deceased’s first and last names with no space in between.
“Can you read that?” she asks, pointing at a photocopied book. “It’s chicken scratches.”
I asked Laurie Grant why she doesn’t avoid a protracted legal fight with the Department of Correction by simply requesting permission to get her baby disinterred by a funeral director, and then reburying the remains in her family’s private cemetery plot. The practice is quite common; about sixty to eighty disinterments happen on Hart Island annually, McLaughlin said.
Grant’s reason is that she knows too many of Hart Island’s secrets. With all the reused mass graves, disturbed grave markers and incorrect, missing or unreadable records, “I don’t trust their system,” she says. “They had the year and the date of death wrong. How could I know they found the right remains?”
Grant, Melinda Hunt, and others who want to open Hart Island to the public agree with the Department of Correction that crumbling buildings, lack of infrastructure and the continued presence of inmates create some unique logistical challenges. Bathrooms would need to be built, roads maintained, falling-down buildings secured. Prisoners would require closer monitoring, perhaps inside a fence surrounding the open graves. But given the department’s decades of screw-ups and mismanagement, critics wonder whether the department has another reason for keeping people away from Hart Island.
“What they don’t want you to see is what a mess it is,” says Hunt.
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It’s been 157 years since the Eudora Imogen sank, but Correction Department employees working on City Island still keep an eye to the east, looking for suspicious boats. Anyone caught on Hart Island without the department’s permission is officially trespassing on prison property, and can be sentenced to up to two years in prison. This creates an ironic feedback loop, since it is precisely such nonviolent prisoners who can volunteer to dig graves on Hart Island.
At seven o’clock on a recent Tuesday morning, I pushed off from City Island in a yellow canoe. With light wind from the north and no current, paddling to Hart Island took fifteen minutes. A few feet from the island, small waves threatened to push me onto shore. I used hard strokes and pressed the paddle blade into the rocky bottom to prevent the boat from touching land.
Even this close up, Hart Island’s west side reveals few secrets that aren’t visible from City Island with a good pair of binoculars. There are two docks, the southern of which is used as a ferry slip by the Department of Correction. Its headworks are painted grey-blue, and its weathered wooden guideposts rock side to side in the waves. Large signs ring the shoreline, warning, “Restricted Area. No Trespassing. No Docking. No Anchorage.” A dozen small motorboats lie abandoned on the rocks, their red, blue and yellow hulls faded by the sun. In a clearing to the south sits a mound of loose dirt, a pile of plywood and two squat buildings, one with vines engulfing the walls and roof. On either side of the field, old prisons recede into the trees.
The view from Hart Island’s east side is quite different, resembling less an abandoned farm and more an abandoned town. Here is the building of rough grey stone that may be a former Union Army stable. A yellow brick smokestack rises a few hundred feet into the air, ventilation for the dynamo that once supplied electricity to Hart Island’s prisons, halfway houses and sanatoria. The last prison here closed in 1968, but its four-story, windowless concrete wall still dominates the shoreline; “PRISON KEEP OUT” is painted across it in fading white, each letter about fifteen feet tall. The shore is a junkyard of truck engines, rusted pipes, blue boat insulation and chunks of walls with mortar still clinging to the broken bricks.
Then there are the graves. I couldn’t see much from the canoe because of the seawall, which is about seven feet tall, so I scrambled onto the taller rocks that line the shallows. Even there, I saw little because the prison guards had parked a white Correction Department bus parallel to shore, blocking the view. I saw four inmates dressed in white, one-piece jumpsuits. I saw two prison guards in blue collared shirts. I saw the yellow elbow of the backhoe’s arm, heard the machine’s diesel engine grunts, heard its alarm go beep-beep-beep when the operator drove in reverse. I heard men shouting over the machine, but I could not distinguish their words.
I was disappointed. To spend weeks talking to people and unearthing old maps and reading about Hart Island, to paddle a canoe into Long Island Sound, and then to see so little of the place itself felt like I had failed.
Then I realized that, actually, this was perhaps the perfect way to experience Hart Island, the genuine way. Melinda Hunt has spent two decades investigating Hart Island through photographs, film and public records, and she knows the island better than anybody. Yet there are still important things she can’t ever know, like how many people are buried there. Years after their babies died, Laurie Grant and Elaine Joseph don’t know if they have the legal right to visit the graves. Their children may be among the hundreds of thousands of people who have vanished into Hart Island’s ground.
“Nobody has filed a lawsuit like this before,” Grant says, “and we don’t know if we’ll win.”
So it seemed appropriate that even five feet from its shore, Hart Island remains a mystery, impenetrable. I bobbed in my canoe and strained to see anything through the trees and the rusted steel mesh covering the windows of the prison van. I worried the guards might spot me so close to shore, but they never looked up from their age-old task. In this place where past is present, nothing changed. The inmates continued laying coffins into a grave I could not see.
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Christopher Maag is a freelance writer and contributing editor at Narratively. His work has appeared in publications including The New York Times, TIME, Salon, Popular Mechanics, The Huffington Post and ABC News.
Luke Rafferty is studying photojournalism at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. He worked with Narratively as an intern this past summer, and hopes to work with the publication in the future.