AIDS, Covid-19, Confederate Prisoners and a Million More Stories on Hart Island

“Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living”

(credit: Clare Yaffa)

What if I told you this story connected poverty, Tony Fauci, the Military-Industrial Complex, the Prison-Industrial Complex, crack, the Civil War, Covid, AIDS, Lou Reed, and my grandfather — and that’s just for starters?

Hart Island is located at the western end of the Long Island Sound, off the coast of the northeastern Bronx. Despite being only one mile long and 1/3 mile wide, it’s home to more than one million souls. It could be the tenth most populous city in the U.S. — ranked above teeming metropolises like San Francisco, Denver, DC, Boston, and Detroit.

I say “could” because Hart Island, as a potter’s field for New York City, is actually the largest tax-funded cemetery in the world. And, until 2019, it was manned by grave-digging inmate labor shipped over from nearby Rikers Island.

(credit: Claire Yaffa)

Generally speaking, a potter’s field is where any city buries the bodies (and body parts) of those not claimed by any family members or unable to afford a private funeral. This typically includes the homeless, indigent, and people who live alone and below the poverty line. Low-income victims of epidemics and pandemics are often buried in such a location.

Near the very end of his life, my grandfather would half-jokingly implore my mother to abandon him in the hospital. “They’ll put me in a potter’s field,” he explained, “and you won’t have to waste money on a funeral.”

For the record, Mom did not take Grandpa up on his suggestion.

My maternal grandfather with me and my older sister, approximately 200 years ago.

Why “Hart” Island, you wonder? Like so many other Big Apple tales, there are a couple of interesting but questionable origin stories. The Middle English word “hart” means “stag.” This kinda-sorta makes sense when you consider that the island was once used as a game preserve. Also, deer did migrate from the mainland when ice covered this geographic region way back when.

The yarn I prefer, for its poetic license, is that British cartographers originally called it “Heart” Island due to its shape. To believe this story is to assume the cartographers to be quite inept as the island’s shape is not exactly like something you’d see in a cardiology textbook. But I’m going with it.

(credit: Claire Yaffa)

Besides being a game preserve, over the centuries, Hart Island was also, um… multi-purposed? It’s been a potter’s field since 1875, of course, but here are just a few of the many other uses the “Island of the Undesirables” has served:

  • Training ground for the “United States Colored Troops” during the Civil War
  • Civil War prison camp (235 Confederate prisoners died and were buried on the island)
  • A special hospital was built on the island during the 1870 yellow fever epidemic
  • Tubercularium
  • Reformatory for delinquent boys
  • A women’s “lunatic asylum”
  • Homeless shelter
  • The base for Nike surface-to-air missiles during the Cold War

In the 1960s, Phoenix House even ran a drug rehabilitation program on the island. They’d hold annual sober music festivals there (one year’s headliner was the Velvet Underground).

At one point, plans were made to erect an amusement park on the island but somehow, that was never built. It’s not hard to discern why so many believe Hart Island to be haunted.

Despite the myriad uses, Hart Island seemed resigned to its destiny as a potter’s field and that’s what it is full-time now. The list of famous individuals interred on the island includes:

During the 1980s, far too many of what came to be called “crack babies” died alone in hospitals or in other settings — often diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. These unfortunate souls were frequently laid to rest on Hart Island, lined up in tiny coffins.

(credit: Claire Yaffa)

Fear, prejudice, paranoia, and Fauci/Big Pharma criminality helped shape the heartless response to the AIDS pandemic in the 1980s. This reality was manifest on Hart Island with inmate workers being required to wear protective outfits when handling body bags containing those who were said to have died from AIDS.

Eventually, when it was accepted that no one could “catch” AIDS from a corpse, those bodies were buried in mass graves along with all the others. You can use an interactive map here to identify them.

In 2008, it was decided that Hart Island would be used for mass burials should there be something like an extreme flu pandemic on the horizon. Some 20,000 slots were made available, just in case. Twelve years later, this planning would go into effect.

Drone picture show bodies being buried on Hart Island where the Department of Corrections is dealing with the COVID-19 “outbreak” in New York City, U.S., April 9, 2020. (REUTERS/Lucas Jackson)

In 1992, a Rikers Island inmate named Michael Roman was part of a work crew assigned to bury bodies on Hart Island. Roman called the location, “an island of poor unfortunate souls, buried here in the unknown to others.”

He bemoaned: “If only I had the power to help this lost island.”

With that in mind, I urge you to please take another moment to peruse the images that accompany this article. Honor them and the anonymous victims they represent. Ponder how many unrealized moments are also buried on those 101 acres. And what about the children and all the chances they never had? Who will remember these lost souls?

Vicki Pavia, whose baby is buried on Hart Island. ©1994 Joel Sternfeld

This is where the Hart Island Project comes in. Here’s a little from their mission statement:

The Hart Island Project maintains an online database of people buried between 1980 and the present as well as maps of their grave locations. This database is the foundation for a system of storytelling and visualization called the Traveling Cloud Museum in an attempt to preserve the histories of who is buried for present and future generations. The Hart Island Project advocates for increased transparency of New York City burial procedures and assists individuals in gaining access to actual graves and information.

Click here to learn how you can help them.

(credit: Claire Yaffa)

Maybe you’ll feel inspired by what you’ve learned about Hart Island — inspired to not assume you’ve got things all figured out. No one ever imagines they’ll be that person who ends up buried in a plain wooden box among a pile of such boxes in a mass grave that almost nobody is ever allowed to visit. But it can and it does happen, even amidst the best-laid plans.

Perhaps the best way to venerate the virtually anonymous million-plus humans laid to rest on Hart Island is to not take our own lives or the people in our lives for granted. To live today with compassion and self-compassion, because tomorrow is never guaranteed.

There’s nothing we can do for those buried on the “Island of the Undesirables” except to remember them and mourn them. But, a bigger question remains: What are we doing right now for those who are still here among us?

As Mary Harris “Mother” Jones urged: “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”

Mickey Z. is the creator of a podcast called Post-Woke. You can subscribe here. He is also the founder of Helping Homeless Women - NYC, offering direct relief to women on New York City streets. Spread the word. Read other articles by Mickey.