Hart Island is a small island that was purchased by New York City in 1868. It is located in the Long Island Sound estuary. The reason why New York City bought the island was so that it could serve as a “Potter’s field” (a place of burial for unknown or indigent people).
The Department of Corrections is responsible for operating and maintaining New York City’s Potter’s Field on Hart Island. Based on burial records, as many as one million people have been buried there.
The Hart Island Project says that since 1980, 65,802 people have been buried in mass graves on Hart Island. A portion of the Hart Island Project website is called “Traveling Cloud Museum”. Boxes float past as you scroll down.
Each box holds the name and age (if known) of an individual that was buried on Hart Island. The plot number and grave number the person was buried at is listed. At the top of each box, there is a timer ticking. It shows how many years, days, minutes, and seconds that person has been buried on Hart Island. The countdown will stop when someone is able to add a story about that person.
A few of the boxes have stories attached to them. You can read that story and add more stories (if you have that information). Most of the boxes have a person’s first and last name. One says “Howard”. Another says “Male Unknown”.
The New York Department of Corrections has a Hart Island Lookup Service that a person can use to find out if one of their relatives or ancestors ended up buried at Hart Island. The database contains all Hart Island burial records since 1977. The Hart Island Project suggests that people who are seeking the grave of a stillborn put the name of the mother into the search engine (and use the infant search).
Burial records from before 1977 are held by the Municipal Archives. The exception is for the records that were destroyed in a fire in the late 1970’s (which includes records from between 1956 and 1960 and several years of the 1970’s.)
New York Times points out that there are mass graves on Hart Island. One mass grave is a 200 foot trench that has the remains of 8,904 babies who were buried between 1988 and 1999.
One end of the island has mass graves that are fifteen feet wide and eight feet deep. At the very southern tip of Hart Island are the graves of 16 people who died from AIDS in the 1980’s. Their bodies are buried under 14 feet of soil.
The New York Department of Corrections website says that Hart Island is open to the public. There are two types of Hart Island visits: general visits to a gazebo area on the island and burial site visits for family members of those who are buried on the island.
Image by Doc Searls on Flickr.
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