Friday, February 19, 2016

The Island With No Heart

Hart Island
On the western edge of Long Island Sound in New York lies the small, uninhabited Hart Island. Just 131 acres, it was once known as "Heart Island," but somewhere in its sorrowful history it lost the "e." Nobody is allowed on the island today, nobody but convicts and the guards that supervise them. The only other people allowed are the ones who will make this island their forever home. They are the dead.

For a few months during the Civil War, the island was home to over 3,500 Confederate prisoners of war. It was filthy, unsanitary, full of misery and the men were given barely enough maggot infested food to live. Almost 10% of them died before the end of the war and the deceased were buried in unmarked graves on the island.

An outbreak of Yellow Fever in the 1870's resulted in hundreds of people being quarantined on the island. Most of those who succumbed to the illness joined the unlucky Confederate prisoners who would never leave the island. A women's insane asylum was opened on the island in 1885. This facility only accepted chronic cases and experimental "cures" were carried out there for a number of years, treatments that are now looked upon as barbaric and cruel. The poor women housed here endured untold suffering and anguish. Not all of them survived and they too joined those who had gone before them in the unconsecrated grounds in unmarked graves. In the early 1900's, the insane asylum was closed and a boy's reform school was housed in the former asylum building. The boys housed there were delinquents, most of them petty thieves, bullies and incorrigible. Punishment, both corporal and mental, were liberally doled out as the administrators thought warranted.

Hart Island Insane Asylum building today.
During World War II, the military took over the island and used it to house & discipline over 2,800 servicemen who had been court marshaled for offenses. In the years after the war, the island was used as a tuberculosis center and as a rehabilitation center for alcoholics. In every use of the island, suffering and sadness was a common theme. And most everyone who perished on the island, was buried on the island, usually dumped in a mass grave or at best, in an unmarked grave. This alone would be reason enough for the island to be haunted, but what came after the alcoholics were removed makes the island's history even darker.

 The New York City Department of Corrections was given oversight of the island and it was turned into the world's largest publicly funded potter's field - a graveyard for the homeless, the indigent, the mentally ill, the unknown, the unclaimed and the unwanted. Today, over 1 million bodies have been buried on Hart Island, all interred without a prayer said over them, with no remembrances, no marker. No friends, no relatives come to the burial. Convicts from Riker's Island prison come one day every other week to stack 150 adult coffins in each bulldozed trench. Little wooden coffins holding the remains of babies are laid in mass grave trenches dug to the size needed for however many little coffins there are. There are so many mass graves that the trenches are now dug over burial spots from 50 years before as enough time has gone by that the wooden coffins and bodies buried there have almost fully decomposed. Sometimes the convicts find bones in the dirt dug for the new trenches. They throw the larger bones in the trench before unceremoniously throwing the dirt back on.

Riker's Island inmates burying the dead on
Hart Island (Photo courtesy New York Post archives)
No doubt there are many restless, angry and insane souls on the island. The convict workers do not stay overnight here. They come early in the day and leave before dark. Even during daylight hours though,witnesses report feeling like someone is watching them everywhere they go; that eyes of the dead are watching them even before they get off the boat taking them to the island. The gutted and decaying buildings still bearing the disturbing graffiti of lost souls domiciled on the island over the years, are often reported to house shadowy figures, shadows only seen out of the corner of the eye, shadows that are not there when looked at straight on. It is said that whispers are often heard in these buildings, whispers that sound like children's voices.  

The only witnesses to these hauntings are the inmates and guards that come there to bury the dead. No others are allowed on the island. The No Trespassing rule is strictly enforced. Even people that have family members buried here have a hard time getting permission to visit their deceased relatives. The few that are granted permission are, once per month, escorted on a ferry to a pier and then restricted to a small covered gazebo about 20 feet onto the island. They are permitted to say a few words and are then escorted back to the ferry.

Many of the convicts refuse to come back after working the burial detail only once or twice . Some of these hardened criminals just can't take the number of babies being buried there. Handling and placing the little coffins by hand, one on top of the other in row after row, is too sad even for them. Others have an experience with the ghosts they don't want to take a chance on repeating. One inmate claimed he plainly heard children's voices crying out inside the old insane asylum building. He said it was children crying and begging for help. A lot of convicts simply say they will not volunteer for the work detail again and refuse to talk about the island or any experiences they may have had there.

Hundreds more unclaimed bodies continue to be buried here every month. More lost souls. More restless, angry souls. The dead never stop coming. The island may be off limits to everyone but the workers, the guards with guns, and the departed not to prevent vandalism, but for a whole different reason. You probably shouldn't attempt to find out.