Hart Island: New York City’s dark shadow

Being Hart Island, the proposed park – given the racist title ‘Negro Coney Island’ – was to be solely for black residents, who in 1924 were legally barred from visiting racially segregated parks.

Owen Clayton
9 June 2020, 11.19am
Earthmoving equipment on Hart Island, New York, where unclaimed bodies of victims of COVID-19 are buried, April 16, 2020.
Anthony Behar/PA. All rights reserved.

Many people have been shocked in recent weeks to see drone footage of bodies of people who had allegedly died of COVID-19 being stacked in pits on New York City’s Hart Island. Yet Hart Island, America’s largest mass grave, has long been New York’s dark shadow: a place where the unclaimed, the dispossessed and the poor are laid away and forgotten, all in sight of some of the most expensive real estate and some of the wealthiest people on earth. Hart Island is where the Other is buried.

Being one of the most populous places on earth, Manhattan has a longstanding problem of what to do with its unclaimed dead. Its solution is Hart Island, whose original Siwanoy inhabitants had long ago been eradicated. Hart Island is the ideal location to place Othered groups: just West of Long Island Sound in the area of the Bronx, it is near enough to be a convenient storage location but out of the way enough to be invisible to most New Yorkers. Estimates put 1 million bodies on an island that is approximately 1 mile long by 0.33 miles wide. Coffins of children, women, and men are stacked in rows on top of each other. They have for years been buried by Riker’s Island prisoners, disproportionately black, who have reported feeling traumatised by the work. Such trauma is unsurprising, especially since, as I saw while looking through records in New York’s Municipal Archives, a significant number of burials are of unidentified body parts, unceremoniously placed in boxes marked ‘limbs’.

Hart Island was a dumping ground for those whom New York City wished to forget.

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Before becoming a mass grave, Hart Island was used as a training ground for black Union troops in 1864, presumably because holding African-American soldiers in New York City, which had recently undergone a series of race riots, was considered too dangerous: placing them on Hart Island kept them out of sight of New York’s racist white population. The City bought the island shortly after the war and began performing burials of the poor and unclaimed. Being buried in what became known as Hart Island’s Potter’s Field was a stigma suffered by the ‘pauper dead’, including ‘the children of the poor, of the vicious, of the vile’, as an 1878 New York Times article put it. The island had several other uses in the late nineteenth-century: a quarantine station for victims of Yellow Fever, an Industrial School for pauper children, and a women’s psychiatric institution. By the early twentieth century the island housed a workhouse and a prison for the elderly. Hart Island was a dumping ground for those whom New York City wished to forget.

Incredibly, in 1924 this space for housing the despised, diseased, mad, criminal and the dead was also felt to be a suitable location for an amusement park. Being Hart Island, however, the proposed park was to be solely for black residents, who at this time were legally barred from visiting racially segregated parks on Coney Island. The idea, given the racist title ‘Negro Coney Island’, was serious enough that the proposed owner bought land on the island, but the city refused to allow the park due to its proximity to a jail. Part of the reason for this rejection may have been that a park would have opened the island up to large numbers of black visitors who were not under the city’s control.

Hart Island 1855
Convalescent Hospital on Hart Island, 1877. | Wikicommons/Mid-Manhattan Picture Collection, New York City. Public domain.

A park would have opened the island up to large numbers of black visitors who were not under the city’s control.

In the early 1950s the island featured a homeless shelter and housed up to 2,000 people, and in 1955 a treatment centre for alcoholism was opened. This must have been a bleak experience for all the people involved. But from the city’s point of view, not only did it remove the unsightly homelessness and alcoholism problems from the genteel gaze of New York’s middle classes, but keeping these Othered people on the island while they were alive also meant that they were conveniently close to the Potter’s Field where they would probably end up. The city even opened a courthouse on the island that dealt specifically with homelessness, thereby keeping one of New York’s most persistent problems away from public view.

A prison for short-term inmates was run during the 1950s and 60s, but in 1966 this closed and a drug rehabilitation centre called Phoenix House was opened. The next ten years was a period of relative openness for Hart Island, as Phoenix House expanded to house 350 residents, and the island even for a time became a festival location. This openness ended in 1977 when regular ferry stops were cut, and Phoenix House moved. Hart Island had been abandoned by the living and would now be a place for the dead alone.

In the 1980s, the ultimate Othered group were those infected with Aids, who were blamed for catching the ‘gay plague’ through allegedly sinful sexual behaviour. The first victims of this disease were buried on Hart Island, but incredibly these burials took place away from the other bodies. The official justification for this was a fear that the corpses of Aids victims could contaminate the living, though this explanation makes little sense. Like interring suicides at the crossroads, implicit in this separate burial was a condemnation of the lifestyles of the Aids victims, as if their supposed immorality could somehow infect the rest of Hart Island’s dead. Several of these separate graves are unmarked, leaving friends and relatives unable to locate the deceased even if they could gain access to the island, which usually they could not.

For many years, the Island was under the jurisdiction of the Department of Correction, which prevented access completely. Relatives were barred from visiting until, following campaigning by the Hart Island Project, the city lost a court case in 2014, though even then access was limited and photography illegal. Thankfully, in December 2019 jurisdiction transferred to the Department of Parks and Recreation, which has promised that in the future Hart Island will become not only be more accessible, but also more akin to a public cemetery than a prison.

T-Bone Slim

T-Bone Slim
Screenshot: Resurrection/T-Bone Slim.YouTube.

I came across Hart Island during my research into the writer and musician T-Bone Slim (Matti Valetinpoika Huhta), a Finnish-American labour activist, writer, musician and member of the radical union the Industrial Workers of the World. Slim was a river barge pilot who died a mysterious death in 1942, his body found floating in New York’s East River, in view of the Brooklyn Bridge. His body was unclaimed, and so he was buried on Hart Island as an ‘unknown white man’. In life Slim was a witty satirist who championed America’s working class, inventing catchphrases such as ‘Only the poor break laws – the rich evade them’. Slim seemed to anticipate his own burial when he wrote:

‘After capitalism is fully developed and civilization has reached its dizziest pinnacle, and when the whole land, all the ponds, and part of Lake Michigan is dotted with tombstones – and all the prairies are graveyards – all the valleys are cemeteries – and all the mountains are mausoleums, I mean – when there is left no place in which to tuck the dead, this will be a good world to live in.

‘The graves should be dug deeper. Plant the dead two and three deep – sort of “stack ‘em up.” Square the tops of the tombstones – all of equal height so that we can build our HOUSE on the remains of the dead.’

When he penned these words in 1925, Slim did not know that he would be buried in a mass grave, in a pit stacked three to five coffins deep. But the quote predicts a future in which there is no room for the dead or the living, who are forced to live on top of one another, like many of the homeless, diseased and criminals whom New York City pushed out to Hart Island. The quote also captures Slim’s anger at the treatment of the poor under capitalism, and indeed he spent his life exhorting America’s working class to stand up against its exploitation. That for many decades Riker’s Island prisoners would labour on Hart Island for less than $1 an hour, within a few feet of his remains, would not have surprised him.

There is a twist to Hart Island’s tale of Othering and amnesia. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy accelerated an ongoing process of erosion on the island. For years exposed bones have been washing up on Long Island Sound. Skeletons of the homeless, diseased and unwanted have been coming back to haunt the city that tried to forget them.

Analogously, T-Bone Slim is himself undergoing a ‘resurrection’, which is the name of the title track from an album of Slim’s previously-unrecorded songs that is soon be released by his Great-Grandnephew, John Westmoreland, with whom I have had the pleasure of working. In that song Slim writes of a man who staggers home drunk and falls into an open grave, only to wake up the next morning and be mistaken for a risen corpse by bemused onlookers. In a similar way, Hart Island’s dead, who have long been Othered and forgotten, are rising from their graves and demanding to be heard. In future years it will be possible for relatives like John to visit their ancestors buried on the island. Only when that happens will New York begin to face the true history of Hart Island, which has lain like a dark shadow over the gleaming skyscrapers of Manhattan.

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