Hart Island has been many things: a prisoner of war camp multiple times; in the mid-19th century, it housed confederate POWs; in the mid-20th, it held POWs from World War 2. The island has also been home to a womens’ asylum, a boys’ workhouse, a drug rehab, and a NIKE missile base. But if the average person knows anything at all about Hart Island, it is likely the fact that, since 1869, the island has served as New York’s sixth potter’s field. Approximately 800,000 bodies are buried on the island, making it the largest publicly funded cemetery in the world. The bodies are buried in simple pine boxes, the adults in trenches that hold up to 200 coffins; the infants, in trenches that hold up to 1,000. Since the island is owned by the New York City Department of Corrections, and the burials performed by inmates, nobody is permitted to so much as land a boat on the island.
In 2008, Marie Lorenz and I set out at about 4:45 in the morning and landed a boat on the island. In the roughly 4.5 hours I had to photograph the island before Marie got jittery and wanted to leave, we came across many amazing things. The top photograph depicts the view from a window on the top floor of the White Dove building, originally part of an 1880s lunatic asylum for women, and last used as a drug rehab. (Here’s a post showing the interior.) In between the wings is a pit covered in plywood. This was a half-filled mass grave for infants. Around the corner from the building was another mass grave (middle photograph) - this one for adults, and just starting to fill. Both are surely covered now as many more trenches have taken their place. And on the first floor of the White Dove building, several coffins - this one not buried, and several disinterred (bottom photograph depicts the unburied coffin). For more on Hart Island, check out my 2008 blog post on the topic.