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Mass grave with one million forgotten souls: Forbidden Hart Island of NYC

One Million bodies buried in unmarked graves on Hart Island in NYC, the place once referred to as Potter's field.
One Million bodies buried in unmarked graves on Hart Island in NYC, the place once referred to as Potter's field.
Wikimedia Commons/ Circa 1890/ Hart Island posted by Jacob Riis

One million people are buried in a mass grave, which is unmarked and closed to the public. If you are thinking this has to be in some third world country, think again. The million lost souls are buried in one of the largest cemeteries in the United States, according to Business Insider on April 10.

This little known cemetery that holds over a million unforgotten people is in on Hart Island, which is east of the Bronx in New York City. An estimated 1,500 bodies are added to this mass grave every year. This is the place that was once referred to as "Potter's Field."

The bodies buried on Hart Island include those of still-born babies, which are buried up to 1,000 to grave. Then there are adult bodies, which are buried three coffins deep and up to 150 coffins per adult grave. All these forgotten people are buried together on this desolate island with only empty dilapidated buildings to remind you that it was once inhabited.

The adult corpses are homeless people and the poor, stacked up in these unmarked graves that are dug by prisoners doing time on Rikers Island, according to visual artist Melinda Hunt. No one but the prisoners and prison officials are allowed on the island. This is one “public cemetery closed to the public,” according to a woman whose baby is among the infants buried on this island, Elaine Joseph.

Hunt heads the Hart Island project, which is campaigning to make this cemetery visible and accessible to the public. The island has many restrictions, starting with it is almost impossible to get permission to visit this island of despair. If you are lucky enough to get your request passed through the proper channels and you are finally allowed to step foot on the island, photos are prohibited.

It is the Department of Corrections that runs the island. The barbed wire and locks in place resemble a prison and this is what greets you when you access the island by boat on its lone jetty. It is estimated that the cemetery holds a million lost souls that have been buried there through the decades, starting in 1869.

The island is home to buildings, which are remnants from the various venues erected on this small island over the years. The first use of Hart Island was as a cemetery during the Civil War. “Hart Island has variously served as a training camp, a prison for captured Confederates, a workhouse, a mental asylum and even a Cold War missile base,” according to Yahoo.

Records of the burials are sketchy with many missing and some burned. This is a hardship for families who come looking for a missing loved one and they cannot find out if they were buried by the city or not. This is the grave site for many still born babies and many mothers through the years have wanted to visit the site where their baby was buried, but could not.

Not only is it next to impossible to get on the island because it is off limits, but even if you were lucky enough to get there, finding the grave you are looking for is another next to impossible feat. A small group of women were granted access to specific grave sites this past November. They were given permission after making threats of filing complaints, according to Yahoo News.

Elaine Joseph, a 59-year-old nurse whose baby daughter died at five days old in 1978, was the first out of these women to visit Hart Island. Seeing her baby’s final resting place brought her to tears. She explains how she felt about the Hart Island grave site:

"I can't say I found closure. When you lose a child, there really is never closure. There is a piece of you that is gone. "I did find solace in that there was water surrounding it and there was a lovely view."

The Hart Island project is helping families looking for their loved ones who may or may not be buried on Hart Island. The project has started a data base listing more than 60,000 burials. They have introduced a bill to the city requesting that Hart Island be managed by the Parks and Recreation Department.

The Hart project looks for the future of the island to be much like a public cemetery back on the mainland. Accessible for people like Joseph, who said she dreams of a bench and flowers to honor her baby. Most of all she wants to have a marker for her baby’s grave.

The cemetery is in NYC, the hub for immigrants entering the United States for the first time years ago. They came through Ellis Island to this new land holding a promise for a better life. Out of those million lost souls buried on Hart Island it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to say that one or more of the people buried there could be your ancestor.

It is time to make Hart Island a public place where people can go and honor the dead from the Civil War casualties to the unnamed stillborn babies buried on the island cemetery.

This has to change and it sounds like Hunt is moving mountains to try and do so. She does this because:

"You have a right to know where a person is. It's very important not to disappear people. It's not an acceptable thing to do in any culture.”

This simple statement is so important. No one wants their loved ones forgotten and piled with the dead in a mass grave. Changing the old Potter's Field to a park where folks can visit and pay respects or just take in the wonderful water views is a wonderful way to honor those buried there.

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