Human Bones Are Emerging Out Of The Ground On New York’s Island Of The Dead

The island is located in the city's East River, and likely contains over a million bodies. David Trawin/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Josh Davis 04 May 2018, 12:50

Storms and tides are revealing some of New York City’s darkest secrets.

Erosion caused by Superstorm Sandy means that human bones are literally falling out of the banks of the Island of the Dead. Known officially as Hart Island, and located in New York’s East River, the island has been used as a cemetery for the city's poorest citizens for over 100 years.

Photos taken by passing boats have shown bones on the beaches, prompting the authorities to send forensic anthropologists to the island to collect the remains. So far, they have found 174 human bones, including six skulls, 31 leg bones, and 16 pelvises, which have been carefully cataloged. The episode has prompted calls to speed up repair work scheduled to take place.

The history of Hart Island is long and varied. It has been used over the centuries as a training ground for troops, a prisoner-of-war camp for captured Confederate soldiers, a prison, a psychiatric institution, a boy’s correctional facility and workhouse, a tuberculosis sanatorium, and a missile silo. As if that wasn’t enough, it is also the largest tax-funded cemetery in the world.

The island has been used as a cemetery for the city's poorest people for hundreds of years. Museum of the City of New York/Wikimedia Commons

For over 150 years, the island has been used as a potter’s field, or pauper’s grave. It is thought that as many as a million of New York’s poor and destitute have been buried on the island, which has become the final resting place for many of the unclaimed bodies from the city's morgue, something that continues to happen even to this day.

It is now thought that fewer than 1,500 bodies are buried on the island each year, approximately a third of which are infants and stillborn babies. Adults are placed in pine coffins, and infants in shoebox-sized containers, and stacked into separate trenches to aid interment if relatives are eventually found. The potter’s field is also used to bury amputated body parts, which are buried in boxes simply labeled “limbs”.  

“These are New Yorkers,” City Council member Mark Levine told the Associated Press. “These are human beings who were largely marginalized and forgotten in life, they were people who died homeless or destitute, victims of contagious disease, the AIDS crisis. And we're victimizing them again in their final resting place.”

While most cemeteries have gravestones and well-manicured lawns, the same cannot be said for Hart Island. The only individual marker is for the first child to die in the AIDS epidemic in New York City, who is buried in isolation there.

Campaigners want to see this changed. While a total of $13.2 million has been set aside to make improvements and repair the erosion that is currently taking place, many want to see Hart Island turned into a park and historic site.

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