Hart Island

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Hart Island
Established 1869
Location New york, NY
Alternate Names
  • Hart Island Women's Asylum
  • Hart Island Workhouse
  • Phoenix House
  • Potter's Field


Hart Island was purchased by the City in 1868 from the Hunter family of the Bronx for $75,000. The following year it was established as the City's public cemetery for the burial of those persons who died indigent or whose bodies went unclaimed. In the first year, 1,875 burials were performed.

In 1865, as the Civil War was ending, the Federal government used the Island as a prison camp for Confederate soldiers. During a yellow fever epidemic in 1870, a part of the Island was used to house persons confined to isolation. In the later part of the 19th century the Island was home to a charity hospital for women, an insane asylum, and a jail for prisoners who worked on the Potter's Field burial detail.

In the early 1900s, the Island housed an old men's home and a tuberculosis hospital for women. In 1904, a reformatory for male misdemeanants 16 - 30 years old was opened. When reformatory prisoners were transferred to another facility in 1914, the jail was used to house aged male prisoners and overflow from other City jails.

During WWII, the Island was turned over to the Navy for use as a disciplinary barracks for Navy, Coast Guard and Marine personnel, with as many as 2,800 servicemen in custody. In fact, probably the closest WWII ever got to the shores of America came when three German soldiers surfaced in a U-Boat near Long Island. They were taken into custody and imprisoned for a time on Hart Island.

Hart Island was returned to the Correction Department in 1946 and the jail was reactivated. In the 1940s, inmates on Hart Island appealed to the warden and offered to build a monument to the unbefriended dead. This was accomplished in 1948 when, in cooperation with the custodial staff, they erected a 30-foot high monument in the center of the burial site. On one side is engraved a simple cross; on the other the word "Peace."

In 1950, the Island was released to the Department of Welfare for housing of male derelicts. Because of a rising prisoner population, the Island was again returned to the Correction Department in 1954 for use as a jail. From 1955 to 1961, the U.S. Army maintained a NIKE missile base on a ten-acre area of the Island.

In 1966, the jail was closed and the Island was used as a center for the Phoenix House narcotic rehabilitation program. This program was discontinued in 1976 and the Island returned to the Correction Department. However, the Department did not operate the Island as a jail until 1982, when a small prisoner contingent was again housed there. In 1991, the inmates housed on Hart Island were transferred to Rikers Island.

Today, the inmate work details are bused from Rikers Island during the week to perform the burials, disinterments and maintenance of the Island. Since the start in 1869, more than 750,000 burials (estimate) have been performed.


  • The following fifteen minute video documentary, created by SBS Dateline, is about New York City's Hart island, the history of the structures on it, and its massive potters field where over 700,000 people have been buried since 1868. It also features a few women who have worked to visit their still born children buried on the island. How these women and others have been working to get the island more accessible to those who want to visit the grave site.
  • The following eleven minute video, created by Vox, details the history of Hart Island and how recently it came to national attention due to the Covid-19 pandemic as the resting place of many who died as a result of the virus.