Cities Journal

Take A Trip To NYC’s Scariest Forgotten Island


The history of various minor islands within the borders of New York City is a rich, scary and often quite depressing one. The island that might actually boast the richest, the scariest and the most depressing one is Hart Island, located east of the Pelham Bay Park in Bronx.

The island got its name either after the Middle English word meaning ‘deer’ or the fact its shape resembles a heart. In any case, it was named by a British cartographer who probably couldn’t think of a person important enough to name the island after. Or perhaps he could see into the future and saw what would happen to the island, not wanting anyone’s name associated with it.

Among other things going down on Hart Island over the years, it was home to bare-knuckled boxing back in 19th century after the police drove the organizers out of Manhattan. In the 19th century, the island was also home to an almshouse, a jail workhouse, an insane asylum, a youth reformatory and an industrial school for vagrant boys. During the Civil War, it was a training ground and during World War II, it housed disciplinary barracks. At one point during the Cold War, Project Nike missiles were deployed on the island.

A_trench_at_the_potter's_field_on_Hart_Island,_circa_1890_by_Jacob_RiisThe only bright spot in the island’s history (if you disregard its racist reasons) came in the 1920s when developer named Solomon Riley decided to build an amusement park for the black population of Harlem who were prohibited from visiting whites-only amusement venues. The city ultimately halted the project, but only after a dance hall, a 200-feet portion of a boardwalk, and some other structures, were completed.  In the 60s and the 70s, Hart Island welcomed a Phoenix House drug rehab program.

Not long after that, Hart Island became what it is today – a graveyard for the NYC’s poorest. Namely, anyone who is not claimed by their family within a week of their death is buried in one of Hart Island’s trenches. As if the ‘death island’ idea is not chilling enough, the entire island is actually governed by the Department of Correction who use Riker Island prisoners as gravediggers, paying them $0.50 an hour.

When we suggested you should visit the Hart Island, we actually wanted you to become aware of the island’s gruesome history and the fact that the Department of Correction denies any and all access to the island, even to the relatives of the deceased.

Maybe if enough people get involved, the island will see brighter days and become a real part of NYC, not just a chilling footnote.

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