This Bronx Island Belongs to the Dead

This Bronx Island Belongs to the Dead

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How many haunted, plague-ridden, corpse-filled islands are there in the world? We visited North Brother and Poveglia, but we haven’t yet made the trip to Hart Island.

This lonely little patch of land in the Long Island Sound, just off the coast of the Bronx, is home to up to a million bodies.

A Brief History of Hart Island

Like many of islands off the coast of major cities, Hart Island has served many purposes. During the Civil War, the United States Colored Troops used the island as a training ground. A little later, it became a prison camp for captured Confederates.

Naturally, the island was also the site of a psychiatric hospital and a tuberculosis sanatorium–after all, where else are you going to put the sick and mad citizens of a major city?

The structures on the island have variously been used as homeless shelters, a detention facility for “vicious boys,” and drug rehab centers. For a little while during the Cold War, it also housed Nike anti-aircraft missiles.

The living residents abandoned the island by the late 70s. But to this day, it serves as the potter’s field for New York City.

How Many Dead in That Cemetery?

Hart Island is where the poor, the forgotten, and the otherwise unclaimed dead of New York are laid to rest. The graves are dug by Rikers Island inmates, who earn pennies an hour for their trouble.

It is the largest tax-funded cemetery in the world. Experts say that there are about a million bodies in the mass graves–a third of them babies who were stillborn or did not survive long after being born. When that happens, mothers have the option of choosing a City Burial for free.

No Stranger to Plague Victims

Hart Island most recently made the news with photos of mass graves being prepared for COVID-19. As New York struggled to contain the viral hotspot, more than 10,000 people died in a short span of time. Those who had no family to claim them–or whose families could not afford the services of a mortuary–ended up on Hart Island.

This isn’t the first time the island welcomed a new wave of permanent residents. During the AIDS crisis of the 80s, for example, bodies were initially buried in separate graves by workers in hazmat suits. The New York Times notes that the island is “perhaps the single largest burial ground in the country for people with AIDS.”

The island also buried many bodies during epidemics of tuberculosis, yellow fever, and typhoid. In 2008, the city designated an area of the island specifically for future pandemic victims. There’s enough room there to bury 20,000 bodies in a hurry.

Is It Haunted?

The obvious answer is “yes.” After all, we’re talking about a place with over a million lost, unclaimed, or forgotten souls. Many of them are babies, stacked deep in mass grave trenches. It’s not a happy place by any means. Add in the psychic trauma of being used as a prison, psychiatric hospital, and sanatorium? You’ve got the perfect storm of supernatural energy.

However, access to the island is limited. Although prisoner-gravediggers have reported feelings of being watched or hearing whispers, no in-depth paranormal investigation has been done.