On Hart Island

Thomas Morton
16 min readAug 2, 2020

They’re burying the COVID deaths on Hart Island. The last time I saw Hart Island was from a plane taking off out of Laguardia. I used to insist on flying out of there because I could get to it from my house in under 30 minutes and every time we took off I’d look out the window while the plane banked west and find Hart Island off the side of the Bronx. Usually I’d snap a picture too, provided my phone was charged. There’s probably more photos of that strange brown squiggle of land on my phone than any single other place or person.

Do you know about Hart Island? There was a five-year period of my life where I’m fully certain that this was the question I asked the most people. Well fine, after “How’s it going?” But it was the question I asked the most people in earnest.

The way it’d come up is people would ask me what I was working on. Sometimes I was working on something fairly interesting, or had just finished with something, and I’d tell them about that. Sometimes I wasn’t really working on anything, or I was but I didn’t feel like describing whatever it was, so I’d ask them if they knew about Hart Island. Most didn’t. I guess that’s probably changed now.

Here’s the history of Hart Island. For whatever reason I always run through it backwards. That’s just the way it works in my mind; it’s like doing an archeological dig, you can’t start from the bottom. So Hart Island is our potter’s field in New York. It’s where the homeless, the family-less, the John and Jane Does who die in the city get buried. It’s also where the stillborn babies of Catholic parents are sometimes buried, along with the severed limbs of members of some religious faith or another — although I’ve always been a little dubious of that last part.

The bodies arrive at Hart Island in plain wooden caskets and are stacked three deep in trenches dug by prisoners from Rikers. Technically, Hart Island is part of Rikers — it’s administered by the state Department of Corrections. To be selected for the burial detail you have to be in the final six months of your sentence so you’re a low flight risk. Not sure how necessary that precaution is or if they’ve ever had a prisoner try to escape from off of Hart Island — that’d be one bitch of a swim.

In the 80s and early 90s, during New York’s last plague days, many of the victims of AIDS were buried on Hart Island. The last authorized photos of Hart Island — or I think they were authorized, could just be the last widely released photos — were from this period, taken by a female photographer whose name escapes me who was somehow able to join a burial crew with a camera. I wish I could better remember the story, or that I had working wifi right now, but the images are good and lodged in my head. Black & white shots of black and white prisoners, mostly on the older side, shoveling in the sun next to unmarked crates of unnamed people. The caskets aren’t casket-shaped, the way they’d draw them in a cartoon, just straight rectangular pine or plywood boxes, like what you’d use to ship a whole bunch of curtain rods or oblong parts for a truck. Looking at them all neatly stacked, I had a difficult time convincing myself they contained actual human bodies. I had to really force myself to picture it properly, I think partially because of the shape but also because you really never see coffins on top of one another. Like cargo.

Hart Island is Nike missile battery NY-15, right between the Bronx and Great Neck.

Before this period, back in the 60s, Hart Island was where New York’s Nike nuclear-defense missiles were housed. A friend of mine’s dad was in the Air Force during this time and actually in charge of the operation. The idea, as he described it to me, was that after the Distant Early Warning system and all the other radar networks we used to have picked up incoming missiles from the USSR, his team would try to shoot them down at more-or-less the last minute before they made it to the city. Well I guess you wouldn’t shoot them down, more like shoot them… away. I should see if I can ask him more about it, if he’s still around.

Prior to the missile battery, Hart had a wayward boys school, a psychiatric hospital, and a tubercularium whose chronology I forget, then before that Typhoid Mary’s house was on it, and then before that it was a prison camp in the Civil War. Oh and I left out the drug rehab that was there in the 1970s. You’re seeing the pattern here, right? It’s things we don’t know where to put and don’t like thinking about. Hart Island is like the underside of the city’s guestroom bed, or that weird crawl space on the side of the attic. If you look at it from above right next to City Island, it almost looks like a strange duplicate land mass, but withered and bereft of features, like a quickly fading afterimage or an artifact from a sloppy xerox, or a stillborn twin.

There are very few things in New York that could reasonably be called secrets. That’s just the nature of the beast. I was tryna take a girl out garbage-picking recently down in Dead Horse Bay on a sort of “Look what cool shit I know about” gambit, and she shot back links to two major articles and a 20-minute youtube doc all from the last three years. It’s like there’s a tacit 7- to 8-year cycle where writers will pick something from atlasobscura like Dead Horse Bay or King Zog’s mansion or one of the abandoned subway stations and profile it for the Times or the New Yorker then let it dwindle back down into mild obscurity before the next round of discoverers. Hart, however,’s not on this cycle.

Ever since it’s been run by the Department of Corrections, the official policy for Hart Island has been “no reporters.” It was originally just straight up “no visitors,” endy story, but a couple decades worth of activism forced them to loosen up a little, albeit just a little. The policy’s funny — not funny-ha-ha obviously, more like funny-not-well-thought-through. From what I can tell, it wasn’t put in place because they were doing something shady or awful. It’s because the whole idea is simply unpleasant. Burial practices are already something the average person doesn’t like thinking about — then you throw prison labor into the mix, strip away the frills and formality that make funerals respectable, add in the fact that most of the buried are from the city’s homeless population — it’s just not a feel-good story any way you slice it.

I’m pretty sure this is the way the DOC looked at it, that it didn’t make them look good even in the absolute best-case scenario, and since they could just say blanket “Nope,” that’s what they did. Naturally, however, instead of keeping Hart Island out of sight and mind, the full prohibition stoked the imagination of those who ran up against it and gave rise to rumors of horror-film conditions, bodies flung naked and coffinless into mass graves by swarthy, uncaring convicts; skeletal hands protruding from the poorly packed earth. The sheer notion that it was being kept hidden meant there had to be something to hide, and — in the classic counterintuitive model of urban legends — the more implausibly heinous the carnage described, the more plausible it somehow sounded.

Of the handful of people I asked “Do you know about Hart Island?” who answered yes, almost every one of them had a friend of their brother’s or some other apocryphal third-hand source who’d stumbled onto the island off a boat to take a drunken piss and then run screaming when a skeleton grabbed their ankle. And because there was no actual coverage to weigh it against, this Scooby Doo nonsense was taken and passed on as gospel. Even by me, though I talk all like I’m above it.

While Hart Island’s off-limits status made it a journalistic white whale for me and good fodder for small talk with the kind of grim, desensitized oddballs I like to hang out with, there were people legitimately angry about it. These were the family members and friends of those buried on the island. It’s a good reminder that everybody has at least somebody else in their life no matter how down and out you get. But there’s also a variety of ways you can end up unidentified at death — none too pleasant — or you can be unlucky enough to die from a new disease before it’s properly understood. The reason they took the early AIDS victims out to Hart was because they hadn’t yet eliminated the possibility that their bodies could be contagious. Same deal with COVID I imagine — they don’t know and they’re frightened.

No matter what put them in the Potter’s Field, all these people were people, had families, had friends. It’s a weird burden on the living to be denied access to their dead. Bad enough already to have lost a loved one in such lonely conditions without the added guilt of being unable to attend to their remains. This probably hits close to home with a lot of us right now. I remember when the first few people I knew died of COVID one of my first thoughts was, “I wonder how they’ll stack up all the memorials when we’re free to congregate again.” I kept a little mental tally, that I had at least X-number funerals to go to at some point in the future.

But I’m digressing, the point was that restricting the bereaved from visiting their loved ones’ graves is a particularly thoughtless and frankly cruel side effect of trying to avoid bad publicity. So — and again, no wifi here, so I’m working from memory — a coalition of I believe direct family members of the buried, homeless advocates, the photographer I mentioned above and maybe her husband?, and Catholic priests pressed the DOC to let them on the island. The priests’ interest was slightly divergent from the other three — they wanted to perform last rites on the trenches in case they contained any Catholics who’d died outside a state of grace. Strangely enough — or maybe not so strangely enough given the 1st Amendment and general government squeamishness over things involving religion — the last rites is what won them over. Once the priests were allowed on Hart Island, they served as a beachhead for the other groups.

So this is how I went to Hart Island: A friend forwarded me a link to a homeless advocacy website that had a listing for a monthly prayer meeting they’d arranged with the DOC. There were 10 to 15 slots per month, and you had to submit an application for the visitation unit or whatever it’s called at Rikers to run a background check on you to see if you could go. They were pretty clear about the fact that members of the media weren’t allowed. I’d been working at Vice for at least 5 years by this point, so I assumed they’d reject my application, but I gave it a shot. Can’t blame a boy for trying, right?

Somehow I was given a go. I’m still not sure how I managed to slip through the cracks; I’ve since met a number of writers and photographers who tried to go via this route and were summarily denied. Maybe they didn’t think Vice Magazine was a real thing. Maybe I just didn’t google well back then.

However it happened, I was emailed instructions to meet at a pier on City Island Harbor for the boat over to Hart Island. There were about 8 of us all told when the day came — a man heading up the group from the advocacy group, who I think may have been homeless in his past; a handful of seeming regulars, your run-of-the-mill nondescript church-going folk; myself; and a young lady in her late teens who confided in me that she’d signed up so she could write a story about it for her college newspaper. So that was the prayer-group side of things — 4 pray-ers and 2 surreptitious reporters. Solid ratio.

The DOC was represented by two men, both older, one in a genuinely sharp-looking suit and black wool overcoat, the other in a prison guard uniform about as rumpled as I’ve ever seen. The one in the suit was clearly in charge, he did a headcount with the homeless advocate then recited the rules for the trip. We would surrender our phones and cameras (this is back when they were still sometimes separate) before we were allowed on the boat, we were allowed to take personal notes but he could look at them and confiscate them if he didn’t like them, we had 45 minutes on the island, we had to stay with the group at all times on the island and the group had to stay in a purpose-built gazebo at all times on the island. He then collected our electronics in a pillow case and we boarded the ferry.

I had a small black moleskine I’d thought to jot a couple bible verses in in case someone wanted to look at it (I know, I am very clever). The young lady from college was writing in a spiral-bound notebook that immediately drew the besuited man’s attention. From the second she opened it on the several-minute boat ride over he clocked her with squinty eyes and peered very deliberately over her shoulder every time he moseyed past. I was beginning to put together that he was the guy who’d processed all our applications.

The other guy from the DOC couldn’t have given less of a crap about us or about anything. He was so relaxed it almost seemed like he was stoned or something. I started talking with him on the ferry — kinda to try and keep fancyman out of my grill — and found out that he was the Corrections officer in charge of the burial details from Rikers. Evidently, much like how the details themselves are made up of short-timers, the job of overseeing the crews is given to one of the most senior guards as a sort of sinecure since it’s an infrequent and undemanding gig. So that’s why he came across so dopey; he was practically retired.

We got off the ferry at a shabby-looking dock midway down the island’s west side. It’s hard to find a good vantage point of Hart Island from land. There’s a few blocks on City Island where you can get a composite glimpse, but unless you break into someone’s waterfront yard or one of the several marinas, you can’t really see the whole island until you get on the water. But once you do, whoa mama does it live up to its reputation.

First of all the whole thing’s completely flat; it’s kind of surprising just to look at it that the island doesn’t fully submerge at high tide every day. Then there’s about maybe ten trees total on it, and of course when I was heading over it was early March and a cold one at that, so they were bare and crooked looking. But the eeriest aspect of all is its skyline, if you’re allowed to call five buildings a skyline.

Sketch is supposed to run right-to-left from the south end of the island up top to the middle where the dock is. Sorry I can’t draw for shit.

It looked like some weird time traveller’s island, or a really depressing version of Epcot Center. There were five distinctly identifiable time periods each represented by a solitary building. I sketched out a shitty little schematic of them in my notebook so I could remember their order. On the south end was a long, branchingly corridored institutional building — either the psychiatric hospital or the sanatorium or the school for wayward boys I think, if not all three — to its immediate north was a single-story standalone house, Typhoid Mary’s, I presume; then there was a blocky brutalist number from the 60s that I suspect is where the Air Force did their thing; then an old stone gothic-revival chapel from the turn of the century; and right where we were disembarking, an unpainted concrete box that the island’s head guard told me housed the island’s power dynamo, which he also told me was not working. All the buildings were visibly missing pieces.

The gazebo we’d been told we couldn’t leave was a very direct half-minute’s walk past the dynamo house into the middle of the skinny island. It looked out on a small memorial placard ringed by a horseshoe of flower bushes — guessing they were flower bushes since it hadn’t gotten warm enough for them to blossom. Next to the bushes there was a front-end loader being operated by a small crew in orange vests over Carharts — the top guard caught our sidelong glances at it and nipped the obvious suspicion in the bud.

“Don’t worry, they’re just working on the water line, we don’t bury people like that.” I saw the well-dressed guy wince as we all chuckled nervously.

After we all spaced ourselves out along the railing of the gazebo, the homeless advocate, who had a sort of Cornel West vibe going, or at least a sort of Cornel West beard, paired with a warm-looking houndstooth blazer and a braided prayer cap, began the service.

“Blessed are the poor.” Solid opener. “We stand here among the unknown. The almighty has his own purpose; he must have loved them…”

The speech was nice. I felt bad taking notes through it, so that’s all I wrote down. He spoke for maybe 4 or 5 minutes, though, then asked us to bow our heads in silent prayer. I bowed my head but kept my eyes open, like a bratty teen at his family’s church. I glanced at the college student who was just cruising away in her notebook, then at the DOC press guy in the suit, who was mad-dogging her from right outside the gazebo. Suddenly he trained his gaze at me and I clamped my eyes shut like I’d been caught.

When the advocate concluded the prayer, we had about 15 minutes to kill until the ferry came back for us. I heard the college girl not even trying to hide it, just lobbing interview questions at the press guy. He responded to one, “There are no mass graves on Hart Island. There are communal burial plots.” and I had to fake a cough to hide my laughter.

I used the rest of my 15 to talk more with Captain Relaxin’ (who was in fact a Captain). He really couldn’t have been more at odds with the constipated press guy, right down to their styles — it was cartoonish. I don’t know if he cottoned to the fact that I was media, but he gave me a classic tour guide’s rundown of interesting tidbits about the island, the history of all the buildings, the peak of burials at the end of the 80s when the city was facing both the Crack and AIDS epidemics and burying some 17,000 people a year on Hart Island.

I asked him if anybody on his details had ever tried to escape. “Man someone wants to get off here alive they better find some wood to knock on.” There wasn’t much wood around.

He walked me through an average week for him; it was mostly maintenance stuff, the burials only happened every so often. I forget if it was like once a week or more like once a month. Most of the time, though, his job sounded like being the super of a really busted tenement house.

“Man last week they called me for a fire and I had to drive all the way up from Staten Island, 3 in the morning.” I told him I had no clue what he was referring to.

“I live on Staten Island. So last week someone called in a fire on the island — “ I had to ask who would’ve seen the fire and who would’ve set it, “ — some guy on City Island; probably some teens or college kids who took a boat over and set off some firecrackers or something, maybe started a campfire. ANYWAYS — “ this was the point of the story “ — they get me out of bed at 3 in the morning, and like I said, I’m down on Staten Island. So I get out of bed, get dressed, get in my car, get on the BQE. By the time I get here it’s quarter to 4 and there’s no fire, no one around, so I just have to head on back home.”

I clucked in sympathy for his frustration and made a note of the fact that Hart Island was completely unguarded at night. That evening, when I got home, I immediately started calling around to see if I knew anyone who had access to a boat.

This is when I really started chatting it up about Hart Island. I’d get the ball rolling with some gal in a bar, see if she knew anything about it, then casually drop the fact that I was (possibly) the first reporter to openly visit Hart Island in 50 years. I usually left out the possibly.

It’s stupid to be proud of things like this. I know the mainstream media prides itself on taking pride for such things, but I’ve always prided myself for doing exactly the opposite, aside from the handful of cases like this where I don’t. As said, stupid.

I’d also tell them about my new goal with the island, to sneak a camera crew onto it in the middle of the night and conduct a seance. I lined it up three different times with three different boat owners. Each time something canceled it. The first owner got arrested. The second one I think was just humoring me and backed out when he realized I was serious. The third one something happened to his boat. I began feeling superstitious about the island. It was haunting me. I made a concerted effort not to talk about it just to try and get laid.

One night I was flying back into Laguardia after a long shoot. I’d been feeling gloomy the whole flight; probably a break-up brewing. The bell dinged for the seatbelt sign and Hart Island slid under the left wing as we banked into the final approach. I left the fuselage, sailed down fast, scared for the impact. The island grew and caught me. I stood upright. Bones enclosed my feet, they grabbed me and they pulled me down. I heard something severe and awful, like silence if it could be louder.

A flight attendant touched my shoulder to tell me to take my head off the tray table and to lock it up for landing. I woke with a start, and probably made an embarrassing noise of some kind. The bell dinged and to my left Hart Island slid under the wing as we banked into our final approach.