Thousands Now Living Will Never Leave

On Hart Island, and the myth of urban dying.

The oldest extant reference to tourist enterprise on Hart Island, New York, the world’s largest pauper’s cemetery now in the process of slowly opening to the public is an account of a mid-nineteenth century prizefight. The combatants were James “Yankee” Sullivan and William Bell, and the account is documented in a multi-author pamphlet compiled in Sullivan’s honor in 1854.[1] The combatants chose the remote location, twenty miles north of Manhattan, as a precaution, given the uncertain legal status of prizefighting in 1842. Rather than setting a precise location in advance, the organizers depended on spectators to gather at predetermined spots along the river to the Island, and to follow the adversary parties to the final fight location. The ad hoc nature of this viewing space, and of the transportation procedures required to accommodate six thousand fight enthusiasts, did not result in ideal docking conditions:

[A] serious difficulty presented itself in the fact that there was no dock or other landing place, and the long, shallow, shelving shore made it dangerous for the heavily laden vessels to approach too near. The only mode of reaching land was by the medium of small boats, but many of the ardent amphibii, unable to wait their tedious turn, plunged headlong into the water and swam to shore. Thus gradually disembarked, the party streamed in one dense line in a N.E. course across the Island, and resembled, as they picked their devious way along, the writhings of a monstrous snake.

After additional complications arising from the need to create sightlines for six thousand spectators on a level patch of land, the fight commenced, and Sullivan defeated Bell after twenty-four rounds, claiming the three-hundred-dollar purse for himself.

This is how Hart Island enters history as a destination: in transgression, mud, spectacle, and blood. It is not so different, in this way, from any number of American urban islands—Alcatraz, a violent penal colony hiding in plain sight of a major metropolis, comes to mind. But the litany of institutions Hart Island has hosted in the wake of the Sullivan–Bell match have marked the space as an almost perfect gothic caricature: Civil War internment camp; a boys “work reformatory” the late nineteenth and early twentieth century; in the nineteenth century, a women’s insane asylum; in the mid-twentieth century, the site of a Nike Ajax (anti-aircraft) missile base; simultaneously, from the mid-twentieth century, until 1976, a drug-rehabilitation facility.

But the necro-carceral legacy of Hart Island would be vouchsafed without the ruins of these institutions. Since 1870, one million individuals who died in New York City destitute, and whose relations could not be contacted, or could not afford (or be convinced to pay for) funeral services, have been buried within its Bronx borders. With one million dead, Hart Island is the largest Potter’s Field in the history of the world.

Chicago and Houston use a constellation of suburban or exurban spaces for the burial of their unclaimed or indigent dead. Los Angeles cremates theirs. Even if one of these or any other national or international urban center could match the population, civic infrastructure, and institutional continuity necessary to engage in a project approaching the morbidity of Hart Island, the archipelago elements intrinsic to New York City would still distinguish Hart Island. New York treats City Island Harbor, a wisp of land within throwing distance of the northeast shore of the Bronx, as a Styx. Its passage is currently administered by the last true stoics of the Department of Corrections, where burials are performed by Riker’s Island inmates for quarters an hour.

Today, to reach Hart Island by land, one passes first through the northeast corner of the Bronx and then onto City Island, itself a unique and insular New York City ecosystem. (Locals = clam diggers, interlopers = mussel suckers.) Approaching from the west, by boat, one would travel first from the Atlantic, then trace the north of Long Island via Long Island sound, and run out of water on the shores of the Bronx in City Island Harbor, where the collection of islands that includes Hart Island and City Island, and perhaps a half-dozen others, are suspended.

Access to Hart Island today is possible almost entirely because of the work of a single individual, called Melinda Hunt, whose curatorial position verges on the common meaning of author. Hunt’s public-facing persona is equal parts activist, artist and archivist. Through her efforts, the island has an extensive, if incomplete, dossier of burials, in the form of the handsomely maintained, collaborative, and inclusive; and accessibility to the island for family members has improved significantly over the last twenty years. While initial efforts to open the Island for family members were ad hoc, the more recent gains have resulted from sustained litigation and lobbying efforts.

She has explained the origin of her interest in the island as follows:

I don’t have any relative buried on Hart Island because I grew up in Canada. The Hart Island Project began in 1991, soon after I became a naturalized citizen. As an immigrant artist, I was interested in re-photographing Jacob Riis’s first images. I collaborated with Joel Sternfeld to produce a book published in 1998. We were the last people able to photograph the burials and the island. [See infra re: cameras.] After the book, Hart Island, was published, people began contacting me for help getting access to Hart Island. I had already arranged for one mother to visit in 1994, and we photographed her visit for our book. Other people wanted to visit the island as Vicky had.[2]

After Vicky, a mother who contacted Hunt while looking for an ally her an attempt to visit the grave of a daughter who died in infancy, there were ten years of litigation: not only family members, in Vicky’s position, seeking access, but also journalists, artists, civil society, the New York chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. In 2015, a global settlement between litigants and the City included amenities, in the form of transportation and tolerant hospitality for family members. On the third Thursday of each month, these amenities are extended to the curious, or the lonely, or those in search of what might be a piece of the authentic solemn in this city. To exercise this curiosity one need only be willing to front the cost of modest bureaucratic participation: the contact information for Hart Island related affairs ((718) 546-0911) is unpromisingly located deep in a government-maintained hyperlinked document that offers answers to frequently asked questions regarding Hart Island, and its rules regarding the limitations on visits are unwelcomingly byzantine, if certainly well-thought through.[3] To my pleasant surprise, after a brief exchange of phone calls Marisa Alberti (email signature: “Policy Analyst for Special Projects & Government Affairs, NYC Dept. Of Correction, Legal Division”) emailed me a ticket confirmation for the third Thursday in August 2016.

Before the expedition I tried, and largely failed, to meditate on the mathematics of the Island. The absolute number—one million dead—has an awkward, exaggerated power to it. This value goes to one quotidian paradox of urban life: the sense of finally being around enough people to truly be alone. The burden that death places on this paradox is not unexplored territory. For example, even in the death-saturated White Noise, the following exegesis stands out for the quality of its detail and the transparency of its conviction.

In cities no one notices specific dying. Dying is a quality of the air. It’s everywhere and nowhere. Men shout as they die, to be noticed, remembered for a second or two. To die in an apartment instead of a house can depress the soul, I would imagine, for several lives to come. In a town there are houses, plants in bay windows. People notice dying better. The dead have faces, automobiles. If you don’t know a name, you know a street name, a dog’s name. ‘He drove an orange Mazda.’ You know a couple of useless things about a person that become major facts of identification and cosmic placement when he dies suddenly, after a short illness, in his own bed, with a comforter and matching pillows, on a rainy Wednesday afternoon, feverish, a little congested in the sinuses and chest, thinking about his dry cleaning.[4]

There is myth at play here, in the sense of a truth that can only be articulated by nonsense. The dichotomy posited between the urban dying and suburban dying no longer existed in America by the mid-1980s. Dying at that historical moment was generally a hospital’s business, in or outside of a metropolis. It is also doubtful that such a dichotomy ever existed. None of this is much of an argument with DeLillo, of course. This monologue is in the voice of Prof. Murray Jay Siskind, would-be founder of a hopeless Elvis Studies Department, and DeLillo has the Professor deliver it in a grocery store during part of an obscene attempt to seduce the narrator’s wife.

The myth of urban dying is at least useful to introduce a boring polemic against forgetfulness that animates the most extensive literary treatment of Hart Island. At the outset of the seventh (and final) chapter in William Styron’s debut novel Lie Down In Darkness (1951) comes a two-thousand-word set piece introducing the island. But the passage is too sentimental, overwritten, and factually deficient to result in anything but anxiety-inducing tedium. Styron’s obsession with the forgotten dying, half of DeLillo’s dialectic, is at least useful to appreciate the basis for the current understanding of Hart Island. He introduces the cemetery by contrasting it to the City’s former Potter’s Fields, now popular parks (Columbus Circle, Washington Square Park, etc.):

The dead do not remain long dead in big cities, or perhaps they become deader; at any rate, the markers were torn down, the square filled in with new earth, and sidewalks laid across. They have become twice unremembered, those sleepers; once, though many bore no names, they had at least a sunny plot of ground. Now no one can mark them, and the nursemaids . . . cannot know even the fact of those who rest beneath the asphalt.[5]

The nursemaids of New York City are natural Blakeans, who traded their ploughs for strollers to drive over the bones of the dead. Styron’s umbrage with development notwithstanding, it is simply poverty of imagination to think of these poor as twice-forgotten, or at least forgotten in death. The fact of the City’s pauper cemeteries is an act of remembrance, independent of the act of individuated plot-formation. Perverse emphasis on naming these plots confuses detailed individuated death with resistance to death’s powers of obliteration.[6]

Before visiting Hart Island, I was interested in percentages. I thought around the number, trying it out like a stunt question for a job interview with a consulting firm. “How many people have died in New York City since 1870?” The best evidence indicates the answer to that question is 11,615,000[7], which would mean that Hart Island has served as the burial ground for nine per cent of New Yorkers.

With this percentage in my possession, the city took on a ghoulish character. Potential Hart Island citizens populated every urban space; one of every ten encounters was guaranteed to have generated a Hart Island moment. Of course, this was a demented way to think about moving through the city. I knew, for example, at least some percentage of those buried on the island died as babies, never rode the subway, or never even made it out of the hospital. The most famous of these is the first child whose death was linked to AIDS-related causes. His is the only site on Hart Island marked by an individual grave marker, having been set intentionally apart from other graves, at the far south end of the island. His body is also buried at a depth of fifteen feet, rather than the standard six. Another gothic signifier from the paranoid recent past.

The numbers also don’t scan horizontally. An estimated 1500 burials in 2015, as compared to 50,000 deaths. A three and-a-half per cent burial ratio in the last year, not the nine per cent of the last one hundred and forty years. Progress.

Captain T__, twenty-seven-year veteran of the Department of Corrections (seventeen in maximum security at Riker’s Island, the last ten at Hart Island) was prompt for the scheduled nine o’clock departure time, as were a young Asian couple and two young white people in their mid-twenties. My companion and I made six. There were three crew: two deckhands and the ferry pilot. The pilot was new—apparently the gentle tides and protected water spaces of City Island Harbor make an ideal training ground for the City’s Coast Guard force. We navigated past a crop of harbor rocks at the midway point between City Island and Hart Island. This outpost,  (“Rat Island,” I later learned) ostensibly the only privately owned island in the City, had recently changed hands. It was purchased by two retired Swiss residents (a retired Port Authority worker and coffee-trader, respectively) for $176,000. They have since installed three flag poles (Swedish, American, New York City) and an empty plinth.

Cellphones are not permitted due to rules of general applicability that prohibit taking photographs of prisoners in the absence of their explicit consent. The Department of Corrections will chaperone non-family members only to a small white gazebo, about 100 yards from the dock where the single ferry from City Island unloads. From this position, one can view the dilapidated remains of structures from the island’s previous roles, institutional architecture gradually being overrun by vegetation. The cemetery space itself, trenches of dead, are behind walls of trees that cut the view from the gazebo to both the south and the north.

The experience of Hart Island as a stranger to the cemetery will be familiar to those who have ever decided that a walk in Greenwood would be a pleasant way to pass a President’s Day. Instead of urban bustle and detritus, there is evidence of the sporadic improvisational meaning-making activity of those who have worked the island since it assumed its singular identity as a cemetery. The gazebo path is flanked by a pair of seraphim, placed at arbitrary position and angles, the work, according to Captain T__., of some from a generation of bored deckhands of the ferry Michael Cosgrove. Within the white picket that distinguishes the visitors’ gazebo space from Hart Island proper is a single stone. Some thoughtful soul has seen to it that there were words of comfort and remembrance engraved on the stone, but they are entirely forgettable.

By Unknown – Mid-Manhattan Picture Collection / New York City — hospitals — 1899 & earlier, Public Domain, Link

The solemnity of the place is at odds with its gothic history. The island, with a sort of stubborn dignity, resists sentimentalizing altogether. Since it has been open to the public, the volume of literature on the island has increased, at least some portion of it by curious outsiders, almost all of it taking its cues from Styron. Vice’s correspondent noted the “eerie silence” of the pier, and the founder-correspondent for the amateur adventure club blog Untapped Cities sniffed that her field trip would have been better serviced if it had included permission to explore the island’s ruins. The New York Times has taken up the case as well, with two splashy features in 2016, each cataloguing personal or institutional failures that lead the island’s dead to their final resting place.[8]

The obvious good intentions and social value of this reporting are undercut by the hand-wringing that accompanies the work. The Times referred to the island as “desolate and inaccessible.” At least one of these characterizations is flatly untrue. The other is fair, but really only for those who have never visited any other cemetery before. What coverage there has been since the island has opened has been less an argument with the island, or the city, or even poverty, but an argument with death itself.

Any encounter with Hart Island resists the most natural, and sentimental, reading of the place. In the scheme of this City’s palimpsest, Hart Island has resisted overwriting for the past 40 years. Neighborhoods have gentrified or been brought to ruin, skyscrapers collapsed and been rebuilt, and a generation and a half have passed, all to the island’s indifference. It is quite useless to look at Hart Island as a metaphor for the city—its callousness, or its brutality, or its indifference. Hart Island Cemetery is a harder and more intimidating part of the City than all that. Specifically, Hart Island is that part of the city that does not change. The poor you will always have with you[9]

The Asian couple took out pads and began to sketch. Prisoners were conducting the burial work, for the most part just out of sight. Before we left (the Michael Cosgrove had to make a fuel run), facing west across the width of the island, we watched a white pickup truck pass in front of the horizon, a portion of its orange-jumpsuited crew riding in the truck bed, like surfers might. It was the only motion, and the only mechanized noise, for the duration of our stay.

The annals of Hart Island, such as they are, currently disclose only a single instance of an individual who planned, and executed a plan, to secure burial on the island: Rosalee Grable (died May 10, 2016). When I delivered the prompt, “But can a person request to be buried on Hart Island?” Captain T__ expressed skepticism, then paused. Then he started again.

The facts were: yes, a woman (Captain T__ did not share her name) was a frequent visitor to the island. She came to commune with her mother, Karaoke Gladys (“You Google it, you’ll find her on YouTube”). For months, she was a Hart Island regular, and candidly claimed to her chaperones that they would be burying her on the island soon enough. More than this: she publicized her ambition to be buried on Hart Island, telling Newsday in the week before here death, “I am feeling death and waiting for the wagon to come and get me.” Then, for months she was not a frequent visitor. Presently, Captain T___ recognized her name on the Cosgroveto be buried. Rosalee Grable died in May 2016. My visit was in August 2016. Her last passage to the island by way of the Cosgrove was not far from Captain T__’s experience. How Grable finagled this passage―graft, goodwill, or mere premonition―passed with her to Hart Island.

Karaoke Gladys (Gladys Van Alest, died Mar. 6, 2014; buried June 25, 2014) can indeed be found on YouTube. The most popular video under her account is a rendition of Alan Jackson’s Remember When (uploaded April 3, 2015; 9,939 views as of Dec. 31, 2017). Enthusiasts at the Amsterdam Tavern talk over or near the iPhone videographer as she sings:

Remember when old ones died

and new were born




A Brief Note on Methodology

Deriving the percentage of New York City dead buried on Hart Island requires, obviously, two inputs: the number of dead buried on the island, and the number of dead in New York City generally.

The numerator, that is, the number of dead on the island, is a matter of some debate in the literature. One will see two numbers quoted most frequently: 850,000 and one million. The source of these numbers is obscure and, at least based on my research, appears to be quite circular. Extensive fires have conspired to destroy at least some of the more recent city records, and older records seem non-existent, if there was ever comprehensive documentation at all. In the end, I have deferred to the fact-checkers of the New York Times.

The denominator, that is, the total number of dead in New York City, is a matter of deeper research. No (easily accessible) estimate currently exists in the literature for a query of this kind, at least none that I have been able to glean.

Without making individualized inquiries myself into the record-keeping bureaucracies of the city, what follows is the best math, and from the best source. A project called the “Hypertextbook” (“Glen Elert, Author, Illustrator, Webmaster”) maintains a database of facts about New York City deaths, apparently curated by Tricia Mui. She reports the following number of deaths, sourced from The City of New York’s Summary of Vital Statistics 2003: 67,500-80,500 (1898-1955); 81,000-91,000 (1956-1973); 70,000-80,000 (1974-1995); 60,000-67,000 (1996-2001); 59,200-59,700 (2002-2003). For each of the relevant decades or parts thereof, I averaged the number of deaths per year and took a decade estimate. I took 600,000 as the number of deaths between 1996 and 2005, and 500,000 deaths as the number of deaths between 2006 and 2016, based the evidenced assumption that the magnitude of deaths in New York City decreased during the Bloomberg administration. Citing Jacob Riis (How the Other Half Lives, Studies Among the Tenements of New York (1890)), Ms. Mui puts the number of deaths in 1880 at 31,937, and in 1889 at 39,679. I estimated conservatively that the number of deaths between 1870 and 1879, at those numbers, would be 200,000. Roughly this means: 1870-79: 200K deaths; 1880-89: 310K deaths; 1890-99: 520K; 1900-1910: 750K; 1911-20: 750K; 1921-30: 750K: 1931-40; 750K; 1941-50: 750K; 1951-55: 375K; 1956-60: 215K; 1961-70: 860K; 1971-73: 260K; 1974-84: 635K; 1985-95: 735K; 1996-2005: 600K; 2006-2016: 500K. Sum: 11,615K (11,615,000).

One million dead from 11,615,000 generates the nine per cent figure cited above.

[1] The full title of the work is as follows: The Life and Battles of “Yankee” Sullivan: With Full and Accurate Reports of His Fights With Hammer Lane, Bob Gaunt, Tom Secor, Tom Hyer, Harry Bell, John Morrisey; Together With a Synopsis of hi Minor Battles from his first Appearance in the Prize Ring until his Retirement, Also, the Battles Between Tom Hyer and Country M’Cleester, Chirss. Lilly and Rom M’Coy, Alf. Walker & Joe Hoiles, the “Spider.”, Edward Winch, Ed. (1854) p. 23-26. I am indebted to Edwin G. Burrows & Mike Wallace, Gotham (1999), p. 755, for the reference. The spectator figures come from Burrows & Wallace. The account of the shore pilgrimage comes from The Life and Battles.

[2] Dana Schulz, Melinda Hunt Memorializes the Unclaimed New Yorkers Buried on Hart Island,, March 23, 2015,

[3] E.g., “In the event that demand for visits exceeds capacity, the City reserves the right to give visit priority to family members. No non-family member visitor whose visit has been confirmed shall have that confirmation rescinded with less than three business days’ notice.”

[4] Don DeLillo, White Noise (1984), p. 38-39.

[5] William Styron, Lie Down in Darkness (1951), p. 310

[6] See generally, Philip Aries, Western Attitudes Towards Death from the Middle Ages to the Present (1974), especially p. 55-85.

[7] I lay out the math in a brief concluding note on methodology.

[8]The last Awl writing on the subject predates the opening of the Island.  Chris Arnande, A Prison for the Dead, The Awl, Nov. 21, 2014,

[9] Matthew 26:11 (KJV).