Author and podcast host Michael T. Keene has spent a lot of time thinking about a barrier island located off the east coast of The Bronx, NY. Hart Island is far from the first NYC adjacent island with a macabre past—Nellie Bly spent some time at Blackwell’s Island (now known as Roosevelt Island) and North and South Brother Islands were used to house patients carrying contagious diseases (Mary “Typhoid Mary” Mallon died on North Brother Island in 1938). But what about the lesser-known Hart Island?
1. Tell me the basics of Hart Island—where is it located? What has it been used for?
Hart Island was used briefly as a destination for bare-knuckle boxing that had been temporarily outlawed in New York City in the 1840s. Many famous bouts were held there including one I write about in my book about Hart Island and which is mentioned in my video about Hart Island.
Later during the Civil War, it was used as a training facility for Union Troops, and then later in the war it became a prisoner of war camp for Confederate troops.
During the latter half of the 1800s and early 1900s, it was used as a psychiatric hospital for women, followed by a tuberculous asylum and in the 1980s, a boys reform school. In the1950s it had even become a Nike Missile site established to shoot down Soviet missiles during the Cold War.
But in 1869 the northern part of the Island began being used as New York City’s Potters Field. It was in this capacity that trenches were dug to accommodate the poor, unknown, and unclaimed dead from the streets of New York. Upwards of 170 adults were buried in the same trench and as many as 1000 stillborn and small children were buried in their own separate trenches. It is estimated that over the years a total of 1,000,000 people have been buried on Hart Island! And the burials continue. During the Covid Pandemic in NYC, a drone famously captured a photograph of a mass burial of Covid victims. This happened as recently as last year.
2. How did you become interested in the history of Hart Island? What’s your story?
My interest in this island transcends the fact that a million people are buried there. As Stalin, the former dictator of Russia, once said, “a million deaths is just a statistic, one death is a tragedy.”
So I started out to try to discover and learn about who was buried on Hart Island and what circumstances in life can cause someone to die without money, without family and friends, to die anonymously and be buried in a mass grave.
In my book, I think I discovered at least part of the answers. They are truly shocking!
3. What’s this about a mystery relating to the island’s history?
The short and sweet answer is, for over a hundred years no one knew about this place and if it wasn’t because of climate change, no one would know about it even today.
For a full explanation of the mystery of Hart Island, check out this video.
The Talking Hart Island podcast, co-hosted with Norma Jean Gradsky, includes 40 episodes and dives deep into many aspects of life (and death) on the mysterious island.