New York Islands Podcasts

The history of Hart Island, a place of strangeness and sorrow

Few people are allowed to go onto Hart Island, the quiet, narrow island in the Long Island Sound, a lonely place in sight of the bustling community of City Island.

For over 150 years, Hart Island has been New York’s potter’s field, the burial site for over one million people — unclaimed bodies, stillborn babies, those who died of AIDS in the 1980s, and, in 2020, the location of burials of those who have died of COVID-19 coronavirus.

New York Daily News/Getty

Hart Island’s appearance in the international press this past week has drawn attention to the severity of the pandemic in New York City, but it has also drawn attention to the island itself.

By the early 19th century, this peaceful place — most likely named for deer which may have called it home — had already developed a violent reputation as a renegade site for boxing matches.

During the Civil War, black Union troops trained here and later Confederate soldiers were imprisoned in refitted prison barracks.

But in the late 1860s the city prepared the island for its eventual and longest lasting purpose. Today it is the world’s largest potter’s field. And thanks to groups like the Hart Island Project, New Yorkers may finally get a glimpse at this strange, forlorn place and the previously forgotten people buried here.

PLUS: That time that an amusement park was almost built on Hart Island.


To get this week’s episode, simply download or stream it forFREE from iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or other podcasting services.You can also get it straight from our satellite site.

Hart Island 1877, courtesy New York Public Library
Hart Island 1890, photo by Jacob Riis/Museum of the City of New York
Hart Island 1890, photo by Jacob Riis/Museum of the City of New York
Hart Island 1890, photo by Jacob Riis/Museum of the City of New York
The Potter’s Field, Hart’s Island, 1898
August 18, 1914, New York Evening Post (courtesy
March 20, 1916, Brooklyn Daily Eagle (courtesy
Claire Yaffa Children With Aids Photograph Collection, via New-York Historical Society
1993/Joel Sternfeld
The two images above were taken by Joel Sternfeld. Please check out his website for more haunting images of the island.

A 1978 news broadcast about Hart Island.

A 2015 piece about Hart Island from MSNBC.


Believe it or not, potter’s fields and cemeteries play a huge role in the development of New York City. This article lists several sites that have once been burials grounds.

The lesser known islands of New York have very fascinating histories that you may not be aware of — try these stories about North Brother Island and City Island, for instance.

And these older podcasts on other New York City islands:

Blackwell’s Island/Roosevelt Island
Rikers Island
Randall’s Island and Wards Island

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6 replies on “The history of Hart Island, a place of strangeness and sorrow”

Thank you Greg and Tom for your wonderful explanation of the history of Hart Island and its important role in the past, present and future of New York City. The Hart Island Project is actively working to ensure families have access to the island and to the records.

Thank you so much! Good to hear more humanistic actions are being taken for these lives once lived and their loved ones.

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