‘The Isle of the Dead’ in New York is the largest cemetery in the United States, no less than one million people have been buried there for more than two centuries. However, lately Hart Island seems to have reached its limits. While disintegrating, its shores have revealed the anonymous skeletons of the people who were resting here in peace.
A past loaded with ghosts
Hart Island, off the coast of the Bronx, has a story worthy of a horror movie. While some called it Heart Island because of its (relative) resemblance to a heart, others claim that hart (‘deer’ in Old English) comes from the island’s use as a hunting reserve. The author William Styron invented the story of a deer who lived alone on the island before being shot by a hunter.
Since its purchase by European immigrants from the Native Americans in 1654, the island has hosted an asylum for people with disabilities or those who were too poor to support themselves, a hospital, prisons, an internment camp during the Civil War, a recovery camp and a nuclear base for the Nike project. There were thus many opportunities to attach a veil of morbid and mysterious legends to the island.
When the dead emerge
However, it would seem that it is not necessary to use your imagination to bring the island into the realm of fantasy. Recently, the soil of Hart Island began to collapse, revealing the remains of hundreds out of the million who are buried there. ‘The bones are literally emerging from the ground,’ says Melinda Hunt, director of the Hart Island Project. ‘Whole skeletons end up on the beach, where the tide carries them away.’
The area, unofficially renamed Bone's Beach, has been eroded by violent weather over the decades to a critical point. Faced with the media impact of this incident, officials decided to take control of the situation and sent a team of archaeologists and workers on site to inspect the cemetery.
A poignant testimony
174 bones have already been discovered, possibly belonging to soldiers killed during the Civil War, or to the poor from the asylum or even stillborn children, from the time when a hospital was still standing on the island. ‘Each of these bones belongs to a human being, to a New Yorker,’ said Mark Levine, a member of the Manhattan council.
‘Most of these people were marginalised and forgotten by others. They have been uncovered again and this new excavation is a fatal blow to their dignity.’ It is hoped that media attention to the situation on Hart Island will allow further work to be done to prevent the sites from continuing to spew out the ghosts of the past, and allow them to be at peace once again.