One story says that British cartographers named this little patch of land in the Long Island Sound “Heart Island” due to its organ-like shape (it really bears almost no resemblance to a heart). Others suggest it was named for the Middle English word “hart,” which means “stag.”
In one version of this story, the island was named when it was used as a game preserve. Another version states that it was named for the deer that migrated from the mainland during periods when ice covered that part of the sound. A passage in William Styron’s novel Lie Down in Darkness describes the island as occupied by a lone deer which is shot by a hunter with a row boat.
In any case, the island’s history is steeped in death. In its period as a Civil War prison camp, 235 prisoners died and were buried on the island (they were moved at a later date), and during the 1870 yellow fever epidemic Hart Island hosted a major hospital facility.
Since then, it has also been home to a women’s lunatic asylum, a tubercularium, a corrections facility for delinquent boys, and a Nike missile base. Currently, the island is used as the New York Potter’s Field (a place of burial for unknown individuals), which makes it the largest tax-funded cemetery in the world. It is also used to bury amputated body parts. According to the most recent census the island has no permanent living residents.