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.
Know Before You Go
There are occasional public tours to Hart Island. The contact for tours is Marisa Alberti and her office number is 718 546 0911 and email is HartIsland@doc.nyc.gov. Otherwise getting to Hart Island requires evidence of a deceased relative buried there.