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City Cemetery
Hart Island
(Potter's Field)

[Note: Text and images below are from pamphlet distributed in the 1990s, based on material generated years, if not decades earlier.]

Officers and inmates,
after completing
burial duties on
Hart Island,
pause and look
across the waters
of Long Island Sound.

[Quiet scene on Hart Island]

The Department of Correction maintains and operates the City Cemetery, commonly called Potter's Field, on Hart Island, the Bronx, in Long Island Sound. Burials are done with inmate labor, under supervision of Correction staff. Inmates are paid between 25 and 35 cents per hour. The supervised inmate work details are bused from Rikers Island and ferried from City Island on weekdays to perform the burials, disinterments and maintenance tasks.The Island is 101 acres, measuring approximately one mile long and one-eighth to one-third of a mile wide. It is maintained by the Department of Correction. Hart Island is not open to the public.

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[Hart Island]

of Hart
War to

Hart Island was purchased by the City in 1868 from the Hunter family of the Bronx for $75,000. The following year it was established as the City's public cemetery for the burial of those persons who died indigent or whose bodies went unclaimed. In the first year, 1,875 burials were performed.

In 1865, as the Civil War was ending, the Federal government used the Island as a prison camp for Confederate soldiers. During a yellow fever epidemic in 1870, a part of the Island was used to house persons confined to isolation. In the later part of the 19th century the Island was home to a charity hospital for women, an insane asylum, and a jail for prisoners who worked on the Potter's Field burial detail.

In the early 1900s, the Island housed an old men's home and a tuberculosis hospital for women. In 1904, a reformatory for male misdemeanants 16 - 30 years old was opened. When reformatory prisoners were transferred to another facility in 1914, the jail was used to house aged male prisoners and overflow from other City jails.

During WW II, the Island was turned over to the Navy for use as a disciplinary barracks for Navy, Coast Guard and Marine personnel, with as many as 2,800 servicemen in custody. In fact, probably the closest WWII ever got to the shores of America came when three German soldiers surfaced in a U-Boat near Long Island. They were taken into custody and imprisoned for a time on Hart Island.

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Memorial built
by burial duty inmates
at their request
to remember the
unclaimed dead buried
on Hart Island.

History of Hart Island
Post WWII to present)

Hart Island was returned to the Correction Department in 1946 and the jail was reactivated. In the 1940s, inmates on Hart Island appealed to the warden and offered to build a monument to the unbefriended dead. This was accomplished in 1948 when, in cooperation with the custodial staff, they erected a 30-foot high monument in the center of the burial site. On one side is engraved a simple cross; on the other the word "Peace."

In 1950, the Island was released to the Department of Welfare for housing of male derelicts. Because of a rising prisoner population, the Island was again returned to the Correction Department in 1954 for use as a jail. From 1955 to 1961, the U.S. Army maintained a NIKE missile base on a ten-acre area of the Island.

of Correction
fill in
grave site.

[Inmates shovel earth]

In 1966, the jail was closed and the Island was used as a center for the Phoenix House narcotic rehabilitation program. This program was discontinued in 1976 and the Island returned to the Correction Department. However, the Department did not operate the Island as a jail until 1982, when a small prisoner contingent was again housed there. In 1991, the inmates housed on Hart Island were transferred to Rikers Island.

Today, the inmate work details are bused from Rikers Island during the week to perform the burials, disinterments and maintenance of the Island. Since the start in 1869, more than 750,000 burials (estimate) have been performed.

Individual pine coffins are buried in ordered and recorded columns and rows in large plots of earth. Each plot can hold 150 adult coffins or 1,000 infant coffins. Burials average between 2,000 - 3,000 yearly (the total for both categories). Approximately 100 disinterments are done each year.

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Origin of


The records of the coffin row-and-column placement are kept between five and 10 years, depending upon the effect of plot soil conditions on attempted disinternments. When disinternment attempts are no longer practical and appropriate, those plot burial records are turned over to the Municipal Archives.

The New York City Cemetery, located on Hart Island, the Bronx, in the Long Island Sound, is commonly referred to as Potter's Field. The probable origin of the term "Potter's Field" as meaning a public burial place for poor and unknown persons is a passage from the Gospel of St. Matthew (27:3-8):

"Then Judas, which had betrayed Him, saw that he was condemned, repented himself, and brought again the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests ... and they took counsel, and bought with them the potters field to bury strangers in."

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ACKNOWLEDGMENT: We gratefully acknowledge NYC DOC's permission to post here material used in creating the original version of the NYC DOC web page posted on NYC LINK.
-- Thomas McCarthy, NYCHS webmaster

ADDENDUM: A knowledgeable supporter of greater public awareness of Hart Island's role in NYC life and history has sent us an email noting that the current Potter's Field burial ledger books have 100 pages, not 400 pages; that each page has room for 36 entries, that the books currently are kept by the DOC for about 30 years, that the stipend paid inmates well exceeds the rate of 25-to-30 cents an hours of years ago, and that the last census lists the island as 131 acres. We note these observations here rather to attempt alter the text that appeared in the pamphlet printed and distributed many years ago.