Four days a week, prisoners from Riker’s Island lay plain pine boxes into two mass graves.
It can be seen only on clear nights, only from the east and by inference, when lights from the city bounce off the water of the Sound and leave the island backlit.
It appears as negative space, the darkest ink spot on a page of black.
A map drawn in 1777 by the British Navy warned captains to avoid Hart Island as they left New York on their frequent raids to shell and pillage the Connecticut coast: “, a schooner that spent most of the 19th century hauling freight along the northern coast, ran so far aground on Hart Island during the winter of 1879 that her owners abandoned her as a total loss.
The Montauk Steamship Line’s Shinnecock ferry was carrying 150 passengers on its regular route from Rhode Island to New York when it struck Hart Island on the morning of July 15, 1907, in fog.
Hart Island does not appear on the MTA’s subway map or the Department of Transportation’s bicycling maps.
The AAA map in my car shows the blue dotted line of a public ferry from City Island to Hart Island, but the ferry closed to the public in 1976.Inmates were given the job of burying the dead, a practice that continues to this day.The Department of Correction estimates that more than 850,000 people are now buried on Hart Island, noting that the actual number may be somewhere between 750,000 and a million, a standard deviation that is jarring when you think about it.Between its abandoned prisons slowly sinking into the forest, its spools of razor wire, and the rise at its northern end called “Cemetery Hill,” the island does a terrific job of looking spooky. First, there is the shoreline, which is shallow most of the way around and studded with sharp, submerged rocks.Then there is the current, particularly strong off the northern tip; and the wind, which comes in from the sound so hard and raggedly that it occasionally catches experienced captains by surprise.Despite Wilson’s claim of innocence and the lack of inculpatory evidence, the New York press joined rowdy crowds at the Westchester County Courthouse in denouncing “the murderous negro” and calling for his execution.