Potters Fields of New York

Hart Island

Hart Island

Manhattan has many famous parks enriching the city, but few know the macabre history of some of the green spaces as many started as potters fields. 

A potters field is defined as a cemetery for the unclaimed dead of the city or an auxiliary graveyard in times of a plague. You could say that some of New York loveliest parks originated in terrible tragedy, to waves of typhoid, influenza, smallpox, cholera and most of all, the dreaded yellow fever. 

In Colonial times popular belief was illness was transmitted by miasmas, noxious bad air, poisonous vapors emanating from diseased or decomposing bodies. Burial grounds where placed in undesirable outskirts of town but as the city expanded and land became more valuable

The first official potters field of the city was Madison Square Park where between 1794 to 1797

several hundred victims of a Yellow fever outbreak from the nearby small Bellevue infirmary and almshouse where buried. Originally focused on treating epidemics, Bellevue hospital expanded and moved to its current location in 1816 where it had the first horse and buggy ambulance service and was the first hospital worldwide to institute sanitary rules.


The area of 14th street and Bloomingdale Road (now Broadway) in the late 1700’s still north from the city center, became the burial ground for the indigent  but was eventually decommissioned after Broadway became a more important thoroughfare. The tony Union Square park, landscaped to evoke the elegant  parks of London of the time opened to the public 1839, spawning a rush of upscale residential real estate to spring up around the lushly planted grounds and grand fountain. In 1929 Union Square Park was completely demolished and later rebuild to accommodate an underground station for the subway.

A particularly vicious outbreak of Yellow Fever in 1822 led to an almost abandonment of lower Manhattan when people fled the pestilence and miasmas of crowed Fulton street to the farthest northwest corner and and started to resettle in the bucolic hamlet of Greenwich Village

Before advancements in medicine like the invention of antibiotics and poor hygiene, any prolonged exposure to  a deadly pathogen was an almost guaranteed unpleasant demise to the poverty stricken. Typhoid fever was particularly deadly in the warmer months, Tuberculosis a   highly contagious airborne lung infection that had killed an estimated quarter of the adult population in Europe raged in New York

Screen Shot 2018-10-28 at 2.56.21 AM.png

The city’s third official potters field was Washington Square Park, which holds the 20.000 victims of the terrible Yellow fever epidemic that raged until 1823 and may very well still hold the remains of over 100,000. Planting a park on top of the vast graveyard was considered a dignified and sanitary option to the problem that the city had expanded 

As the city expanded with the influx of waves of Immigrants, wealthy New Yorkers moved further uptown to put as much distance as possible between the overcrowded tenements of the Lower East Side and the seedy tenderloin.

As the city grew and expanded, burial sited had to be moved or in some cases relocated.

Bryant Park

Bryant Park

Bryant Park was a cemetery had to be moved because of the construction of the Croton reservoir, an ambitious urban development project to bring clean water from the Delaware Watershed to the city. The city decommissioned the potters field and had to move the remains of roughly 100,000 to Wards Island, a small island in the East River, later called Randalls Island, a somewhat remote outpost for the cities dead or alive undesirables, housing a poor house, a lunatic asylum and a reform school for juvenile delinquents 

The first official burial was a Louisa van Skye.

Wards Island was the city burial ground from 1840 to 1930

Croton Aqueduct

Croton Aqueduct

Around 1848 alone almost 5000 died of Cholera in Manhattan alone. The Eastern Seaboard was hit by a terrible series of disease outbreaks starting 1865 lasting almost a decade. Smallpox, Typhoid, Influenza, Scarlet Fever and Yellow Fever cause a terrible toll. Census records show that. When the Croton Aqueduct finally came online and delivered fresh clean water to unwashed masses, disease outbreaks drastically dropped.

It was only in 1854 British physician John Snow discovered the correlation between contaminated water and the spread of diseases like Cholera 

Where do the dead sleep now? Hart Island is the current potters field, a burial ground for unclaimed persons or those who's relatives can’t afford a burial. The city purchased the small island just east of City Island in 1868 to be used as a Civil War military prison, had a lunatic asylum for women and housed a notoriously brutal workhouse for boys. Most of the abandoned building structures have been removed to make room for burial trenches. The department of corrections runs the operation, mass burials are carried out by inmates from Ryker’s Island. There are no tombstones, the dead are interred in mass graves, neatly stacked in plain pine wood boxes. Infants and stillborns are buried separately, 1000 per trench. Hart Island is the largest Tax funded cemetery in the world, holding about a million bodies.

Not all who end up here are homeless or poor, only 1 tenth of the dead are John Does. Often parents outlive their children, or if attempts to notify next of kin fail, the departed becomes property of the city. Bureaucracy can complicate matters, proceedings how to claim a body within 30 days from the medical examiners office can be very difficult. Most people never know what happens to their next door neighbors, co workers or acquaintances.

A few bodies are donated to science, some go to funeral homes to be used to embalming school. But sooner or later they are back here, at the city potters field, on an empty uninhabited island in the Long Island Sound next to the Bronx.

Access to Harts Island is restricted and not open to the public. After a lengthy legal battle to get the DOC to release burial records, family member can arrange supervised visits to the island but burial records where lost in a fire,