Island in the Rough: New York City’s Potter’s Field

Island in the Rough: New York City’s Potter’s Field
New York City, Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Hart Island has been home to unknown and unclaimed New Yorkers for over 150 years

Labanya Maitra
April 17 , 2020
05 Min Read

The year was 1922. Seventeen-year-old Agatha (Schwarz) Wagenbauer was onboard the ship Bayern for 14 days, from Hamburg, Germany, to New York City. Four years later, she married August Wagenbauer in Manhattan, and the couple hopped across the boroughs before finally settling down in Long Island City in the 1940s. Naturalised as a US citizen—along with her husband—in 1941, she travelled to Europe often to see her family. While August died in 1970, Agatha died a decade later, and was buried in Hart Island. Eight feet under Grave 30, on Plot 118 – Section III, Agatha lay unknown for nearly 36 years before LaVonda Krout gave her back her name, and her story, in 2016.

Story of Agatha Wagenbauer


This is the story of Hart Island, New York City’s potter’s field.

The city of New York bought Hart Island in 1868, and turned it into a secluded, public cemetery. Just off the coast of Bronx—in Long Island Sound—the island can only be reached by ferry, and has been home to over a million New Yorkers over 150 years. There are no tombstones in sight across the 131-acre burial ground, but it’s no longer a place of shame, despite its rocky past. Now, it’s almost sacred.

Before being bought and repurposed as a cemetery, Hart Island served a number of different roles. It was a prison site for Confederate soldiers, a training site for Union soldiers, a hospital for tuberculosis and yellow-fever patients, a mental asylum, a military training camp, a missile base, and a boys’ reformatory. It was also a prison workhouse.

For years, bodies were ferried to Hart about twice a week, along with prisoners from Rikers Island, who were paid about $40 a week, or 50 cents an hour, to bury them. Being buried by an inmate was often considered disrespectful, and the practice has since been stopped.

In recent news, however, as COVID-19 has ravaged its way through the world, and especially New York, the number of bodies shipped to Hart is only growing. The city’s morgues are at capacity and any body that’s gone unclaimed for two weeks is taken to the island. But this isn’t the first time that Hart has been home for victims of a pandemic, and, possibly, not the last. In 1918, victims of the Spanish Flu pandemic were buried on the island, as were those from the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.

View this post on Instagram

L'île de Hart Island abrite le plus grand cimetière de New York, y sont notamment enterrés les corps non réclamés par les familles. Alors que la ville est frappée de plein fouet par le #coronavirus, les fosses communes se remplissent tragiquement.⁣ ⁣ 📷 Lucas Jackson / Reuters⁣ ⁣ #newyork #newyorkcity #hartisland #covid19 #pandemie #pandemic

A post shared by FRANCE 24 (@france24) on Apr 10, 2020 at 6:54am PDT

While the general public is not allowed on the island, Hart is no longer shrouded in mystery as it used to be. Melinda Hunt, founder of the Hart Island Project nonprofit, has pushed for public access to the site. The bodies can be disinterred free of charge once identified by a relative, and a funeral home can transport it back to the city.

The million New Yorkers that reside in the island have one thing in common: they were often poor or homeless, and unclaimed. The Hart Island Project ( aims to return these people their identities, and provide personal support to the families. The Project has mapped out the entire island using drone footage, and their interactive website shows not only the grave sites, but also who is buried in them. It encourages users to identify the people and add their stories. That’s how we found Agatha Wagenbauer.

New York City shining bright

As the city—and the world—battles this new disease, Hart Island stands as a sombre reminder that even though times have been tough, this too shall pass. Be that as it may, more people will know someone in Hart Island after all this is over, than they did before.

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