Isle of the Dead
This gallery is dedicated to Nick Santangelo, who died in August 2014, and accompanied me for this adventure and many, many others featured on this site. As we traveled the world getting into all kinds of places (and trouble), I learned a great deal from him, and we really were an awesome team. Without him, this site would be a fraction of what it is today. I know Hart Island affected him as much as it did myself, and we spoke of it often. He was a great friend. RIP
The islands around New York have always captured my interest, but none so much as Hart. Almost one million bodies buried around a decaying reformatory and asylum... and no one is allowed to see it. We hadn't heard of anyone attempting to explore the place back then, and for good reason; the entire island is prison property, with inmates from Rikers Island burying the dead on a regular basis. But there were were, one clear autumn evening.
The island was still covered in the shadow of nightfall when we arrived, surrounded by a deafening silence. The dew-covered blades of the tall grass soaked our legs as we walked past the ruins of a skeletal carriage house rotting in a large field. Crumbling stone markers dotted the landscape like broken teeth. The reality of us walking on a mass grave dawned on me then; hundreds of thousands of people were buried in trenches under our feet. The homeless, stillborn, and "insane" - all of New York City's unwanted, laid to rest in one place. I couldn't think of a more somber place to be. These thoughts stewed in my brain as we came upon a white obelisk shining in the moonlight, like a solitary ghost in a field of anonymity. It's hard to describe the moment, but we stood there in silence for some time.
After a while the first rays of dawn began to appear on the horizon of Long Island Sound. We made our way back to the center of the island, where most of the larger structures decayed into oblivion. A mature forest had grown up around this complex, creating a thick canopy of leaves and tangled masses of gnarled vines struggling for sunlight. The paved streets, now under a half-foot thick carpet of leaves, were the only places the trees could not grow, and formed beautiful boulevards through the overgrowth.
We wanted to shoot the Phoenix House first, which was not protected by the overgrowth as much, so we left the forest-city and crossed a clearing where burial work was evident. A landscape of grass and weeds transitioned to recently turned earth, crisscrossed with the tread marks of heavy machinery in the mud. PVC pipes stuck out of the ground at even intervals to mark the trenches. A few of these mass graves were open to the sky and shored up with plywood, waiting for the next burial detail to fill the rest of the pit with the pine boxes from the morgue truck. The smell of decomposition from the fresh graves was quite noticeable here.
So, with the adrenaline in our veins, the somber thoughts of the mass graves in our minds, and the smell of death in our noses, we crept into the old building.