It was the closest thing to hell any living man would ever know. Below its deck, the HMS Jersey was packed with men that would never see the light of day ever again. A floating tomb anchored in the harbor off the coast of New York City, it housed captured patriots held by the British during the American Revolution. The HMS Jersey was a symbol of the depths of man’s cruelty. It is also the source of spirits who never truly rested and are still rumored to haunt the New York Harbor.
During the early years of the American Revolution, New York was occupied by the British. As prisons overcrowded with POWs, the British decided to anchor ships in the harbor to serve as floating prisons, the HMS Jersey being the most notorious one. During the day, the sun would beat down on the deck of the ship, heating the decks below to unbearable temperatures. Prisoners would strip naked in an attempt to cool down. They gasped for air in the dark because there was not enough oxygen to keep their lanterns lit.
Those who were too sick to fend off the rats were eaten alive, men cursed and screamed as the vermin consumed them. The screams of men sick, dying, and driven to madness was a constant. Those who didn’t succumb to dehydration and starvation would eventually die from diseases such as small pox, typhus, and dysentery. Every morning, the “death patrol” would go through and seek out the dead so that they could be thrown overboard into the harbor. Such was the disturbing appearance of their fellow inmates, their skin so covered in feces and filth that the patrol would have to ask people if they were dead or alive.
By the end of the war, 11,000 soldiers would die in British ships, more than were killed in all the battles combined (4,500). Many died a slow and painful death within the confines of the HMS Jersey and other prison ships. During the evacuation of New York, British forces abandoned and set fire to all the prison ships in the harbor. 8,000 prisoners were still onboard when it was set ablaze.
For several years after the war, bones continued to wash up on Brooklyn shore where they would bleach in the sun until they were eventually discovered. In 1902, while extending one of the docks, workers at the Brooklyn Navy Yard unknowingly pierced the hull of the ship. Her resting place was finally discovered. It wasn’t long after that residents living close to the shore began noticing strange occurrences along the water’s edge, some even saying they could hear the dead soldiers whispering.
In 1908, President Taft dedicated The Prison Ship Martyrs Monument in Fort Greene Park Brooklyn to those who had died aboard Revolutionary War Prison Ships. Below that monument are 20 coffins filled with the bone fragments from the thousands who died.