Located between the Bronx and Riker's Island, situated in the middle of New York City's East River in an area known as Hell's Gate is North Brother Island. In 1885 if you were sick and contagious, you would be brought to this 20-acre island along with other patients from the five boroughs. In most cases the patients did not come here voluntarily but were forced to do so. It was far enough to stop disease from spreading, leaving those living and dying there feeling isolated. But in a city that was overcrowded and pestilence-stricken it was the best option to keep the populace safe.
Riverside was built on the north end of the island, and it was initially used for those stricken with smallpox. Over the next decades it was used to quarantine those infected with typhus, scarlet fever and yellow fever.
There was food shortages, and no heating during the cold winter months. As a result of all of this, the mortality rate for those who were banished here was very high, to the point that being sent to North Brother Island was seen as practically synonymous with a death sentence. Since the bedraggled patients were not allowed to leave until they recovered and these were the days before telephones, many of the people who left for North Brother Island were never to return. Their friends and families never heard from them again or knew what had become of them.
It was greatly feared by the general populace, who refused to go anywhere near it. Even the ponderous ferries of the river gave it a wide berth.
Lepers were also brought to the island and confined to wooden huts within the boundaries of the hospital, thus making it New York City's only official leper colony.
But it wasn’t just the leper colony for which North Brother Island has become most notorious. This forgotten place was also once home to Mary Mallon, an Irish immigrant known to the history as Typhoid Mary. Mallon was thought to be responsible for spreading the deadly disease through a number of families. And with a fatality rate as high as three in ten, typhoid is a particularly nasty way to go. She was brought to North Brother Island in 1907.
What starts out as a low grade fever and cramping quickly leads to delirium as blood begins to clot beneath the skin. This is followed by inflammation of the brain and intestinal hemorrhaging. Mary Mallon was asymptomatic, but advances in epidemiology meant that doctors could trace the cause of an outbreak. In every job that Mallon had held down in New York, people had become sick with typhoid, and one had died.
Typhoid Mary was incarcerated for three years while the authorities figured out what to do with her. Somewhere in the region of 163 samples of bodily fluids and tissues were taken from her.
In 1910 her wish to be freed was granted on the condition that she sign an affidavit stating that she would stop working as a cook and take proper hygienic measures to stop spreading the disease.
Although Mary agreed to these terms and was allowed to return to the mainland, she worked briefly as a laundress before changing her name and resuming the better paying work as a cook, which not surprisingly led to more infections of typhoid fever wherever she went. The worst outbreak she was directly responsible for was at Sloane Hospital for Women in New York City, where she worked in 1915, and which resulted in 25 people coming down with the disease and two dying from it.
After this, authorities arrested Mary and she was sent back to North Brother Island, where she would spend the next two decades languishing until her death at the age of 69, on November 11, 1938 from pneumonia. Ultimately, Typhoid Mary unintentionally infected a total of 53 people with typhoid fever during her life, and still believed she was not responsible at the time of her death.
Around that time, when New York was accepting huge numbers of immigrants from other countries and the majority were forced into crowded and unsanitary living quarters, these diseases were spreading quickly. The city had to do something. Riverside was its answer. But the situation there wasn't much better -- out of sight, out of mind. Conditions were bad, the mortality rate among patients was high and the recovery rate low.
Patients lived in tents, pavilions, and cottages in and around the hospital. Those struggling with leprosy were confined to wooden shacks on the perimeter. When the weather was bad, the ferries that ran between North Brother Island and the Bronx were anchored and no food was delivered. According to those who survived and made it back to New York proper, life at Riverside was "the black hole of Calcutta."
Disease was not even the only death associated with the island, as North Brother Island was the scene of what remains the worst maritime disaster ever recorded in New York history.
On June 15, 1904, the passenger steamship General Slocum was carrying a large number of German immigrants from St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church on their way to a church picnic when the ship somehow caught fire. The burning, flaming ship eventually sank, and when the smoke cleared around 1,021 of the 1,342 people on board had died, either from the fire or from drowning. The survivors of the wreck were taken to North Brother Island to receive medical care.
The wreck remained ensconced within its watery grave until it was salvaged to be converted into a barge, Maryland, which strangely enough would also sink into the depths of the Atlantic Ocean in 1911 while on a voyage to deliver a load of coal.
By the 1940s, the grounds of Riverside Hospital had become a convalescence for wounded World War Two soldiers. North Brother Island was transformed into a housing center meant for veterans and their families. But the need to take a ferry in order to get anywhere meant that many chose to relocate as soon as they could.
The island gave one last dying gasp in the form of a drug rehabilitation center for heroin addicts in the 1950s, but this too was to be short lived and the island fell silent in 1963, when all human activity there was ceased and the buildings decommissioned and abandoned to be left behind to the ages.
The crumbling remains of North Brother Island and its abandoned quarantine hospital are now heavily overgrown, eerie ruins that lurk amid the unchecked foliage of the tiny, forgotten island. The location is now strictly off-limits to the public.
More chilling still is the fact that the forgotten, unwanted nature of the derelict buildings mirrors the tragic fate of many who passed through North Brother Island, especially those who never left the confines of Riverside Hospital alive. The crumbling ruins are their memorial, and those who look closely will find traces of those quarantined patients even today.
Discarded keys are heaped in piles. Phone books from the 1950s lie open to the last pages touched by human hands, and developed X-rays can still be read. Graffiti scrawled by patients long gone still covers the walls. In one building, the forlorn door of a nurses’ station is pockmarked by bullet holes.
It is perhaps no surprise at all that North Brother Island, with its history of death and who knows how many unmarked graves hiding within the underbrush, is said to be lousy with ghosts. Visitors have reported various strange phenomena here, which have perhaps made them reconsider their journey to these desolate shores. Eerie sounds, phantoms voices, unseen hands touching, pulling, or shoving, malfunctioning electrical equipment, and EVP phenomena, this place covers the whole spectrum of ghostly phenomena.
There have even been some cases of urban explorers fleeing the island in sheer terror, vowing never to return. This is a place not only spooky in appearance, but also apparently permeated by the despair and ghosts of its history. It makes one wonder if the sheer weight of pain and hardship can congeal and imprint itself onto a place just as surely as an image onto film. Perhaps these are events and emotions that etch upon the fabric of reality itself. It is a creepy thought to be sure.
There are mysterious places all around us, some of them hiding in plain sight. Whether it be because they are burdened with a tragic, dark history, tormented by the memories of the long dead who suffered there, or literally haunted by the spirits of the past, these are eerie locations not necessarily confined to the isolated corners of the world. Sometimes these locales can be found right amongst us, living parallel to our thrumming cities as if on another plane of existence, forgotten echoes of a bygone time reverberating through reality. There amidst the streaks of our city lights and the tireless activity of humankind these places squat, stuck between the dreamland of dead history and the bright beacons of our burgeoning development; lost, rugged, mysterious lands in a sea of concrete.
sources - urbanghostsmedia mysteriousuniverse nymag
Stranger Than Fiction Stories by Marlene Pardo Pellicer