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A Brief History of NYC Islands Used to Banish People from Manhattan

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by Hannah Harkness

Manhattan is the most famous island in the world, so easy to forget that it’s part of an island archipelago. Some people even forget that Manhattan itself is an island because

a) Their entire universe ends outside of Manhattan or

b) climate change is terrifying and we’re all low-key ignoring that the whole thing is probably going underwater

Regardless, Manhattan is the most famous island in the world surrounded by a series of smaller islands, both natural and man-made with less notoriety. Some are still well-known: Liberty Island has the Statue of Liberty, 12 million immigrants entered the US through Ellis Island from 1892-1954, and Staten Island is…Staten Island.

The Mayor of Staten Island (L) and his wife (R)

But many of the smaller islands in the archipelago are unknown to most people outside the NYC area. Some of these islands are completely uninhabited and unknown to a large amount of NYC residents, too. But this was not always the case.

For a long time in NYC’s history, the majority of these islands were used to house people that they wanted to separate from the rest of society, largely prisoners and sick people.  This was especially true during periods of history where vaccinations and treatments had not been developed for infectious diseases and there was a much higher demand for quarantine facilities. These sites are peppered with ruins of psychiatric wards, hospitals for patients with infectious diseases, and prisons as well as anything else that needed to be separated from society, such as potter’s fields, military bases, and garbage dumps. Today, there are two islands left being used for activities that they want to separate from NYC society.

Rikers Island is one of the most infamous correctional facilities in the world, and rife with horror stories of overcrowding and corruption. Prior to incarceration, it was used as a garbage dump that got so overrun by giant rats that wild dogs were released on it to kill the rats. These rats were so huge and aggressive that the dogs refused to go after them and attacked the pigs on the island instead. The rats were large enough to attack the dogs so the city eventually just flooded the island with poison gas, killed the rats, and built a prison. FUN!

Like that song about the old lady who swallowed a fly but real and horrifying

Rikers Island also owns Hart Island, NYC’s current potter’s field where Rikers inmates bury NYC’s unclaimed dead for 50 cents an hour. Hart Island has such a long terrifying history that continues to be terrifying present day, so we already featured it in its own article. But the rest of the islands originally used for this purpose are either uninhabited now or have been repurposed for something else.

Here are some of the little-known islands surrounding the island at the center of the universe in order of obscurity:

Roosevelt Island

Location: East River, Between Manhattan (46th-85th streets) and Queens

Size: 2 miles long, maximum width 800 feet-147 Acres

The most well-known on this list, most NYC residents have seen this Island before from the shores of Manhattan or Queens. Originally known as Minnahannock by the Canarsie Native Americans, its other previous names were Hog Island under the Dutch (when it was primarily used for hog farming), Manning Island (after its next owner John Manning, sheriff of New York), Blackwell’s Island (after the next owner, Manning’s son-in-law, Robert Blackwell), Welfare Island (1921-1973 while it was primarily being used for hospitals) and then finally Roosevelt Island (named for Franklin D. Roosevelt by the city).

Nerd Note: do not confuse this former Hog Island with the OTHER former Hog Island in NYC that has been underwater since 1902 off the coast of the Rockaway peninsula (not that you would, this is just a weird flex that I also know about all of the NYC islands that are currently underwater). 

HOG FLEX

This island has a long history of exile, beginning with its first owner, John Manning. He was court-martialed by England for surrendering the colony to the Dutch. Apparently, they over-dramatically broke his sword in a City Hall ceremony, banned him from public office, and sent him to his island where he promptly drank himself to death.

The most famous sites of exile were the penitentiary, the smallpox hospital, and the New York Lunatic Asylum. The penitentiary had numerous jailbreaks/ swimmers and was rife with corruption and riots. Celebrity inmates included mobster Joseph Rao, Emma Goldman, and Mae West (imprisoned for indecency in her play Sex in the 1930s).

TFW you’re a 1930s woman imprisoned for having any kind of sexuality

The New York Lunatic Asylum was where Nellie Bly wrote 10 Days in a Mad House – the exposé of the horrific conditions at the asylum she wrote after being imprisoned on purpose for journalistic purposes. Nellie dropped the “fake crazy person act” within a day but it still took 10 days for her to be freed by an attorney. This psychiatric ward was also well known for housing women who were sent there for being insubordinate to their husbands. 

Today, Roosevelt Island has a population of 11,661 per the 2010 census. This is also the only island on this list with public transit access by NYC Ferry (Astoria Route), a tram/cable gondola, and the F train. Many historical structures still stand, including the octagonal main building of the lunatic asylum, Robert Blackwell’s house, and the ruins of the smallpox hospital, maintained to preserve the gothic architecture.In 2012 Cornell founded a campus for tech and engineering that is the site of cutting edge research in robotics and AI. In the ruins of the smallpox hospital there is a sanctuary for feral cats. 

Randalls Island/Wards Island

Location: Below Bronx Kill, between East River and Harlem River 

Size: 0.81 Square Miles

Another island fairly well-known by NYC residents, but less accessible and further off the beaten path. These islands were separate until the gap was filled in with gravel in the 1960s. Previous names included Tenkenas, Buchanan Island, Great Barn Island/Little Barn Island, and Montresor’s Island. They were finally purchased by Jonathan Randel and brothers Jaspar/Bartholomew Ward, hence their current namesakes. Randall’s island was misspelled by the city and never fixed.

It looks like you made a spelling mistake… but you know what? Fuck it.

Past tenants include several hospitals (psychiatric and quarantine), an orphanage, a rest home for civil war veterans, and something actually called an “idiot asylum”. The most famous institution was the New York House of Refuge. This was a reform school for juvenile delinquents that was notorious for cruel treatment, largely teenage Irish boys and street urchins in the mid to late 1800’s. Every day meant hours of secular and religious schooling and child labor making shoes and chairs for outside contractors. Disciplinary action was famously cruel including hanging boys up by their thumbs.

Good thing nobody is tortured in US custody these days! Whew. Problem solved.

Randalls/Wards has a population of 1,948 per the 2010 census. This is one of the only islands that has a history of psychiatric institutions that still has one, the Manhattan Psychiatric Center (formerly under the less PC name the New York City Asylum for the Insane). There is a fire fighter training academy here with several replica structures including a subway tunnel, helipad, and a ship. Several music festivals are held there including Panorama, Governor’s Ball, and Electric Zoo …continuing the tradition of isolating insane people on an island. 

North Brother Island/South Brother Island

Location: East River between the Bronx and Riker’s Island

Size: 26 Acres

Previously named De Gellessen by the Dutch (translates to ‘the companions’) , these islands became known as “brothers” once they were no longer Dutch colonies. The most famous tenant of this island was a quarantine hospital where Mary Mallon, also known as “Typhoid Mary”, was held until her death. Mary Mallon was famous for infecting 51 people with her asymptomatic typhoid fever while she was a cook, killing 3 people. This was also the site of the shipwreck/burning of the General Slocum steamship which killed over 1,000 people in 1904. Other uses included a rehab center for juvenile drug addicts, a home for veterans and families post WWII, and a site for a light house. 

North and South Brother Islands have been abandoned since 1960. They are not accessible to the public and are designated as bird sanctuaries. The most common visitors are urban explorers, who show up illegally in canoes to take pictures while dodging falling debris/avoiding falling through floors of abandoned structures and jumping through massive walls of poison ivy. North Brother Island was also featured in an episode of Broad City, though incorrectly portrayed as somewhere someone could pick up a package from a human being instead of do nothing but encounter urban explorers and/or large birds. 

Hoffman Island/Swineburn Island

Location: Lower bay off south beach of Staten Island

Size: Swineburne 4 acres, Hoffman 11 acres

These two islands are man-made. They were built by the federal government as quarantine centers for immigrants who were found to have contagious diseases while they were being processed for entry at Ellis island. Why the government built entire islands rather than quarantining the immigrants somewhere that already existed (including…I don’t know all the other islands I’m writing about here?) is beyond me.

A rare black spot on the USA’s sterling record of immigrant treatment

The quarantine centers were no longer in use after immigration was sharply lessened by the immigration act of 1923 and development of other methods of containing infectious diseases. The island’s only other uses were WWII training centers, some of the quonset huts constructed during this period still stand. 

These Islands are now maintained by the National Park Service and inhabited by several colonies of giant impressive birds, and an increasing amount of harbor seals, so basically North Brother island minus the hipsters with no self-preservation instinct. 

U-Thant Island

Location: East River between Gantry Plaza in Long Island City, Queens and Manhattan close to the UN

Size: 100 x 200 feet

This island was not used to exile people, but is worth including because it is weird as hell. U-Thant is man-made as the result of a landfill pileup that happened while digging into a granite reef to build the Steinway tunnel now being used for the 7 train in 1890 (the construction of which killed 4 people).

Not all these guys made it? Go figure.

It was originally called Belmont Island for the financier that finished the tunnel, but was later unofficially named U-Thant Island after former secretary general of the UN. In 1964 a Norwegian oil tanker crashed into this island. The island has also been the site of a few demonstrations due to its proximity to the UN including a 2 ½ hour occupation by two activists calling it “Soviet Jewry Freedom Island” (yikes) in 1972 to protest a tax on immigration from the Soviet Union, and during the Republican National Convention in 2004 where artist Duke Riley declared it a sovereign nation and hoisted a 21 foot long pennant from the navigation tower depicting two electric eels. This and the resulting confrontation with the coast guard afterword were videotaped for a piece called “Belmont Island”

As for U-Thant Island today, there isn’t much. Just birds this time, no hipsters, no seals. 

For now… just wait until they hear about this “Sovereign Nation” idea.

 

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