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The startling history of Bellevue Hospital, beyond the horror stories, the last resort for the New York unwanted

Bellevue from the waterfront, 1879.  Proximity to the shoreline — which once gave the original mansion here that ‘belle vue’ — was key in the early years of Bellevue, as sometimes it was the fastest way to get to the hospital when roads were less than ideal. (Courtesy NYC HHC)

PODCAST Bellevue Hospital, you might have heard, once had a very notorious psychiatric ward. But those horror stories have only distracted from the rather breathtaking — and heart-breaking — history of this historic institution, a lifeline not only for the sick, but for the poor, the incarcerated, the abandoned — even the dead!

The hospital traces its origins to a six-bed almshouse that once sat near the location of New York City Hall today. Despite its humble and (to the modern eye) confusing original purposes, the almshouse was miles better than the barbaric medical procedures of early New York, courtesy the ominous sounding ‘barber-surgeons‘.

A series of yellow fever epidemics moved care for the sick to a former mansion called Belle Vue near Murray Hill — and, in fact, with a strong connection to the Murray of said Hill.  Soon the institution fulfilled a variety of roles and in rather ghastly conditions, from ‘pest house’ to execution ground, from a Pathological Museum to New York’s first city morgue.

A great many medical advances came from Bellevue, not least of which the origins of the modern ambulance. But some of that progress has been obscured by the reputation of the Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital which opened in 1931 and ‘hosted’ a variety of famous people with disturbing issues.  And in the 1980s, Bellevue would take on another grim role — during the most distressing years of the AIDS crisis.

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Bellevue traces its start to the original Almshouse which sat in the old common ground that is today City Hall and City Hall Park.  The first infirmary was on the second floor, a total of six beds and originally just one doctor.  When it moved to the Belle Vue mansion during the yellow fever years, this building became refashioned for several institutions, including (as seen below) Scudder’s American Museum, which became the basis for P. T. Barnum‘s museum of the same name. (Courtesy NYPL)

The first incarnation of the ‘almshouse hospital’ in 1852.  By this time, the city had expanded up to this area of Bellevue, and the hospital both farmed out services like its penitentiary and ‘pest-house’ to Blackwell’s Island and expanded its current site to serve the needs of thousands of newly arrived immigrants. (NYPL)

The hospital always had a morgue — its mortality rate, after all, was quite high in the 1830s-40s — but in 1866, it expanded to become New York City’s first city morgue.  Bodies had to be buried after a few days, but for identification and forensic purposes, clothing and other personal articles were kept on display for a month then put into storage.

The first ambulance service ever started at Bellevue in 1869, thanks to the hospital’s connections to the Civil War. The fleet of horse-drawn ambulances features a gong to get through busy streets and a container of brandy as an early reliever of pain.

By the way, I read in one source that the railing of that spectacular entrance to the left was actually taken from the balcony of the demolished Federal Hall, where George Washington was sworn in as America’s first president! I’ll have to find out more about that…. (NYC HHC)

The circus of Barnum and Bailey annually visited the old hospital, entertaining the patients who watched from those glorious iron balconies.  This picture is from 1919 and featured some performers dresses as Indians. (Courtesy Bellevue Hospital Archives)

The hospital’s enduring reputation for treating alcoholics — and the less-than-glowing reputation of its psychiatric ward — were featured in the Billy Wilder film ‘The Lost Weekend‘, which won the Oscar for Best Picture.

Patients had to be evacuated in October 2012 during Hurricane Sandy and was only restored to full service in February of this year.

CORRECTION: In discussing early hospitals that moved into old mansions, I mention Long Island City Hospital, but meant Long Island College Hospital.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/hhcnyc/6507317011/

23 replies on “The startling history of Bellevue Hospital, beyond the horror stories, the last resort for the New York unwanted”

Oh my goodness, thank you! I am starting work on family history. My great grandmother had 5 childen. Her husband left her and she got her nursing degree from Bellevue then went to work on the psychiatric ward at night because that’s where she could make the most money. This is a nice start to my research.

Wendy

In researching my husband’s family history, I uncovered the occupation for his great-grandfather, William Flynn, who was a “morgue man” and ‘morgue ambulance driver’ from about 1926 to his death in 1945 at age 42. I am trying to find out if he drove a horse driven ambulance or motorized – maybe both!!

Lucy

My grandmother died in the Bellevue psychiatric hospital in 1933. She was only 35. My mother who was 12 at the time doesn’t know own why. She was sent there due to epileptic seizures. I heard rumors that they did experiments on psych patients in those times. Can anyone shed any light?

The types of “experiments” done that early would most likely have been fairly benign, like working along with the facility’s medical students on body cooling techniques to see if they relieved some of the pain of small pox, things of that nature. Your poor grandmother (heartbreaking too for your mother and her siblings) were the product of early times when epilepsy was still seeming, by all that could be seen, to be a seriously disturbed condition of the mind, rather than the physical illness we now know it to be. I’d bet my next paycheck that your grandmother probably passed away from suffering a grand mal epileptic seizure, which would have happened no matter whether she were in the hospital at that moment or not. I’m so so sorry that your family members didn’t really get to know her. Her early passing was most likely just a tragic result of the time in which she lived and no reflection of Bellevue. Take care!

In the 1860 Census, my great-great-grandfather, John King, is listed as head-of-household with his wife Cecilia and 2 year-old son in Ward 21, District 5. No address is listed, but Ward 21 covered 6th Avenue to the East River, between 26th and 40th Streets. A few pages after John’s listing, marginal notes on page after page of listings of Irish Domestics, Nurses, etc. recite “Bellevue Hospital.” John’s Occupation is listed as “Depty Warden & Engineer,” and within his household are 14 men, age 21-25, with Occupation shown as “M.D.” It seems as if this must have been a Brownstone where Bellevue provided housing for young residents, which was run by John and my grandmother.

John died young, in 1863. A history of Bellevue recites with regard to young doctors during the Civil War that: “of the 21 members of the staff, 14 became ill with the fever and six died.” I have never been able to determine the cause of John’s death, but living in such close proximity to the medical staff it’s certainly possible that it was typhus.

No, it shouldn’t be shuttered. It is an excellent training site for psychiatrists and psychologists like myself. When I interned there, I witnessed expertise and great care for the underserved. Reagan shut down funding for places like Bellevue and such actions were truly tragic for many with no political voice.

I worked in bellvue hospital in the late 1950’s , on the neurology ward . A patient in his thirties is admitted. He was on the ward for about two weeks. We use to talk , he was very nice and cheerful. I was off for two days. When I returned to work, I saw this patient he did not look at me, just straight ahead. He had a lobotomy performed on him . I found that another patint was shedule for the same operation , so I told him that if he didnot want the same thing to happen to him to have his family to take him out away from there. He did.

Thank God you spoke up! I’m trying to find anything I can about a doctor who delivered “over 5,000 babies.” Dr. Harrah (hope I have the spelling correct). He would have worked there most likely in the 30’s through maybe early 50’s.

This is the hospital I always go to.The history behind it is pretty confusing and I really want to find out more,do spirits haunt the hospital?Who roamed the halls of what once used to be a mansion?I HAVE TO KNOW!!!!

My mother’s brother was a schizophrenic and died at Bellevue.
How could I get permission to see his medical records?

My aunt also died at bellevue in th 1970, very misteriously in fact. Went in for a routine check up, her husband waiting in waiting room when all of a sudden one of the doctors come out to inform him his wife passed away. She had severe respiratory problems and mental heath issues. How can I find out more or even medical records of the time. Thanks

I am doing genealogy research and have reason to believe that my GGG grandfather died in Belleview in 1860. Do you have records going back that far? If so, are they open to the public?
The name I am inquiring about is
James Rowland, born in NY about 1790.

2003-I met a neighbour witch he was into buddism,zen,magic.Also met his wife. One night I have a dream where a man chants and then a woman, then my chest/solarplexus vibrates. A spirit conjuration. I have had a demon fear in my solarplexus or 14 years now. it is horror.Right when I met the witch I was offered these drums called Toontrack Drums From HELL.

Before I met the witch I had a clear dream of falling to HELL.Lava. Then 3 months later I meet the witch.

Me:Used to go to a preppy school was 24/handsome when he took me. 38 now and life is horror.

Your grey collar conservative mentalities are only going to postpone change in these kinds of medical fields. You have no right to be saying this regardless of your intention or profession.
How dare you blame the individual for a historically and obviously atrocious institutions such as Bellevue. Having records and safety code violations since the 1920s for mistreatment sure says alote about the image of this hospital. I hope all further readers of this article discount you to some extent Kati for spreading this kind of cruel misinformation. I hope you rethink what you said in response to Barbara. ~John

I think my grandmother was murdered in one of these mental hospitals, not sure which, but how hard would it be to find out her health reports and such?

I WAS BORN IN BELLEVUE HOSPITAL AT THE END OF THE WAR IN 1945 AND WAS RAISED UP ON 27TH STREET. AND EVERY COLD OR ILLNESS I HAD MY GRANDMOTHER WOULD RUN ME UP THE BLOCK TO THE BELLEVUE EMERGENCY ROOM. I HAVE ONLY FOND WONDERFUL MEMORIES OF 27TH ST AND BEAUTIFUL NEW YORK CITY

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