Health and Living Mysterious Stories Podcasts

The dark history of North Brother Island, New York’s forbidden place

PODCAST There are two mysterious islands in the East River with a human population of zero.

North Brother Island and the smaller South Brother Island sit near the tidal strait known as Hell Gate, a once-dangerous whirlpool which wrecked hundreds of ships and often deposited the wreckage on the island’s quiet shore.

In the 1880s North Brother Island was chosen as the new home for Riverside Hospital, a quarantine hospital for New Yorkers with smallpox, tuberculosis and many more hideous illnesses.

The hospital is long gone but ruins peaking out from the canopy of trees hint at a shocking story of mystery and woe.

Greg takes the reigns in this episode and leads you through the following tales featuring North Brother Island:

— A bizarre incident — involving a body found in the waters off the island — which first put the place on the map;

— The experiences of “Lighthouse Dan”;

— The nightmarish city policy of ‘forced exile‘ to battle the spread of disease in the city’s poorest quarters;

— The tragic crash of the General Slocum steamship;

— The complicated struggles of Mary Mallon, aka Typhoid Mary;

— The implausible tale of a 1950s rehab center for teenage drug addicts.

PLUS: How to see the ruins of North Brother Island without stepping foot there

Listen Now – North Brother Island: New York’s Forbidden Place

The Smallpox Hospital, photo by Jacob Riis, 1892
The Lighthouse, photo by Jacob Riis, 1892
Place known as ‘coffin corner’ on North Brother Island, photo by Jacob Riis, 1892
The New York Times obituary of the lighthouse keeper
Bodies on the beach following the tragedy of the General Slocum, June 1904
From a New York Daily News profile, March 1956
Photo courtesy North Brother Island HLIT/Wikimedia Commons

Greg’s video of North Brother Island while passing on the ferry to Soundview:

And see the island from a drone’s perspective! Also a egret’s perspective:


Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad & Criminal in 19th Century New York by Stacy Horn
North Brother Island: The Last Unknown Place in New York by Christopher Payne with a history by Randall Mason
The Other Islands of New York City by Sharon Seitz and Stuart Miller
Ship Ablaze: The Tragedy of the Steamboat General Slocum by Edward T. O’Donnell
Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public’s Health by Judith Walzer Leavitt


After exploring the history of North Brother Island, visit these shows in the back catalog for more information about some of the people, places and events mentioned in this show:

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12 replies on “The dark history of North Brother Island, New York’s forbidden place”

If anyone has futher interest in Blackwell’s Island, I’d recommend Damnation Island by Stacy Horn. And The Changeling by Victor LaValle features North Brother Island in a modern fairytale.

You guys did a great job with this one. Most of what you read about here is about Mary Mallon or the General Slocum. I really enjoyed hearing about Lighthouse Dan and those other earlier casualties. Visiting here was one of the most surreal experiences I have ever had; your podcast really satisfied that part of my brain that needed a revisit with new information.

My parents and I lived on North Brother Island while my father completed medical school on the GI Bill after WW 2. I commuted by ferry, then bus, to public school in the Bronx. I remember this place as Paradise. It is so sad to see it’s current state, but I am grateful for your commentary and film. I am now 78 years old. I would enjoy hearing from others with a similar unique experience of this eerily beautiful place. I am always happy to conjur up such wonderful memories.

that beautiful, do you have any photos. I am a local in hunts point where the island is in sight, growing up I always was curious about the island and was told it was haunted

I was born in 1948, and spent my first 3 years on North Brother Island.
My older brother does remember the island. My mother always thought of it as a wonderful place to live.

Marcia, I am a writer and editor based near Boston, and I am researching North Brother Island for a novella I am writing. The novella takes place just after World War II—the time period you indicated your family lived on the island. I’d be interested to learn more about your life on the island—for example, what did children and families do for fun on the island? I believe there were tennis courts…but were there any organized social events? And what were the apartments like—full kitchens and baths, etc? I’ve done a fair amount of research but haven’t been able to find answers to these questions. Any details you can provide would be invaluable! I will plan to check this website periodically to see if you have responded.

Ms Mcgowan- my parents lived on North Brother 1948-49 or 50, a few years before I was born. They loved it, especially my father. He mentioned that he had a garden plot where he grew vegetables. He was never very clear on what sort of housing they had- whether it was a small cottage or an apartment in a larger building. I have an addressed envelop that I found that says “Low Hall, North Brother Island”. Would be very interested if you had any recollections or photos.

Hi Marcia! Could you please contact me at I’m a documentary filmmaker working on a project regarding North Brother Island and I would love to speak with you about your experiences. Been trying to find you for the past few months and didn’t realize I could reply to you on here! Please get in touch if you can. Thanks!

North Brother Island is the setting for a recent fiction novel, The Vines, by Shelly Nolden. As it is historical fiction, part of it takes place during the Slocum disaster and continues up to today.

Fascinating. I grew up till 6 on 101st street between first Ave and the drive. We walked our dogs on wards island and for years I had the nightmare of the foot bridge opening from the middle and me falling in. The bridge actually went up by the entire middle section. North Brother island was north of wards island and was always ominous passing the hospital so closely on Triboro bridge. Nothing good ever happened there I’m sure. Draining the east river would be another amazing discovery. We always wondered how many cement shoed skeletons are down there! Excellent work to all. Thanks!

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