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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:

FURTHER READING

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

FURTHER LISTENING

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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5 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.

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.

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