They Exiled The Sick Here. Stare Closely And You Might Still Hear The Screams

Take a boat ride starting at the Bronx’s Barretto Point Park in New York. Ten minutes later, you’ll find yourself at Hell Gate, a dangerous stretch of the East River between The Bronx and Riker’s Island. Look up. Welcome to the creepy, abandoned Riverside Hospital on North Brother Island.

1. It quarantined the sick.

The hospital began in 1885. Its sole purpose was to quarantine the sick. Hundreds afflicted with deadly and extremely communicable diseases lived cut off from society here. Smallpox, typhus, scarlet fever, yellow fever, all those stricken with these diseases were forced to live here.

2. It was a leper colony.

Six residents with leprosy lived in wooden huts on the premises. Other patients lived in tents and cottages on site.

3. ‘The Black Hole of Calcutta’

Those who escaped told stories of hell on earth. Many felt incarceration here amounted to a death sentence. The New Yorker in 1935 described it as:

…a dismal spot. Sitting there, one may see, as the best view, the gas tanks on the Bronx shore. Now and then a ferryboat glides past. At night the dirty water of the East River laps against the rocks, making a messy, ghostly noise.

4. Isolation from the world

Geography cut Riverside Hospital off from the world. When bad weather struck, it meant ferries could not deliver food or heat to the island. Local historian Ian Ference put it this way:

There was no telephony in those early days so once people were grabbed and taken there – they were often never heard from again by their families.

5. Authorities exiled Typhoid Mary here.

Typhoid Mary, or Mary Mallon, spent three decades here. She was suspected of carrying the typhoid virus which infected 43 people and killed three. A medical researcher, George Soper, identified her as a carrier; she refused to believe it. As a result, she was forcibly ordered to stay at the island from 1907 to 1910.

In 1910, they released Typhoid Mary, after she agreed not to return to work as a cook, an occupation which hastened the spread of typhus. She broke her agreement upon which she was permanently exiled to the island in 1915 all the way to her death in 1938.

Doctors performed a post-mortem and found live typhoid cultures in her body.

6. It was the site of New York’s worst loss of life prior to 9/11.

June 15, 1904. 1,021 people set out on a church outing on the General Slocum steamship. Most were women and children. Within 30 minutes of departure, a fire broke out and panic overtook the passengers. Many were stuck between burning alive or jumping in the water. The crew handed out life jackets, but those were rotten. Hundreds jumped overboard even though both they could not swim and their clothing of that period weighed them down.

The scene horrified onlookers. Historian Edward Ellis wrote:

Floating in the water were bodies blackened and bloody, torn and seared. Veteran reporters looked and wept.

It registered as New York’s worst loss of life prior to 9/11. Only 321 people survived. For many days afterward, bodies washed onto North Brother Island.

7. It housed World War II veterans.

After closing in 1942, the island found inhabitants in returning World War II veterans. These veterans, along with their families, lived on the island while enrolled in New York colleges. The plan alleviated the pressures on the housing shortage at the time. When the shortage suddenly lessened, veterans made their way back to the city, leaving the island abandoned once again.

8. It served as a juvenile drug center.

The buildings reopened in 1952. Courts and parents sent juvenile drug addicts there for rehabilitation. Incarcerations lasted 6 months. During that time, the youth were bathed, searched and forced to go cold turkey from their addictions. If they failed, staff gave them small doses of their drug to slowly force them off the drug.

They stayed in a pavilion originally built in 1943 to quarantine tuberculosis patients. The center eventually closed due to staff corruption and patient recidivism.

Riverside Hospital permanently closed in 1963.

9. It now acts as a bird sanctuary.

The government forbids access to the island. Besides the lone bird expert, only the many species of birds there can witness the decay of its abandoned buildings firsthand.

These decrepit buildings and walls hold secrets and whispered conversations, tragedy and suffering.

They witnessed the General Slocum steamship tragedy, watched the horrors of the sick exiled by their own government and now, behold the peacefulness of birds making North Brother Island their home.

Thanks to the photographer Christopher Payne, these photos help remember the forgotten island of North Brother. More photos and history can be found in his book, North Brother Island: The Last Unknown Place in New York City.

Share these photos of New York’s forgotten island with a friend and give them a memorable journey today.