The 13th Floor

The Lunatics, Convicts, and Ghosts of New York City’s Roosevelt Island

A tall chain link fence is meant to keep the curious out, but it doesn’t always work. Within its confines are the stone walls of a building that is slowly crumbling to the ground, but still holding on to the ghosts of its past. Those who have dared to enter share the same stories of ghostly apparitions and unexplainable sounds. Long time residents of the city know this place well, and some won’t even dare go near it for fear of what may still linger.

New York City’s Roosevelt Island rests between Queens and Manhattan. It is small expanse of land, less than 150 acres. Not intended for automobile traffic, for many years it was only accessible only by boat. Now connected by subway, tramway, and a small bridge, 12,000 New Yorkers call Roosevelt Island home. But before it became so densely residential, Roosevelt Island was once home to the sick and dying as well as ample convicts and lunatics.

In 1637, the Dutch seized the island from the Canarsie Indians and named it Manning Island. Over the years, its name repeatedly changed as the island changed ownership. By the 19th century, now known as Blackwell’s Island, it became the location for several prisons and hospitals. After being purchased by New York City in 1828, the city built a penitentiary followed by the New York City Lunatic Asylum in 1839.

The asylum became synonymous with intolerable and outright torturous conditions. In 1842, writer Charles Dickens paid a visit to the asylum. Charles found conditions to be unsanitary and disorderly. Then in 1887, journalist Nellie Bly went undercover to expose the hospital. Much like the plot of AMERICAN HORROR STORY: ASYLUM, Nellie feigned insanity in order to be sentence to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island. Her 96-page report, TEN DAYS IN A MAD-HOUSE, brought to light some of the archaic treatments patients were subject to. While undercover, Nellie saw doctors experimenting on patients with no clear purpose, as well as the physical abuse carried out by an overwhelmed staff. Nellie also found that some of the inmates were not actually insane, but instead women who did not speak English and therefore were deemed insane because no one could understand them. She also reported that many of the patients were subject to hours of isolation where they would be tied to a flat board and restricted form moving.

During its heyday, the hospital housed twice its intended population, maxing at around 1,700 patients. Due to this overcrowding, many patients were forced to sleep on the floor without the benefit of warm clothing or bedding. The asylum finally closed in 1901 still under a blanket of controversy. Now all that remains of the asylum is a large distinctive octagon that has been incorporated into an apartment complex.

In 1856, the city built the Renwick Smallpox Hospital at the southern tip of the island. Although there was a vaccine for the disease by this time, many immigrants coming to America were arriving already infected. The hospital saw over 7,000 patients a year. And during its 30 years treating smallpox, it listed over 30,000 deaths. In 1886, the hospital was turned into a teaching facility for nurses that was eventually closed in the 1950s. By 1921, the island was renamed Welfare Island as the city began instituting reforms to prisons and hospitals located there.

The old hospital is now nothing more then brick walls behind a fence that still houses the ghosts of those who died there. Though some of the newer residents speak of strange lights and sounds, but don’t try using the threat of ghostly visitations as a bargaining chip for cheaper rent. Now prime New York real estate, a haunted asylum adjacent studio (single room) apartment will run you over two grand.