North Brother Island inhabits twenty acres in the East River, lying almost equidistant to Rikers Island and the Port Morris section of the Bronx. In its present state the island is covered with vines and trees that practically swallow up the skeletal ruins of a slew of abandoned buildings. It is completely off limits to the public now, but in the past the island was a refuge or a hell for those suffering from various afflictions.
North and nearby South Brother Islands were claimed by the Dutch West India Company, who named them “De Gesellen,” or “the companions.” However, the islands remained undeveloped because swift and powerful currents made passage to and from the mainland treacherous.
In the late 1800’s New York City was afflicted with numerous infectious diseases. In 1885 New York City assumed control of North Brother Island in order to build an expanded Riverside Hospital, which had been located on Blackwell’s Island. In
addition to typhus and typhoid fever, the hospital also cared for patients suffering from smallpox, cholera, and yellow fever. This was not a hospital for wealthy patients, but for the indigent and derelict of New York City. Great waves of immigration brought
yet more infectious disease patients and the hospital expanded several times. Then the turn of the century brought tuberculosis, a highly contagious lung disease, and the hospital expanded again. Yet another health crisis struck: the polio epidemic, which during the summer of 1916 claimed 209 victims per week, 90% of them under the age of ten.
Typhoid Mary was North Brother Island’s most infamous resident. Mary Mallon was a healthy-looking, hard-working immigrant and carrier of typhoid fever. Spread of the disease was traced to her when a succession of families she had cooked for were stricken with the disease. Mary was the first known healthy carrier, and since she showed no symptoms of typhoid fever herself, it was impossible for her to believe she was spreading disease and thought herself unjustly persecuted. When confronted and asked for blood and stool samples, she became enraged, threatening the doctor with a kitchen fork and barricading herself from the police. She was apprehended a few hours later and confined to North Brother Island to live in isolation with only a dog for a companion. She was released in 1910 on the condition that she not cook or handle food for others. For the next two years, Mary worked in various hotels and restaurants using aliases until twenty-five people at Sloane Maternity Hospital contracted typhoid fever and “Mrs. Brown” was found to be in fact Mary Mallon. In 1915 the board of health declared her a public menace and she was again sentenced to North Brother Island where she remained until she died in 1938.
North Brother Island was involved in a terrible tragedy. On June 15th, 1904 bodies began washing up on her shores. Some were alive, but most had burned or drowned in what would turn out to be New York City’s worst disaster until 9/11: the sinking of the General R. Slocum steamship. The “limp, charred bodies were laid out in long rows among the grass” according to Munsey’s Magazine. There were 600 by midnight and more than 400 still in the river, almost all women and children of German descent
who had set out that morning for their annual picnic on Long Island. This time they had the terrible misfortune of boarding the General R. Slocum steamship, elegant and ornate on the surface with carved mahogany interiors, wicker and red velvet furniture,
and a new coat of white paint. In recent years the ship had had a number of accidents and breakdowns, and its reputation had suffered. The captain responsible for the incidents had not been dismissed and the Knickerbocker Steamship Company ran on a
tight budget, employing a cheap, poorly trained crew. Early in the voyage children complained of smelling smoke, but were hushed by their parents and ignored by the crew. When the captain finally acknowledged the emergency he ordered the ship to go full steam ahead to North Brother Island. The wind and speed hastened the spread of the flames and made it impossible for tugs and fireboats to catch up. On board the neglected fire hoses were rotten and burst upon use. All but one of the lifeboats had been nailed down, and many of the thirteen year-old cork-filled life jackets disintegrated in the water. Some of the life jackets were found filled with cast iron because it was cheaper than cork.
Later, after WWII, North Brother Island began to house healthy boarders from the overflow of dormers at local colleges such as Columbia, City College, and Fordham University, enrollment of which had swelled from the GI Bill. The students were ferried
back and forth to school each day. By 1952 the city reclaimed the island, this time using the hospital facilities as a rehabilitation center for teen drug addicts as an alternative to jail sentences. Racial tension amongst the patients fueled discontent. Corruption among the staff gave rise to bribes and prostitution in exchange for drugs. The grounds were poorly maintained and became overgrown with weeds. North Brother Island became a hopeless place where many attempted escapes ended in drowning.
Riverside Hospital finally closed and the island was abandoned in 1963. A few times throughout the years it has been offered for sale and many ideas for its future – from amusement parks to penitentiaries – have been tossed around, but none of the plans
have come to fruition. The island is now governed by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation as a sanctuary for birds, including Black Crowned Night Herons, Great and Snowy Egrets, and Glossy Ibis, all making their homes amongst the ruins.