The heart of New York City holds many disturbing secrets, but among the most unnerving is North Brother Island.
The 22-acre island in the East River’s closest neighbor is the Rikers Island Correctional Center. You can only reach it by boat–and even then, you need a special permit from the city. It’s allegedly a bird sanctuary now, but insiders say that birds avoid the place. Perhaps it’s because the island is rumored to be one of the most haunted places in the world.
For more than 100 years, this tiny plot of land has been home to disaster, death, and despair.
In 1904, a steamship named the General Slocum caught fire while traversing the East River. It sank near North Brother island, and newspaper accounts of the time showed the horror as bodies washed ashore for weeks following the disaster.
Of the 1342 passengers and crew aboard the steamship, only 321 survived.
The city of New York built Riverside Hospital on the island in 1885. It seemed like the perfect place to isolate patients suffering from extremely contagious diseases like smallpox, tuberculosis, and typhoid.
The infamous Typhoid Mary (real name Mary Mallon) was quarantined at Riverside after authorities figured out that she was behind multiple typhus outbreaks in the city. Mary was an asymptomatic carrier who refused to believe that she was sick.
So she carried on working as a cook for one family after another in New York, moving on to a new household when the last one inevitably got sick.
Typhoid Mary was first quarantined from 1907-1910 at Riverside hospital. She insisted that she was healthy and refused to stop earning her living as a cook. She finally agreed to change her occupation in order to be released from quarantine, but guess what? She changed her name and went back to work in kitchens across New York.
Now calling herself Mary Brown, she changed jobs often enough that the authorities couldn’t track her down when more people became sick. However, when she got a job at the Sloane Hospital for Women in 1915, she caused 25 people to get sick. Two of them died from typhus.
Mary was caught and remained under lock and key at Riverside Hospital until she died. She suffered from a stroke that left her paralyzed in 1932 but lived another six years. She finally succumbed to pneumonia in 1938 at the age of 69.
Riverside Hospital was a massive complex that included worker housing and a huge morgue. The facility shut down in 1943, but after World War II, the island was repurposed as a home for veterans and their families.
After that, it became a drug treatment facility where heroin addicts were essentially locked in solitary confinement until they detoxed from drugs. The addicts who were “treated” there felt they were being unjustly imprisoned, and to this day you can see the messages for help that they scratched into the walls. The corrupt staff caused the place to be shut down for the final time in 1963.
These days, the island is overgrown with ivy and trees. The redbrick hospital buildings are little more than ruins, an eerie testament to the human misery that once plagued this place.
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