Wednesday, March 30, 2016

HGB Ep. 115 - North Brother Island

Moment in Oddity - Planets Make Noise

For anyone who has been scuba diving or snorkeling, you know that the ocean is a noisy place. The same is true for outer space. The movie Alien had the tagline, "In space, no one can hear you scream." But does that really mean space is silent? In actuality, interstellar space can be quite noisy. Space sound comes in the form of waves of electrons in plasma. Humans cannot hear the plasma waves, but space probes like Voyager can pick up the waves and transmit them in frequencies that we can detect. Solar events usually are the catalyst for these plasma waves, but NASA has also released the sounds of planets. That's right! Planets make noise and these waves are creepy as hell! Here is Uranus...and then there is Jupiter...and here is Neptune...and then even our home Earth has a noise. The fact that space is noisy and planets make noise, certianly is odd!

This Day in History - Assassination Attempt on President Ronald Reagan
by: Steven Pappas

On this day, March 30th, in1981, President Ronald Reagan was shot by a would-be assassin. The .22 caliber bullet pierced his chest and hit his left lung, narrowly missing his heart. Secret Service men jumped on top of the President and threw him into the Presidential limosine. At first, no one knew that Reagan was hit. The president thought he had a broken rib. A secret service agent saw blood on Reagan's lips. They rushed him to the hospital. In an amazing feat of resilience, he walked into George Washington Hospital under his own power,even though he was a 70 year old man who had a collapsed lung. As he was being prepared for surgery he was reported to be in good spirits. He told his wife Nancy, "Sorry Honey. I forgot to duck" and told his surgeons he hoped they were Republicans. He resumed some of his duties from his hospital bed the next day, before returning to the White House on April 11. Press Secretary James Brady was shot as well and left in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. The shooter was arrested and was found to be 25-year-old John Hinckley, Jr. He argued for insanity and was institutionalized after being found not guilty by reason of insanity. His motive was to impress actress Jodie Foster with whom he was obsessed and whom he had been stalking. Hinckley is still in an institution, but he gets to leave on unsupervised visits with his family.

North Brother Island (Suggested by listener Amy Consolacion and Researched by April Rogers-Krick)


North Brother Island has a rich history that is still reflected in its abandoned landscape and buildings. This is an island off of New York and now owned by New York. New York City saw the worst tragedy in American history on September 11, 2001. Before that day, the worst tragedy was the sinking of the General Slocum, which has connections to North Brother Island. The island also was home to Riverside Hospital, a quarantine hospital for those suffering from horrible and contagious diseases like small pox. Many died there. And for twenty-three years, Typhoid Mary called this island home. There are rumors that the island is not completely abandoned. Spirits seem to have remained. Join us as we explore the history and hauntings of North Brother Island.

North and South Brother Island or "The Brothers" as they are commonly called, are a pair of islands located in New York City’s East River between Rikers Island and the Bronx. In 1614, both islands were claimed by the Dutch West India Company and were named “De Gesellen," which means “the companions” in English. South Brother Island was privately owned until the city bought it in 2007. North Brother Island is currently uninhabited and is a designated bird sanctuary. In 1614, after the Dutch West India Company claimed North Brother Island, it remained uninhabited because of the strong currents near the island that were dangerous.

In 1871, the city of Morissanina, located in the Bronx, purchased North Brother Island and The Sisters of Charity built a tuberculosis hospital there.  The hospital was closed in 1885 when New York City purchased the island and built Riverside Hospital to treat all manner of quarantinable diseases including typhoid, typhus, yellow fever, diphtheria, measles, scarlet fever, polio, and tuberculosis. All would be housed in separate pavilions. Many of the patients from Renwick Smallpox Hospital on Roosevelt Island were relocated to North Brother Island once the new facility was built.  A ferry located at 132nd street in the Bronx transported staff, patients, and supplies to the island.  Still the island remained extremely isolated. Telephone and telegraph lines were not installed until as late as 1894. 

There were many dangers transporting stricken patients in the winter, and much criticism was voiced after a six-month old baby infected with measles perished en route to the island.  During the turn of the century, overcrowding was a major issue when outbreaks occurred, and large outbreaks of highly contagious diseases were common place at this time.  Everyday medical instruments were in short supply and were not cleaned or sterilized properly between frequent uses.  Tents were used when no more beds could fit in the pavilions: the cloth enclosures were precariously heated with wood burning stoves during the harsh New York winters, and a few eventually wound up in flames.  The hospital had about 1200 people in quarantine during an 1892 typhus outbreak.

In 1905, a steamship called the General Slocum caught fire near the island.  The General Slocum worked as a passenger ship, taking people on excursions around New York City.  The ship had once been a grand steamship.  But by the early 1900’s it was in quick decline. The General Slocum was an all-white, three decker vessel, with large passenger salons, large passenger windows and a hurricane deck with a three-foot rail for maximum viewing. On Wednesday June 15, 1904, St. Marks Evangelical Lutheran church had charted the steamship for the day. Passengers numbered 1400 and most of them were women and children and from the same German neighborhood. As the ship passed East 90th street, a fire started in the Lamp Room in the forward section.  No one knows for sure what started the fire.  A young boy of about 12 was the first to discover the fire and he tried to warn the captain.  The captain yelled at the boy to leave him alone and continued on without checking on the claim.

The General Slocum was in poor condition and safety equipment had not been maintained.  Fire hoses had rotted and fell apart when the crew tried to put out the fire.  The ten lifeboats had been wired to the wall and then painted over, so that they were rendered useless. Survivors reported the life preservers were useless and fell apart in their hands.  Desperate mothers placed life vests on their children and tossed them into the water only to watch them sink instead of float.  Like most Americans of the time, the women and children on board could not swim, not to mention that the period clothing of the time was not well suited to swimming.

Instead of immediately running aground, the captain decided to continue the course. His reasoning involved insurance. There were gas tanks and lumber yards near the shoreline where he could bring the ship to shore. The winds fanned the flames as the burning vessel continued sailing forward. By the time the General Slocum sank in shallow water at North Brother Island, 1021 people had either burned to death or drowned.  There were only 321 survivors.  There were many acts of heroism among the passengers, witnesses, and emergency personnel.  Staff and patients from the Riverside Hospital participated in the rescue, forming human chains and pulling victims from the water.  This remained one of the largest losses of life at one time for America until September 11, 2001.

The most infamous patient at Riverside Hospital was a women named Mary Mallon, who came to be known as “Typhoid Mary.” Mary Mallon immigrated to the United States from Ireland in 1883 at the age of 15.  She lived with her aunt and uncle for a short time until she found work as a cook for affluent families.  From 1900 to 1907 Mary worked in the New York City area for seven different families. Beginning in 1900, Mary worked for a family in Mamaroneck, New York.  Within two weeks of her employment, people developed typhoid fever.  In 1901, she had moved to Manhattan, where again members of the family she worked for developed fevers and diarrhea, and the laundress died. She then went to work for a lawyer; she left after seven of the eight people in the household became ill.

She then took a position in Oyster Bay, Long Island in 1906.  Again, within two weeks, 10 out of the 11 family members were hospitalized with typhoid fever.  She changed jobs and at three more households the same thing happened.  A wealthy New York banker, Charles Henry Warren hired her as a cook for his family when they rented a house in Oyster Bay for the summer of 1906.  From August 27 to September 3, six of the 11 people in the family came down with typhoid fever.  At the time, typhoid was considered “unusual” in Oyster Bay, according to three medical doctors who practiced there.  Mary was subsequently hired by many other families, and outbreaks of typhoid followed each of her employments. And through all this, Mary herself never became ill.

Late in 1906, one of the families hired a typhoid researcher, George Soper to investigate the outbreak.  Soper discovered that an Irish female cook, who fit the physical description he was given, was involved in all of the outbreaks.  The cook was described as an Irish woman about 40 years old, tall, heavy, walked with a manly gate, unmarried and seemed to be in perfect health.  The woman was hard to locate as she generally left after an outbreak began and never left a forwarding address. Soper learned of an active outbreak in a penthouse on Park Avenue, and discovered the cook was Mary Mallon.  Two of the household servants were hospitalized, and the daughter of the family died of typhoid fever.  When he approached Mary about her possible roll in spreading typhoid, she adamantly refused to give blood, urine and stool samples. He then compiled a five-year history of Mary’s employment.  Soper found that seven of the eight families that had hired Mary as a cook claimed to have contracted typhoid fever.  Again he tried to get samples from Mary, even bringing another doctor with him.  Again she turned him away.

Finally, the New York City Health Department sent a female physician, Sara Josephine Baker to talk to Mary.  Dr. Baker said that by that time, Mary was convinced that the law was only persecuting her when she had done nothing wrong. She refused to cooperate in any way. A few days later, Dr. Baker arrived at Mary’s place of employment with several police officers, who took her into custody. Mary admitted to poor hygiene, saying she did not understand the purpose of hand-washing because she did not pose a risk. She was not sick and therefore did not understand how she could have anything to do with the typhoid outbreaks. In prison, she was forced to give blood, urine and stool samples.  Doctors found a significant nidus of typhoid bacteria in her gallbladder. She became the first documented case of a seemingly healthy person being a carrier of the typhoid bacteria. It was suggested that she have her gallbladder removed.  The surgery would have basically cured her but Mary refused because she did not believe she carried the disease.  Mary also refused to stop working as a cook. 

Eventually the New York Health Inspector determined Mary was a menace and needed to be quarantined.  Under sections 1169 and 1170 of the Greater New York Charter, Mary was held at a clinic located on North Brother Island in isolation for three years.  Eventually, the New York State Commissioner of Health, Eugene H. Porter, decided that disease carriers should no longer be kept in isolation.  Mary could be freed if she agreed to stop working as a cook and take reasonable steps to prevent transmitting typhoid to others.  Mary agreed that she was “prepared to change her occupation and would give assurance by affidavit that upon her release she would take such hygienic precautions as to protect those with whom she came in contact, from infection.”  She was released from quarantine and returned to the mainland on February 19, 1910.

Mary was given a job as a laundress, which paid less than cooking.  After trying unsuccessfully for several years working as a laundress, she changed her name to Mary Brown, and returned to cooking. No one had told her that she couldn't change her name and she needed to make more money.  For the next five years, she worked in a number of kitchens and wherever she worked there were outbreaks of typhoid once again. Mary started another major outbreak in 1915, this time at Sloane hospital for women in New York City.  Twenty-five people were infected and two died. She left her job, but the police were able to locate and arrest her when she brought food to a friend on Long Island. On March 27th after arresting her, public health authorities returned her to quarantine on North Brother Island.  Still unwilling to have her gallbladder removed Mary remained confined to the island for the remainder of her life. 

Mary did have her own little cottage and a dog.  She was allowed to garden and cook only for herself.  Eventually she gained trust and was given a job in the hospital laboratory washing glass bottles.  She was allowed to take short day excursions off the island and into the city to shop and visit family and friends.  She was required to return to the island each evening.  On Christmas Day 1932, a man delivering a package to Mary found her lying on the floor of her cottage unable to walk.  She had had a stroke.  For the next six years Mary remained in the hospital until her death in 1938. 

During the 1930’s, new hospitals that were more equipped to deal with patients with contagious diseases sprang up all around on the mainland. With the development of better medications and medical practices people with contagious diseases no longer needed to be quarantined for such long periods of time.  The large number of outbreaks that had plagued the city in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century were no longer a problem. A large tuberculosis pavilion was constructed on the island in 1943. Due to the lack of staff and personnel required to operate the additional facility, the pavilion was never used to house tuberculosis patients. This building is the only one that is not horribly deteriorated. The island was then leased to the state and the building was used as a dormitory to house veterans and their families after returning from service in World War II.  By 1951, the buildings once again stood empty as the veterans and their families grew sick of the daily commute and had moved off the island where cheaper housing had been found for them.

In 1952, the city once again took control of the island.  Plans were made to use the hospital as a rehabilitation center for heroin addicts.  The idea was to get adolescents far away from the overcrowded jails and hospitals filled with hardened criminals, with a maximum stay of six months.  The tuberculosis pavilion was converted to treat 100 boys and 50 girls, placed there by their parents or the court system.  New admissions were searched for drugs and bathed, then they were placed in observation wards as they went through withdrawal “Cold Turkey.” If the symptoms were too severe, they were tapered off the drug. The doors to many of the rooms had heavy deadbolts and sheet metal reinforcement added to them to seclude the patients and help manage them during withdrawal. In 1963, Riverside Hospital closed. The city had decided it was impractical to continue operations there.  The official word was that it was too expensive, and there was plenty of cheaper locations available on the mainland.  When the last inhabitants, (drug patients, doctors and staff) left the island, it once again became uninhabited and mother nature took over. 

Once the island was abandoned it became a bird sanctuary. From 1980 to sometime in the 2000s the island was a nesting ground to the Black Crowned Night Heron, but by 2008 for unknown reasons the Heron also abandoned the island and no longer nests there. Did something scare the endangered birds away? The hospital and pavilions, elementary school with school items still in the building, nurse and physician housing, and a tennis and hand ball court are still standing on the island although they are in differing states of decay. In 2014, a group of city officials ventured to the island.  Their objective was to evaluate the situation and determine if the island could possibly be cleaned up and opened as a public park.  It was determined that further evaluation was needed to see if the buildings could be salvaged. Although the island is not open to the public at this time it is open to the city parks department for maintenance.  Recently the parks department has cleared a new path around the entire island.  Someday they hope to open the island buildings and woods as a park for the public to enjoy.

North Brother Island seems to have not been entirely abandoned. Spirits from the past have quite possibly made this island their home in the afterlife. The most famous of these is Typhoid Mary. She felt she was not dealt with in a fair manner and that may be why her spirit has remained behind. New York alone had an estimated 90 healthy carriers of the disease each year. And several of those people led to others getting sick and even some deaths. Tony Labella is thought to have sickened 122 people, while Mary only passed the disease on to 47. Why was she treated more harshly? Many think it was because she was considered a nobody and she was Irish. Because of this, one can imagine that her spirit is angry. Her cottage had been demolished upon her death and so she walks the halls of Riverside Hospital. Trespassers have claimed to see a woman who wanders the corridors and rooms of the crumbling hospital. But even before that, when the hospital was still in use, staff members claimed to see a strange woman in the hospital wearing clothes from another era. An orderly once followed the woman down a hall and watched her walk into a room. He assumed one of the patients had gotten out of their rooms. He entered the room and much to his shock, no one was in there.

Abandoned places are spooky and creepy in and of themselves. The tragedy of the General Slocum has made North Brother Island that much creepier. People who lived on the island for the years following the disaster, claimed to see shadowy and haunting figures walking the beaches and wandering the grounds of Riverside Hospital. They wept as they seemed to look for loved lost ones and perhaps for their own lost lives. Some were more clearly seen then others.

Was the woman seen in the hospital Typhoid Mary? Are the victims of the General Slocum tragedy still looking for their loved ones in the afterlife? Is North Brother Island haunted? That is for you to decide!

Show Notes:
Bowery Boys Episodes to check out :
#166 The General Slocum Disaster 1904 (June 12, 2014)
#190 The Curious Case of Typhoid Mary (September 17, 2015)

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