We take a look at the ruins of a forgotten Gothic hospital on Roosevelt Island in New York City


A crumbling ruin is all that’s left of the old Smallpox Hospital that used to operate on Roosevelt Island, an island that lies between Manhattan and Queens in New York City. Nowadays, the ruin lies in a park and is lit up by floodlights at night. It’s a picturesque shell of the old Gothic building, and is popular with urban explorers, but the story behind it is a fascinating one.

Originally built by James Renwick Jr, the superstar 19th century architect who built St. Patrick’s Catherdral in Manhattan, and often called “the Renwick Ruin” these days, the old Smallpox Hospital was built in the 1850s.

At the time, Roosevelt Island (then called Blackwell’s Island) was an isolated “haven” for the poor and sick–many wealthy Manhattanites wrote about the picturesque island, more garden than prison. But in reality, the island housed an infamous penitentiary (where William Macy Tweed, aka Boss Tweed, was once held), a workhouse and almshouse for the poor and sick, the infamous New York Lunatic Asylum (where muckraking journalist Nellie Bly got herself admitted to expose the horrific conditions), as well as a few hospitals, including the Smallpox Hospital.


In part one of our two-part look at the Blackwell’s Island Smallpox Hospital / Renwick Ruin, we talk about the history of Roosevelt Island and the hospital itself, as well as a bit of the history of smallpox in the world and in New York City. We’re coming to you from lockdown in Queens, New York, so we also talk a bit about how 19th century Blackwell’s Island relates to the world today, especially with the current coronavirus crisis. We also talk about about some paranormal investigations we want to do on Roosevelt Island once we’re cleared to hang out again.

Important Note: In the episode, we talk about wanting to do a paranormal investigation at the hospital. To be clear, we want to do an Estes session from outside the ruin’s fence. If you’re in the area, you definitely shouldn’t attempt to enter the hospital ruin itself–the floorboards are very unstable and crumbling, and breaking into the hospital could be extremely dangerous, even fatal. Like us, try to content yourself with looking at it from the outside and watching videos of the interiors from experienced urban explorers.

Roosevelt (Blackwell’s) Island in the 19th Century

Stereoscope image of Renwick Smallpox Hospital
“Smallpox Hospital, Black Wells Island, N.Y.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1850 – 1930.
A color image of Blackwell's Island in the 19th Century, seen from 86th Street in Manhattan
“Blackwells Island, East River. From Eighty Sixth Street, New York” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1862.
The Penitentiary on Blackwell's Island
“Penitentiary : Blackwells Island.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1840 – 1870.

Engraving of Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island

“View of the lunatic asylum and mad house, on Blackwell’s Island, New York” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1853.

Sources

These sources were used for parts 1 and 2 of the episode on the Renwick Ruin.

Books

Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad & Criminal in 19th Century New York by Stacy Horn

Websites

Articles

  • National Philanthropist, Date: January 9, 1829, “Blackwell’s Island”
  • Peabody’s Parlour Journal, 2/1/1834, Vol. 1 Issue 5, p2-2, 2/5p, 1 IllustrationIllustration; found on p2
  • Blackwell’s Island Prison. Youth’s Cabinet. 6/27/1839, Vol. 2 Issue 26, p101-102. 2p.
  • Blackwell’s Island. New-York Organ & Temperance Safeguard, Date: August 26, 1848
  • Drunkenness at Blackwell’s Island. New-York Organ & Temperance Safeguard. September 9, 1848
  • “Penitentiary on Blackwell’s Island, New York.” Journal of Humanity & Herald of the American Temperance Society. 07/08/1829, Vol. 1 Issue 7, p28-28. 1/5p.
  • “HOSPITALS ON BLACKWELL’S ISLAND, NEW YORK.” Boston Medical & Surgical Journal. 11/10/1847, Vol. 37 Issue 15, p300-302. 3p.
  • “The Prison at Blackwell’s Island” By: L. M. C. Liberator. 10/28/1842, Vol. 10 Issue 43, p172-172. 1/5p. , Database: Slavery and Abolition, 1789-1887
  • “CASES AT THE PENITENTIARY HOSPITAL ON BLACKWELL’S ISLAND.” CLAUDIAN (AUTHOR). Boston Medical & Surgical Journal. 8/16/1848, Vol. 37 Issue 2, p57-60. 4p.
  • “STATE OF PRISONERS ON BLACKWELL’S ISLAND.” ERBEN, HENRY. New York Municipal Gazette. 03/02/1846, Vol. 1 Issue 38, p527-527. 1/6p. , Database: American Literary Periodicals, 1835-1858
  • “Blackwell’s Island.” American Statesman. 07/31/1847, Vol. 1 Issue 26, p408-409. 2p. , Database: American Political Periodicals, 1715-1891
  • “Doings at Blackwell’s Island.” New-York Organ & Temperance Safeguard. 12/02/1848, Vol. 8 Issue 23, p180-180. 1/9p.
  • “The New Work-House on Blackwell’s Island.” Friend: A Religious & Literary Journal. 12/7/1850, Vol. 24 Issue 12, p90-90. 1/3p.
  • “No. 12.–NEW YORK. Criminal and Humane Institutions.–Police.–Workhouse on Blackwell’s Island.” Pennsylvania Journal of Prison Discipline & Philanthropy. 1851 1st Quarter, Vol. 6 Issue 1, p59-60. 2p.
  • “CROTON AQUEDUCT SUPPLY OF WATER TO BLACKWELL’S ISLAND BY MEANS OF GUTTA PERCHA PIPE.” C. (AUTHOR). Appleton’s Mechanics’ Magazine & Engineers’ Journal. Dec1851, Vol. 1 Issue 12, p738-741. 4p.
  • “SUPPLY OF WATER TO BLACKWELL’S ISLAND.” Friend: A Religious & Literary Journal. 11/27/1852, Vol. 26 Issue 11, p82-83. 2p.
  • “ALM HOUSE, BLACKWELL’S ISLAND.” Gleason’s Pictorial. 10/09/1852, Vol. 3 Issue 15, p225-225. 1p. 1 Illustration, 1 Graphic, Symbol or Logo.
  • “PENITENTIARY, BLACKWELL’S ISLAND, NEW YORK.” Gleason’s Pictorial (Boston, MA – 1853-1854). 05/28/1853, Vol. 4 Issue 100, preceding p338-338. 1p. 1 Illustration, 1 Graphic, Symbol or Logo.
  • “LUNATIC ASYLUM, BLACKWELL’S ISLAND.” National Magazine. Oct1855, Vol. 7 Issue 4, p314-315. 2p. 1 Illustration.
  • “Randall’s and Blackwell’s Islands.” Independent (New York, NY 1848-1876). 09/27/1849, p172-172. 1/9p.
  • “BURNING OF BLACKWELL’S ISLAND HOSPITAL.” Brother Jonathan (New York, NY). 2/20/1858, Vol. 17 Issue 327, p003-003. 1/9p.
  • “BLACKWELL’S ISLAND HOSPITAL.” Episcopal Recorder. 8/7/1858, Vol. 26 Issue 19, p74-74. 1/9p.
  • “A VISIT TO THE LUNATIC ASYLUM ON BLACKWELL’S ISLAND.” Harper’s Weekly. 03/19/1859, Vol. 3 Issue 116, p184-186. 3p. 10 Illustrations.
  • “THE WORK-HOUSE–BLACKWELL’S ISLAND.” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. Nov1866, Vol. 33 Issue 198, p683-702. 20p. 19 Illustrations.
  • “VISIT TO BLACKWELL’S ISLAND.” FOSDICK. American Odd Fellow: A Monthly Magazine. Apr1869, Vol. 8 Issue 4, p208-211. 4p. , Database: Masons, Odd-Fellows and Other Societal Periodicals, 1794-1877
  • “SMALL-POX HOSPITAL, BLACKWELL’S ISLAND, F. Y.” New York Medical Journal: A Monthly Record of Medicine & the Collateral Sciences. Feb1875, Vol. 21 Issue 2, p173-176. 4p.
  • “PUBLIC INSTITUTIONS ON BLACKWELL’S ISLAND.” Harper’s Weekly. 2/6/1869, Vol. 13 Issue 632, p91-91. 1/6p.
  • “SMALL-POX HOSPITAL.” Life Illustrated. 01/24/1857, Vol. 3 Issue 13, p101-101. 1/9p. , Database: Periodicals of the American West, 1779-1881

 

Images Used in this Post

  • The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. “Blackwells Island, East River. From Eighty Sixth Street, New York” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1862. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/5e66b3e8-e879-d471-e040-e00a180654d7
  • The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “Penitentiary : Blackwells Island.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1840 – 1870. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e1-2793-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
  • The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “Smallpox Hospital, Black Wells Island, N.Y.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1850 – 1930. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-208e-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
  • The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. “View of the lunatic asylum and mad house, on Blackwell’s Island, New York” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1853. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/5e66b3e8-d3cf-d471-e040-e00a180654d7

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