North Brother Island’s tragic past

North Brother Island is a 13-acre spit of land in the East River, between the Bronx and Riker’s Island. Unlike bigger Roosevelt Island nearby, it’s never been developed.

RiversidehospitalnobrotherBut it has been inhabited by people—sick people. Acquired by the city in 1885, officials built Riverside Hospital (at right) there, a place to quarantine New Yorkers who suffered from potentially deadly and easily communicable diseases such as typhus and smallpox. It also housed drug addicts until the 1960s.

North Brother’s most famous resident? Mary Mallon, aka Typhoid Mary. The Irish immigrant cook, a carrier of typhus, was committed there in 1908 and died 30 years later. 

The island has another connection to a tragic New York event: the General Slocum disaster. After this steamship caught fire near the island in 1904, hundreds of passengers—mostly German immigrant women and children enjoying an annual church boat trip—jumped into the East River to escape the flames.


The General Slocum finally beached on North Brother, and many passenger bodies washed up on its shore. All told, an estimated 1,021 people perished—the greatest loss of life in New York City until the September 11th terrorist attacks.

Today North Brother is inhabited mainly by birds; it’s a protected bird sanctuary. The latest episode of the web-only PBS show The City Concealed can take you there.

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15 Responses to “North Brother Island’s tragic past”

  1. mykola (mick) dementiuk Says:

    I recall there was a plaque on the East River Park at about 13th Street in honor of the General Slocum overlooking the river. One day it was chipped and stolen for the metal and whatever coins could be gotten for it…There is no honor or respect among thieves.

  2. wildnewyork Says:

    That’s depressing. Well, at least the memorial fountain in Tompkins Square Park is still there:

  3. Mykola (Mick) Dementiuk Says:

    Their demarcation port was on 13th Street…never to return.

  4. PizzaBagel Says:

    Also, there’s a memorial in All-Faiths Cemetery in Middle Village. See:

  5. petey Says:

    it was a church day out. i live one block from the current st mark’s church which was relocated to yorkville, whither many of the german population moved after the disaster. the story has never died here.

  6. Latest » The history of North Brother Island Says:

    […] From Ephemeral New York: […]

  7. Who was General Slocum? « Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] was General Slocum? By wildnewyork June 15, 1904, marks the 106th anniversary of the General Slocum disaster, when a paddle steamer packed with mothers and children caught fire in the East […]

  8. Says:

    My husband and I lived there ffor about 2 WONDERFUL years. The buildings (wards) had been divided int 0ne and two room apartments for student veterans after WWII.. One room for childless couples, two rooms for couples with the children, and the the “new” building– the registreation building was for unmarried Vets. All if these inhabitants were student veterans who flocked to New York from all over the country to go to our schoools. There was ab overpriced store , washing machines in the basements and a shared phone in each of the buildings. We went “overseas” by the tiniest ferry which was at the mercy of the tides and winds, and often docked perpendicularly. Our furniture was castoffs, orange crates second hand and dis garded stuuff, but we were all creative and did great things with hunk. Our “apartment” was 12 feet bt 12 feet which include the kitchen and bath alots of bugs….but it was a wonderful time . When a Vet left school for whatever reason, he(rarely a she ) had to leave. Thereweren’t many places like that.

    • Caye Kaufmann Ciabattoni Says:

      I was interested in your post because you expressed very positive sentiments, similar to my parents who spoke of their time at North Brothers Island with much fondness. I was born in Chicago, but two of my brothers were born when my parents lived on the island. My parents were Don and Libby Kaufmann (dad had been a Marine; my mother had been a Wave recruiting officer). They remainded friend with Lorraine and Bill Kennedy for several years after they moved. I believe that both Bill and my father attended the RCA Institute of Technology. It was quite a lovely trip down memory lane! Thank you for posting. Sincerely, Caye Kaufmann

  9. Caye Kaufmann Ciabattoni Says:

    I lived on the island as a little girl. My father was a Vet and attended RCA Institute of Technology. We moved following his graduation, by which time there were 3 children. I have no recollection of building interior, and just the slightest recollection of the ferry and – I believe – there were tennis courts (unless they were at our next apartment). What I do recall is my parents’ fondness of their experiences there.

  10. Is there a sunken treasure in the East River? « Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] Maurice Pole, struggled to steer toward shore, but the ship sank somewhere between Port Morris and Montressor’s Island (today North Brother Island),” writes Tom Vanderbilt in a 2002 New York Times […]

  11. Frances Normoyle Says:

    this is a very interesting blog. I have been researching North Brother because of a documentary I saw referring to Typhoid Mary. It was said she was quarantined on this island until her death. Also I have read that it became a place that quarantined other people with other communicable diseases.
    It brought back a memory I had about my Great Grandmother. I was told she died very young and was placed in a sanitarium because of tuberculosis. I believe she died in 1925 in quarantine. I never knew any details. I would be very interested if you could tell me if you have any info on the names of others who died on this island under quarantine. Perhaps you could give me a few pointer. I would appreciate any info you have. Thank you for your work. It is very interesting. I am very curious about the island and would love to visit it someday. I imagine that is next to impossible.
    Thanks again & Happy New year.

  12. D. Flynn Says:

    North Brother Island was used as a quarantine, but not for Tuberculosis. Although it was originally designed for such, it’s need shifted elsewhere such as injured and ill veterans and later adolescent drug abusers until it was closed down in 1963. Most T.B. patients were sent to upstate N.Y. facilities due to the fresh air.

  13. Writing Challenge: What Place Creeps You Out? | Order of the Good Write Says:

    […] two mile strip of land wasn’t wasted or left to the elements like the REALLY REALLY creepy North and South Brother Islands – two abandoned small land masses off the coast of The Bronx steeped in sad, depressing […]

  14. A faded memorial marks a horrific 1904 tragedy | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] the boat  continued to burn while sailing up the river, passengers—weighed down by the heavy clothes of the era and unlikely to know how to swim—were […]

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