It could not have been easy to be an inmate—as it was called in the 19th century—on Blackwell’s Island.
The thin strip of land in the East River, bought by the city in 1828, was were New York brought its undesirables: criminals biding their time in the Penitentiary, sick people sent to the Hospital for Incurables, Lunatic Asylum, or the Small-Pox Hospital, the homeless and disorderly sentenced to the Workhouse.
I’m not sure where these circa-1896 photos were taken, but based on the age and appearance of the diners (and the information provided by the Museum of the City of New York in the caption), they may give us a glimpse into the Almshouse.
There were actually two Almshouses, one for men, one for women. “None but the aged and infirm, who are destitute, are admitted,” wrote James D. McCabe in 1872’s Lights and Shadows of New York Life. “Each newcomer is bathed immediately upon his or her arrival, and clad in the plain but comfortable garments provided by the establishment.”
Staff determined how much and what kind of work each newcomer could do, McCabe wrote. In 1870, 1,114 people lived there, he added—these are probably some of them.
[Top photo: MCNY 126.96.36.19918; second photo: MCNY 188.8.131.5217]