The mess halls for inmates on Blackwell’s Island

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; second photo: MCNY]

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12 Responses to “The mess halls for inmates on Blackwell’s Island”

  1. Penelope Bianchi Says:

    Lord have mercy! Man’s inhumanity to man! Things are better! Fascinating post! Thank you so much!!!

  2. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    They’re a rough couple of photos to look at….

    • Penelope Bianchi Says:

      Yes. I was “not asked back” to 4 schools in the early 60’s. in Pasadena California…….a hundred years earlier…..I might have ended up here!

  3. Audrey Burtrum-Stanley Says:

    Your presentation contains the line:

    “1,114 people lived there…”

    This is incorrect.
    These pitifuls did not LIVE there;
    They merely EXISTED there till God proved more merciful…

  4. georgebeach Says:

    I think they were workhouses for the aged and infirm. The word “Dickensian” comes to mind. A step up from dying in the gutter. Today, in this compassionate state, we have Social Security. And the kindness of strangers.

  5. George Quinn Says:

    Hi everybody….These folks needed food, water and shelter…the basic needs of existance. beyond this, these folks probably did much more than is depicted here. My parents couldn’t afford a 10 cent Sunday paper, but we did have our own house, my dad built before he got heart problems. I am thankful for my quality of life to date.

  6. Henchy Says:

    Interesting – the sign in the back of the men’s quarters “When you fail, try again”

  7. Past and present collide on Blackwell’s Island | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] the 19th century city put its poor, quarantined, and convicted in penitentiaries, a lunatic asylum, and a smallpox hospital, among other […]

  8. Past and present collide on Blackwell's Island | News for New Yorkers Says:

    […] the 19th century city put its poor, quarantined, and convicted in penitentiaries, a lunatic asylum, and a smallpox hospital, among other […]

  9. Model tenements named for a forgotten bishop | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] Potter visited midnight missions and ministered to inmates on Blackwell’s Island. […]

  10. Thanksgiving at the new Colored Orphan Asylum | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] the Tombs to the missions to the almshouses of Blackwell’s Island, the papers reported what dishes were served and how the meals were received by inmates and any […]

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