Posts Tagged ‘Blackwell’s Island’

East 26th Street: New York’s “Misery Lane”

December 12, 2016

It was in a part of Manhattan, at the edge of a poor neighborhood of tenements and groggeries, where no one wanted to end up.

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But thousands of city residents did found themselves on Misery Lane, as the short stretch of East 26th Street between First Avenue and the East River was known in the turn-of-the-century city.

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This block was a dumping ground for the sick, alcoholic, and mentally ill, who sought treatment at Bellevue Hospital, which bordered East 26th Street (above).

Some New Yorkers had a sense of humor about it, as this rhyme from a 1917 medical magazine demonstrates:

miserylane19142T.B., aneurysm, and gin-drinker’s liver;
Tabetics, paretics, plain drunk, and insane;
First Avenue’s one end, the other’s the river;
Twenty-sixth Street between they call Misery Lane!

Criminals showed up on Misery Lane as well.

Men and women convicted of a range of crimes were deposited via police wagon on a dock known as Charities Pier at the end of East 26th Street (below).

From there, they were ferried to the workhouse and penitentiary across the East River to Blackwell’s Island to serve their time.

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The poor also stood in line at Charities Pier. Unable to afford rent, food, coal, and other necessities, their last resort was the Blackwell’s Island almshouse.

Misery Lane was the site of the Municipal Lodging House, built in 1909 to house mostly homeless, often derelict men (top and second photos), but also women and children.

trianglefireoutsidemorgueWith the city morgue on 26th Street as well, Misery Lane was the last place New York’s unknown dead went before being interred in the potter’s field on Hart Island.

And when mass tragedy struck the city, Misery Lane was involved as well.

Bodies found after the General Slocum disaster were brought here to be identified—as were the horribly burned corpses of Triangle Fire victims (above right).

Misery Lane is long gone, of course.

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Today, 26th Street ends not at a charity-run pier but with a lovely view of the deceptively placid river . . . all the way to Blackwell’s, er, Roosevelt Island (above).

[Top and third photos: NYC Municipal Archives; second and fourth images: NYPL; fifth image: LOC/Bain Collection]

The long-gone East Side hamlet of Odellville

March 8, 2012

Busy, corporate Third Avenue at 49th Street is often referred to by the bland Midtown East, or the more illustrious Turtle Bay.

But more than 170 years ago, in the 1840s, it was the rural outpost of Odellville—named for the barkeep who ran a tavern there, according to New York: Old & New, a guide from 1902.

How country was it? “Open fields lay to the west of Odellville in that slow-moving time, but to the east a few scattered houses flecked the river-bank, and one of these, set down at the foot of Forty-Ninth Street, was for a time the country home of Horace Greeley,” the book states.

The only communication Odellville had with the city to the south was an hourly stagecoach Third Avenue.

Another memoir of 19th century life, A Tour Around New York, by John Flavel Mines, recalls Odellville:

“At forty-ninth Street and Third Avenue was a tiny hamlet known as Odellville, which owed its patronymic to Mr. Odell, who kept a country tavern at the corner first named, and with whom life agreed so well that he nearly lived out a century.”

[Illustration: 49th Street at the East River, circa 1840, from New York’s Turtle Bay Old & New by Edmund T. Delaney]

The graves of New York City’s founding families

April 15, 2010

The city’s oldest cemeteries are home to the tombstones of early bigwig early New Yorkers.

The first Riker (of Rikers Island fame, of course) arrived in New Amsterdam from Holland in 1638.

His descendent, John Lafayette Riker, was a Civil War colonel in a Union Army volunteer regiment called the Anderson Zouaves.

Riker was killed at the Battle of Fair Oaks in 1862 and buried in Green-Wood Cemetery.

William Drayton Blackwell was a member of the Blackwell family, New Yorkers since 1776.

The Blackwells originally owned their namesake island in the East River, which eventually became Roosevelt Island in 1973.

This Blackwell, a slovenly “rich eccentric” according to a Brooklyn genealogy website, now lies in The New York City Marble Cemetery, at Second Street between Second and and First Avenues.

St. Marks in the Bouwerie Church, on Second Avenue and Tenth Street in the East Village, also contains the tombs of prominent 18th and 19th century families. 

The Samuel C. Ellis, MD buried here is probably the same Samuel Ellis who lived at One Greenwich Street and sold Little Oyster Island—eventually Ellis Island—to the federal government around 1800.

The many names given to Roosevelt Island

September 26, 2009

Has any borough, neighborhood, or stretch of land in New York City been renamed as many times as Roosevelt Island has over its 400-year history?

Called Minnahanock by the Canarsie Indians, tribal leaders sold the he two-mile long island to Dutch governor Wouter van Twiller in 1637. Now part of New Amsterdam, it was renamed Varcken (Hog) Island for the pigs the Dutch raised there.

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[The island formerly known as Welfare, in a 1940s postcard.]

In 1666, with the English now in control, the island fell into the hands of Captain John Manning and was renamed Manning’s Island. Twenty years later Manning’s son-in-law, Robert Blackwell, inherited the island. He decided it was now Blackwell’s Island.

The city of New York bought the island in 1828 for $32,500, building hospitals, poorhouses, and prisons on what was formerly farmland. The Blackwell name officially endured until 1921, when it got another moniker: Welfare Island.

Finally, in 1973, with plans to turn the island into a mostly residential neighborhood, the city renamed it Roosevelt Island. Lets hope this one lasts!

What Nellie Bly found on Blackwell’s Island

July 20, 2009

Born Elizabeth Jane Cochran in Pennsylvania in 1864, journalist Nellie Bly (she adopted the pen name because at the time, women reporters didn’t use their real names) moved to New York in 1887.

Broke but brave, the 23-year-old convinced New York World editors to let her investigate conditions at the city lunatic asylum on Blackwell’s Island, now Roosevelt Island. 

NellieblyBly feigned insanity and instantly got herself committed. She spent 10 days there before the World was able to get her released.

In a subsequent series of articles, she reported that the food was inedible, nurses often picked on and physically abused residents, and that many were sane but either couldn’t speak English or were left there by husbands who didn’t want them. And doctors couldn’t care less.

“The insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island is a human rat trap,” she wrote. “It is easy to get in, but once there it is impossible to get out.”

Bly later published her articles in a book, Ten Days in a Mad-House. The asylum, with its famous (and still existent) circa-1830s octagon tower, was closed. Mentally ill New Yorkers were then sent to a new facility on nearby Ward’s Island. 

Bly became a sensation, embarking on an international career as a journalist. She died in 1922 and is buried in the Bronx’s Woodlawn Cemetery.