Posts Tagged ‘Rikers Island’

The Tombs: New York’s notoriously named prison

May 2, 2013

Can you imagine if the city of today sold postcards of Rikers Island?

At the turn of the last century, however, it apparently was no big deal to put an image of New York’s house of detention on penny postcards and sell them to tourists.

Thetombspostcard

This city jail was built in 1902, taking its nickname from the infamous penitentiary that had occupied the same site since 1838.

That first Tombs had been modeled on an Egyptian mausoleum. The ungainly building, where accused men and women lived while awaiting trial, occupied an entire block on Centre Street. Unfortunately constructed on swampy, stinky land over the polluted Collect Pond, it immediately began to sink into the ground.

“What is this dismal fronted pile of bastard Egyptian, like an enchanter’s palace in a melodrama?”, Charles Dickens reportedly wrote in his 1842 book chronicling his trip to the U.S., American Notes.

That’s the Bridge of Sighs connecting the jail to the courts building—named after the original Bridge of Sighs in Venice.

The lonely grave of a child who died of AIDS

May 14, 2012

Since 1869, more than 800,000 paupers and unknowns have been buried on Hart Island.

This slip of land in the East River is New York’s Potter’s Field, where inmates from nearby Rikers Island place coffins in mass plots topped by granite markers.

Yet there’s one solitary plot, dated 1985, that’s especially heartbreaking: it’s the final resting place of the first child to die of AIDS whose body was brought to Hart Island.

Melinda Hunt, vice president of the Hart Island Project, describes how she and a photographer discovered the plot after visiting the island in 1992:

“Buried deep in the wooded area, however, there was one marker with an unusual number, ‘SC-B1, 1985,'” writes Hunt.

“Upon inquiry, we found that the marker belonged to a solitary grave of the first child victim of AIDS to be buried on Hart Island. Extra precautions were taken to bury the child in a separate and deeper grave.”

“This AIDS grave seemed like a ‘tomb to an unknown child.’ It came to represent all children who were yet to die of AIDS as well as child victims of earlier epidemics.”

This photo of the granite grave marker comes from the Hart Island Project website.

Who was this child—and what circumstances made a lonely patch of Hart Island his or her final resting place? Records must exist somewhere.

[Photo at right: ©1991 Fred Conrad/The New York Times. It was reprinted in 2006.]

North Brother Island’s tragic past

July 8, 2009

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.

Nobrotherislandgeneralslocum

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.