There isn’t a lot that remains of the old New York City Lunatic Asylum on Roosevelt Island– just the administrative building called “The Octagon”, which has since been remodeled. The refurbished portion of the Kirkbride pays homage to the woebegone times of big asylums and high aspirations for treating the mentally ill. It also stands as a sentinel to mark the historic past of the building that once stood in place of the new development.
Roosevelt Island wasn’t always called Roosevelt Island. It started out as Blackwell’s Island and was later called Welfare island. Though, its original name– Blackwell’s Island– was due to the fact it was owned at the time by James and Elizabeth Blackwell. They sold the property to James L. Bell in 1823 for $30,000, but on January 12, 1825 James Bell expired and the property was awarded back to the Blackwells. Once again they sold the property– this time on July 18, 1828 to the City of New York for $32,500 for the purpose of erecting charitable and corrective institutions.
New York wasted no time taking advantage of the island. That same year they spent just under $17,000 to build a prison on the south end of the island. At the opposite end of the island, construction of the New York Lunatic Asylum began. Although the asylum was designed to be a state-of-the-art institution based on the then prominent Kirkbride Plan, it was never to be. Financial constraints prevented the complete asylum from being built and the two wings that were built immediately proved insufficient to house the New York City’s insane. The building, which opened in 1839, was quickly overrun and its patients were “abandoned to the tender mercies of thieves and prostitutes” as staffing needs were filled by convicts from the nearby penitentiary.
In 1842, the asylum was visited by writer Charles Dickens who described the structure as a “handsome” and “remarkable for a spacious and elegant staircase.” The more he walked the grounds, the more derogatory literary quips he devised stating that “everything had a lounging, listless, madhouse air, which was very painful” and he expressed his “feelings of such deep disgust and measureless contempt” from the moment he stepped onto the grounds. This is not surprising in the least considering most of Dickens’ writings preach the abuses suffered by the working class and the horrible conditions of poor houses.
The island would see some excitement on February 13, 1858, when the
asylum* prison hospital on the other side of the island would burn to the ground. It was eventually re-built in the same location the following July. The price tag for the city would be a hefty $150,000.
The asylum grounds comprised approximately 15 acres of land. The asylum itself consisted of two wings, each three stories in height with an attic containing the sick rooms for patients. As proscribed by the Kirkbride Plan, the wings were segregated by gender. Inside The Octagon (or administrative building) were housed offices, physicians’ apartments, and parlors.
In the 1860’s, there was an assortment of approximately fifty-six employees at the New York City Lunatic Asylum. Each hall of each wing was overseen by two attendants and presided by a superintendent. Also among the staff was an engineer and two watchmen who were on call every hour of the day. All staff positions were overseen by the resident physician who had executive authority over the asylum. There were also three assistant physicians who would help the resident physician.
The average number of patients in the institution (in the 1860’s) was approximately 800. (This number would later surge to somewhere around 1,700 patients.) There were approximately 340 admissions each year. Discharges and deaths were approximately 340 per year, effectively balancing the fluctuation of patients. Typically, there were 30-40 patients with suicidal tendencies in the facility. Each year, 1-2 of the suicidal cases would successfully achieve their demise. Most of the patients being admitted were lower-class persons who were “friendless and poor”. Some patients who were admitted to the New York City Lunatic Asylum were committed by city magistrates– friends and family of these patients being unaware they had even been admitted until weeks or months after being sent to the asylum.
In the early years of the asylum, patients were clothed in striped cloth similar to the clothing of convicts from the Blackwell Island Prison. Though, at some point prior to 1866, the striped clothing was exchanged for suits of navy blue for the male patients and calico gowns for the female patients.
The typical breakfast served at the asylum was bread and coffee. Supper constituted a meal of bread, butter, and tea. Bread was in abundance and served with some regularity, though there were more filling meals which were served from time-to-time. Three times a week, patients were served beef soup. Once a week, patients would eat mutton and salt beef. Mush and molasses were served on Fridays. Patients who were ill were allowed to have roast meats with coffee for supper.
At some point, the asylum’s usefulness expired and patients were transferred to a newer facility. In 1894 the building would close its doors as an asylum. Later, after several decades of neglect, the last standing portion of the asylum would be restored to its former glory and incorporated into the design of newer buildings.
While I have no idea whether or not the remaining portion asylum is haunted, the building is associated with a rather interesting story from the history books– the story of Nellie Bly’s “Ten Days in a Madhouse”. In this story, the undercover journalist Elizabeth Cochrane spent ten days in the New York City Asylum on Blackwell’s Island. But that’s a story whose telling will have to wait for tomorrow…
* It was originally stated that the asylum burned to the ground. This, in fact, was the prison asylum at the other end of the island. The paragraph has been changed to reflect this new information based on a reader’s comment– Thank you!
Date of Change: 17 June 2013
Source for change:
“Destruction of Blackwell’s Island Hospital,” The New York Daily Tribune, 15 February 1858, p7.