Thursday, April 26, 2007


Photographs by: Rachelle Fernandez

North Brother Island, a 13 acre piece of history laying just southwest of Hunts Point in the East River, is a remnant of a long-forgotten era in New York. The clocks on North Brother stopped around 1962 when the city pulled the plug on Riverside Hospital, the main attraction on the island and a storied institution that opened in 1886 to treat and isolate victims and carriers of contagious illnesses. The island gained notoriety in the early 1900's as the involuntary home of "Typhoid" Mary Mallon, a carrier of typhus who was allegedly responsible for 3 deaths and 47 illnesses from 1907-1915.

But the 20th century seems to have bypassed North Brother's gaslight-lined streets, brownstone hospital buildings, crumbling doctors' houses, and sandy beaches littered with cookware and heavy glass tonic bottles. The island is a great repository for artifacts from 19th century New York, seemingly undisturbed by humans or the passing of time on the mainland just a canoe ride away.

The island does seem like a convincing movie set for a gothic horror story. And a good case could probably be made for calling in a paranormal specialist to investigate all the troubled souls that may still linger in and around the island. First and foremost would be Ms. Mallon, an accomplished cook who was quarantined in an isolation cottage on the island in 1907, after apparently causing outbreaks of typhus on Long island and in New York City. Mary was released by New York's Health Commissioner in 1910 after signing and affidavit stating that she would never again work in the food service industry. In 1915, after an investigation into an outbreak of typhus at a Manhattan hospital, health officials determined that Mary was once again working as a cook, although under an assumed name . She was send back to her cottage on the island, this time for good.

Mary never understood that she was probably a carrier of a possible deadly disease. Instead, she felt she was a victim of persecution at the hands of officials who could neither prove that she was the source of these outbreaks nor explain to her why she felt so healthy and why she seemed free of any of the typical symptoms of typhus. In 1938 she died on the island at the age of 69 due to complications from a stoke she had suffered six years earlier.

Also lending a tragic cast to the island's history was the General Slocum disaster, which took place on June 15th, 1904 and took the lives of 1141 people, most of them German immigrants from the Lower East Side on their way to a Sunday picnic on Long Island. Legend has it that the overcrowded steamer was set ablaze by a careless sailor who flicked a lit cigarette into a closet full of cotton rags. The boat ran aground on North Brother and patients as well as doctors rushed out of the hospital to try and save the hundreds of passengers who had jumped from the burning ship. Only 407 people, including a 1 year old baby, survived.

But on a recent visit to the island, no spirits or apparitions were in evidence. In fact, the most ghostly thing to pass before this visitor's eyes was a Bronx phone book from the year 1954, still open on the bench where its last user must have sat. And any ghosts remaining on the island would no doubt be driven out by the hard-to-believe racket of hundreds--no, make thousands--of the loudest birds imaginable. A bird-watcher could bring a boombox to the island in peak season and probably go unnoticed. North Brother birds are in many cases rare, in some cases even threatened species, and in most cases hard to find anywhere else in New York City. But in all cases, they are loud mouths.