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Once A Prime Spot Of Cruelty And Suffering, New York City's Posh Roosevelt Island Is Deeply Haunted

In the United States alone, there are reportedly hundreds of locations haunted by restless spirits. And while one haunted location is certainly frightening to think about... what happens when there's an entire island overrun by wandering spirits? 

Sitting in the middle of the East River between Manhattan and Queens, Roosevelt Island is full of bizarre mysteries that have gone unanswered for decades. The creepy history of Roosevelt Island includes a smallpox hospital which functioned more like an overcrowded hospice; an insane asylum infamous for its abysmal treatment of its patients; and a creepy lighthouse that started as the project of an escaped asylum inmate. While there are many haunted places in New York City, none of them have as dense and horrifying of a history as Roosevelt Island. 

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  • The New York City Lunatic Asylum Housed Over 1,700 Patients Who Were Severely Mistreated

    Now known as "The Octagon" for its unique shape, the building at 888 Main St. on Roosevelt Island was the New York City Lunatic Asylum from 1841 to 1894. 

    Built across 15 acres of land, the number of patients in the asylum was initially a mere 800 before eventually surging to over 1,700. Among those, roughly 30-40 patients were suicidal and required more intensive therapies. Sadly, the majority of the asylum's patients were considered "friendless and poor," and they had no one but the state to look after them. 

    As more individuals were eventually admitted to the asylum, the living conditions for each patient began to suffer. For breakfast, inmates would often only be served bread and coffee, while supper consisted solely of bread, butter, and tea, with the occasional serving of beef soup thrown in the mix a few times a week. 

    Since its closure in 1894, visitors claimed to have heard strange noises and bumps in the night throughout the asylum's halls. One visitor said when she visited the former asylum, it "conveyed a sense of old sorrow" upon entering.

    Author Nellie Bly once wrote an exposé on the asylum in her book Ten Days in a Mad-House, saying "The insane asylum on Blackwell's Island is a human rat-trap. It is easy to get in, but once there, it is impossible to get out."

  • An Exploding Population Led To The Creation Of More Asylums, Including Blackwell

    An Exploding Population Led To The Creation Of More Asylums, Including Blackwell
    Photo: skeeze / Pixabay / CC0

    In the early 1800s, immigrants arrived en masse to New York due to the city's rapid industrialization. Unfortunately, along with the thousands joining NYC's workforce, there were countless more "indigent insane," who were left without jobs and were eventually remitted to the care of the city. 

    As a result, New York had to erect more asylums, and Roosevelt Island's Blackwell was one of them. With more inmates and less staff, Blackwell was given full autonomy to operate however its staff saw fit to handle those interned.

    This overflow of the mentally ill was one of the biggest reasons for the asylum's degradation. Custodial and food staff were spread thin. One asylum commissioner said Blackwell's patients were in "a miserable refuge for their trial, undeserving of the name Asylum, in these enlightened days."

  • 30,000 People Died At The Renwick Smallpox Hospital, And Alleged Spirits Still Suffer Inside It

    Originally opened in 1856, Renwick Smallpox Hospital has become one of the most notorious locales for paranormal activity on Roosevelt Island. The reason? Some of the most deathly ill patients in the country were confined within its walls - victims of the brutal plague. Although there was a vaccine available at the time, many who emigrated from other countries did not have access to medical care and were affected by the horrendous disease.

    Once inside, smallpox sufferers were mostly left to wait out their days in agony.

    Their number was staggering: with 7,000 patients per year, there were roughly 30,000 deaths inside Renwick during its time of operation. Among those, there are certainly more than a few restless spirits left inside, as residents of the island speak of strange noises and lights coming from the abandoned building.

  • People Claim You Can Hear The Spirits Of Inmates Still Working Near The Blackwell Penitentiary

    Originally erected in 1832, Blackwell Penitentiary was one of the earlier structures built on Roosevelt Island... and remains one of its most disturbing. Housing nearly 1,000 inmates, those who were sent to Blackwell were part of a labor program.

    While there have been numerous sightings around Roosevelt Island's asylum and lighthouse, rumor has it that several residents have heard or seen strange goings-on near the site of the old penitentiary. Among them is the eerie sounds of former inmates, still tirelessly working away on various sites they were assigned to decades ago.

  • Ships Were Mysteriously Grounded In The Waterway Known As "Hell's Gate"

    Ships Were Mysteriously Grounded In The Waterway Known As "Hell's Gate"
    Photo: Jack Boucher / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    In 1858, the waterway between the Bronx and Queens had earned a particularly terrifying nickname: "Hell's Gate." The passage between these two areas was so dark that ships mysteriously started running aground in the middle of the night.

    The only light was the ominous glow of the island's haunted asylum. 

    As a result, James Renwick, the architect after whom the smallpox hospital was named, had a lighthouse constructed on at the northern tip of the island in 1872. His employees? Inmates of the infamous Blackwell Penitentiary. To this day, residents of the island still claim to see strange lights emanating from near the base of the lighthouse.

  • John McCarthy Escaped The Asylum And Built A Fortress Many Believe Is Still Haunted By His Spirit

    One inmate of the asylum system, John McCarthy, believed that at any moment, the British could come and attack Roosevelt Island. This was in 1872, and the threat of a sudden attack from our neighbors across the pond was not on America's radar, but McCarthy nevertheless took it upon himself to fortify the island just in case the British decided to launch an assault. 

    His solution? Escape the asylum and build a wall. Starting on the north end of the island, McCarthy created a fortress-like wall from river clay in order to protect the land from any invaders. While launching a solo effort to build a wall is certainly insane, one can only hope it was somewhat therapeutic for McCarthy, considering he was already a patient at the asylum. Some say he started building the lighthouse on the northern end of the island. He left a faded description on a rock near his wall, which still gives tourists the creeps:

    This is the work
    Was done by John McCarthy
    Who built the Light House from the bottom to the
    Top All ye who do pass by may
    Pray for his soul when he dies