The Dark History of Roosevelt Island

“Roosevelt Island, once known as Blackwell’s Island housed the notorious Blackwell’s Women’s Insane Asylum, the setting of 10 DAYS IN A MADHOUSE – THE NELLIE BLY STORY, the true story of Nellie Bly’s experience as an undercover reporter there.”
If you are a history buff, a sightseer, or just looking for an interesting New York experience, spending a day at Roosevelt Island will not disappoint.

New York City is full of hidden gems: one of them is Roosevelt Island. On the corner of 60th Street and 2nd Avenue, there is an aerial tram that takes you to the island while giving you a breathtaking view of NYC’s gorgeous skyline.

Roosevelt Island is two miles long and located on the East River, in between Manhattan and Queens. Technically a part of Manhattan, it looks and feels completely different. For starters, there’s plenty of beautiful green scenic areas to picnic and relax (Southpoint Park is perfect for that) as well as architecture that dates back to the 18th century. You can check out the landmark Blackwell House, which is the 6th oldest house in all of New York City, as well as the Chapel of the Good Shepard, which was built in 1888.

Even though Roosevelt Island is beautiful, it also has a dark history. One of the most fascinating stories of the island is that of courageous journalist Nellie Bly.

In 1839 when Roosevelt Island was still called Blackwell’s Island, the New York City Lunatic Asylum was built. Prior to its opening, the city’s mentally ill lived in the basement of a general hospital nearby, where conditions were bleak and miserable. This new institution was meant to bring relief to those deemed insane (many of which were immigrants), but this did not happen. In the 1840s, Charles Dickens visited the hospital, writing “…everything had a lounging, listless, madhouse air, which was very painful. The moping idiot…the gibbering maniac… the vacant eye…and munching of the nails: there they were all, without disguise, in naked ugliness and horror.”

The hospital had two wings: one for men, and one for women. In 1877, journalist Nellie Bly lived undercover inside the institution for ten days. Her pioneering investigative report of the inner workings of the asylum was front page headlines in Joseph Pulitzer’s World newspaper, then released as her book Ten Days In A Mad-house.

Bly’s journalistic endeavor led to a deep investigation of the hospital. A bigger budget was allocated to the asylum, and the grand jury began requiring a much more thorough examination when determining who to commit.

All that remains of the lunatic asylum is a beautiful reconstruction of the Octagon. The Octagon was the structure that connected the hospital’s two wings, and it was recently remodeled into a modern residential building. You can visit its famous “flying staircase” and then take a short walk to the Gothic-style North Point lighthouse, which was built in 1872 to help light the asylum.

Nelly Bly’s incredible journey inside the notorious mental ward has been made into a feature film with the same title of her book. 10 Days In A Madhouse – The Nelly Bly Story will be released in US theaters on November 20th.

The film stars spectacular newcomer Caroline Barry who has been gaining industry buzz for her uncanny performance as Nellie Bly, Christopher Lambert (Mortal Kombat, Highlander), Kelly Le Brock (Weird Science), Julia Chantrey (Mama, Mean Girls).

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