Friday, August 19, 2011

Don't Go There

Forbidden islands right next to the metropolises of New York and Venice? They're there, they're weird, and you can't go.

Looking toward the East River from the end of 141st Street, the Bronx, you can see a heavily wooded pair of islands, North and South Brother. The larger, North, is populated solely by a very loud gathering of birds, some of them quite rare in the NYC area. The nesting areas of the herons and egrets are protected -- very well, as it turns out. Since 9/11, you'll receive federal charges if you attempt to trespass on this island, and your chances of getting there and back are slim: the constant passage of large ships, the treacherous currents, and the watchful eye of the Rykers Island Prison guards, the Coast Guard and Homeland Security assure that.

The thirteen acres of North Brother contains the moldering buildings of Riverside Hospital, closed up in 1962. It was opened in 1886 to isolate and treat those with contagious diseases such as typhus and smallpox. In its later years, drug addicts were housed there as these outbreaks were controlled and then eliminated.

The greatest loss of life in NYC before 9/11 occurred here: a steamer caught fire in 1904, killing 1141 people, mostly immigrants, before it ran aground on the island's rocks.

The hospital's most famous patient, on and off from 1907 to her death in 1938, was "Typhoid Mary" Mallon, a cook who caused three deaths and 47 illnesses by being an unaffected carrier of typhus (which she vehemently denied).
Covered by poison ivy, watched vigilantly by the authorities, and rife with howling birds, this gloomy island will probably stay off the tourist map.

Populated back in the Bronze Age, Poveglia island in the Venice lagoon was first mentioned in history in 421 A.D. when it served as a refuge for Romans from the barbarian invasions. The number of inhabitants grew, and in 1015 a monastery was built, then the San Vitale church in the twelfth century rose, with a striking bell tower. Things went downhill with the Chioggia War between Venice and Genoa arriving in 1379; a still-extant fort known as the Octagon was built and the civilian population moved out. Napoleon took it over for a while and destroyed the church except for the tower, which became a lighthouse.

In between the Genoan and Napoleonic wars, the island was first used as one of several quarantine stations (lazarettos) to watch arriving ships and sailors for 40 days for signs of disease. Good idea, but the plauge arrived dozens of times anyway; that of 1576 killed the equivalent of today's total population of Venice. Bodies of the dead and those still alive but symptomatic were hauled to Poveglia, perhaps 160,000 in all. The scrawls of those housed in the large building known as the Tezon are still visible on the walls. One grave recently discovered by archaeologists contains 1500 skeletons. The quarantine station finally closed in 1814, but it's said half the soil on the island today is human ashes.

It got worse. In 1922, a retirement home was opened, but some of the buildings were also used as a mental hospital. Much like a Boris Karlov movie, Dr. Nikolvich (the Demon Doctor!) went mad himself, experimenting on the patients quite cruelly as he searched for an insanity cure. In 1930, he leapt (or was pushed?) from the bell tower into the clammy mists below, ending eight years of terror.

Boris, we need you to come back to make Islands of the Doomed! Last close-up shot, he turns to the camera and intones, "But it was all true. True!"

1. The mad doctor's house

2. Poveglia Island

3. Riverside Hospital, NYC

1 comment:

  1. The NEW plague will come with the Baby Boomers stressing for relief and not having any money or sympathy form the next generation who don't have jobs or money to support them. History will repeat itself.