North Brother Island, the Quarantine Home of ‘Typhoid Mary’

Samantha Franco
Photo Credit: reivax / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.0 and Gottscho-Schleisner Collection / Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Located less than a mile off the city of Manhattan are two islands owned by the city of New York. The larger of them, long abandoned and uninhabited, is called North Brother Island. The 22-acre plot was occupied until 1963 and was home to infectious diseases patients, but now it houses one of the area’s largest nesting colonies of black-crowned night herons. These and other birds are some of the island’s only visitors anymore.

Entering the island

the dock at North Brother Island
The dock to enter North Brother Island. (Photo Credit: H.L.I.T. / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0)
The ferry dock on North Brother Island
A front view of the ferry dock located on North Brother Island. (Photo Credit: Julie McCoy / Kayak Cowgirl Blog / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

Entry to the island is largely prohibited and can only be done with approval from the city and while accompanied by a representative of New York’s Department of Parks and Recreation. The lone way to get to the island is by boat, and the ferry dock sits rusty and largely non-operational, as visitors are few and far to come by.

North Brother Island is situated between the South Bronx’s industrial coast and Rikers Island Correctional Center. The East River that surrounds it is littered with patrolling police boats.

Riverside Hospital

Riverside Hospital on North Brother Island
A photo negative of Riverside Hospital on North Brother Island. (Photo Credit: Gottscho-Schleisner Collection / Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

In 1885 the city built the Riverside Hospital, which would exclusively treat patients with infectious diseases. These maladies included typhoid fever, tuberculosis, yellow fever, and smallpox.

Riverside Hospital on North Brother Island
Riverside Hospital on North Brother Island, now overgrown with flora that has taken over the abandoned island. (Photo Credit: reivax / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.0)

Riverside Hospital remained operational until WWII, but was then converted into a housing building for veterans, and later repurposed into a treatment and rehabilitation facility for people with heroin and other drug addictions. The facility continued to treat people until 1963 when it finally closed its doors, leaving North Brother Island completely abandoned.

The hospital that housed ‘Typhoid Mary’ Mallon

Staircase in Riverside Hospital on North Brother Island
The rear spiral staircase extends three stories at the 1905 nurse’s residence located in Riverside Hospital on North Brother Island. (Photo Credit: Jonathan Haeber / Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0)

While still in service, Riverside Hospital famously housed Mary Mallon, better known as the patient “Typhoid Mary,” who was the US’s first documented asymptomatic carrier of the bacteria that causes typhoid fever. She was first quarantined in 1907 after an outbreak occurred in seven of the eight houses where she was employed as a cook. She was later released in 1910 under the condition that she not return to work as a cook.

A nurses residence at Riverside Hospital on North Brother Island
A nurse’s residence room in Riverside Hospital located on North Brother Island. (Photo Credit: Jonathan Haeber / Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0)

As Mallon showed no symptoms, she refused to believe she was a carrier of typhoid fever and immediately returned to work as a cook after her release. This caused yet another outbreak of typhoid fever, and she was forced to quarantine a second time at Riverside Hospital in 1915.

Nurse's quarters at Riverside Hospital on North Brother Island
The third-story bathtub at the 1905 nurse’s residence of Riverside Hospital, located on North Brother Island. (Photo Credit: Jonathan Haeber / Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0)

Mallon remained in quarantine on North Brother Island for the rest of her life. She was given a private cottage where she lived until a stroke in 1932 sent her to Riverside Hospital. Mary Mallon died of pneumonia in 1938, at age 69. Before her death, she had infected at least 51 people with typhoid fever despite herself being in perfect health.

The General Slocum disaster

The General Slocum disaster that occurred near North Brother Island
The excursion steamer General Slocum burns in the Hell Gate passage of the East River. The Slocum burned to the water’s edge and sank, taking the lives of 1021 persons, many of whom were women and children. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)

In June 1905, General Slocum, the “largest and most splendid excursion steamer in New York,” was transporting a group of mainly women and children from the St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church for their end-of-school outing. Alongside them were other passengers and crew, totaling about 1,350 people aboard. At 10 o’clock that morning, General Slocum took off for a picnic area on Long Island’s North Shore.

The General Slocum disaster which happened near North Brother Island
The General Slocum passenger steamboat shipwrecked on North Brother Island beach an hour after the fire, circa July 3, 1904. (Photo Credit: DEA BIBLIOTECA AMBROSIANA / Getty Images)

Not long after departing, a fire broke out on the lower deck of the steamer, and the crew was unable to tame it. The captain, William Van Schaick, was made aware of the fire and charged the boat for North Brother Island, but the flames quickly engulfed the entire steamship. Passengers either burned to death in the flames or threw themselves overboard without knowing how to swim. Many of those who did know how to swim were dragged down by the heavy clothing worn at the time.

Victims of the General Slocum disaster washed ashore North Brother Island
Victims of the General Slocum disaster washed ashore at North Brother Island. (Photo Credit: likely Gustav Scholer / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

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Staff at Riverside Hospital saw the disaster and ran to the shore to help. Van Schaick was able to ground General Slocum sideways about 25 feet from the island’s shore. Rescuers swam in and pulled survivors ashore but only around 300 passengers were saved. Many who perished in the disaster washed up on the shore of North Brother Island for days afterward. It was the worst maritime disaster in New York City’s history and the story has been retold in many books, movies, and plays.