Located in the East River of New York City is a place that was at the core of events filled with death, tragedy, and unrepentant malice. It is North Brother Island, an overgrown, 20-acre island that sits between the city’s Bronx County and its infamous Riker’s Island prison. Both the island and its smaller twin South Brother Island are now wildlife sanctuaries and devoid of any human presence. However, in years past North Brother Island was home to Riverside Hospital, a treatment facility for many infectious diseases; it was also the scene of fiery death that remained unrivaled in New York City history until the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001.
One resident of Riverside Hospital was Mary Mallon, the woman better known as the purveyor of death called “Typhoid Mary.” Mallon was but an early teenager when she came to the United States sometime in the early-to-mid 1880s. By 1906, she was working as a cook for several of New York’s richest citizens, but little did any of the city’s elites know that Mallon’s gallbladder was a breeding ground for Salmonella enterica typhosa, the bacteria that causes typhoid fever, an often fatal disease.
Mary Mallon was unaware of her illness. She was an asymptomatic carrier, appearing normal and healthy even though she possessed an otherwise deadly bacteria. Unfortunately for those poor souls who consumed her food, she neither washed her hands before cooking nor did she thoroughly wash her hands after using bathrooms. As a result, Mallon unknowingly spread the Salmonella enterica typhosa within her to others by contaminating food and water with her urine and fecal matter. She literally prepared food and poured drinks with infected traces of urine and feces on her hands, and the upper crust of New York society was none the wiser.
By 1907, “Typhoid Mary” had unknowingly infected several wealthy families with typhoid fever. Health officials connected the dots between the illnesses, the victims and their associates, and Mary Mallon emerged as the common thread. Convinced that she had no illness, Mallon refused surgical treatment following her arrest by authorities, leading to her banishment to Riverside Hospital with her severely infected gallbladder intact. She would not see freedom again until 1910, when she gained release from the hospital and removal from North Brother Island after promising to never work as a cook again. It was a promise she never intended to keep.
Years before Mary Mallon’s forced confinement to North Brother Island, there was a calamity in New York’s East River that dwarfed all others before it. On June 15th, 1904, the PS (paddle steamer) General Slocum, a mostly wooden, 235-foot long sidewheel vessel, literally turned into a waterborne funeral pyre that claimed the lives of over 1,000 men, women, and children. The General Slocum, painted white with the words “Gen! Slocum” painted on its sidewheels in a stylized font, had life jackets and lifeboats visible and presumed by travelers to be in good condition, thus the ship was believed to be both clean and safe.
The mostly German-American congregants of a church in Manhattan’s Lower East Side neighborhood had chartered the ship for a day of pleasant cruising in the waters around the city. However, a fire that began in the ship’s lower decks soon put an end to all thoughts of enjoyment as the vessel rapidly became a floating blast furnace. The ship’s master, Captain William Henry Van Schaick, chose to deny his passengers a rapid escape from the flames by avoiding the many piers that existed at the time along the East River. The stubborn captain intended to discharge his passengers on distant North Brother Island, but as he guided the ship northward flames gradually drove passengers to the very rear of the General Slocum.
Many desperate passengers tried the ship’s life jackets and lifeboats, but the emergency measures failed. The life jackets were decades old and the cork within them had long ago deteriorated into a material like sand or dirt. Those poor souls who put them on and dove into the river sank to the bottom and drowned as the interior of the jackets became a muddy combination of cork remains and water. The lifeboats, all of which could hold dozens of passengers, were purely decorative additions to the ship—they were mere ornaments posing as salvation. Passengers then realized the unthinkable, that the only way to survive would be to swim for their very lives.
The General Slocum became a scene of absolute panic. Men wearing heavy tweed suits jumped into the river and quickly drowned. Mothers wearing the billowing dresses of the day clutched their children and jumped into the water, but just as the men went under due to their period clothing, so were the women and children taken down to a watery death. The passengers faced an inferno worthy of the Greek god Prometheus, and there was no escape.
The General Slocum finally ran aground on North Brother Island, where the remaining passengers jumped into the shallows and struggled ashore. Out of 1,358 souls who began the trip, only 321 survived. The staff of Riverside Hospital, the same facility that would later hold “Typhoid Mary” Mallon, emerged to comfort and care for the survivors to the best of their ability. For 1,037 others, however, there would never again be any comfort.
New York City was both appalled and outraged over the incident even as the bodies of the General Slocum’s dead washed ashore on North Brother Island. Someone had to pay for such a horrific loss of life and Captain William Henry Van Schaick had to defend his actions in court. Some justice for the dead came when the captain was found guilty of criminal negligence and sentenced to 10 years at hard labor, but a presidential pardon issued by the famously corrupt President William Howard Taft saw to the captain’s release after just 5 years. Strangely, the owners of the deathtrap-at-sea were never made to face justice.
It is not known if Mary Mallon was aware of the General Slocum and its relationship to the island and hospital which functioned as both her hospital and prison. However, it is known that Mallon returned to cooking with her false promise to never resume work as a cook fresh on her lips, and innocent people again fell ill from typhoid fever. Health officials tracked her down one more time in 1915, locking her away in Riverside Hospital on North Brother Island for the rest of her life.
Time progressed in an unkind fashion for Mary Mallon, the General Slocum, and North Brother Island. “Typhoid Mary” Mallon died in 1938 of a disease that actually made her sick: pneumonia. Authorities cremated her doubly infected body to make sure the diseases within Mallon were absolutely destroyed. The burnt husk of the once-beautiful General Slocum was later raised and converted to a mere barge, the ultimate fate of which is unknown. Riverside Hospital closed in 1963 and remains abandoned. The ruins of the hospital and other rotting structures on North Brother Island are visible from several vantage points near the Bronx and from the East River. Finally, North Brother Island itself became a wildlife sanctuary after New York City bought it in 1963. It remains off-limits to visitors, though several urban explorers have illegally visited the island of death and misery past.
- King, Gilbert. (2012, February 21). A Spectacle of Horror – The Burning of the General Slocum.
Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/a-spectacle-of-horror-the-burning-of-the-general-slocum-104712974/
- Klein, Christopher. (2015, March 27). 10 Things You May Not Know About “Typhoid Mary.”
Retrieved from http://www.history.com/news/10-things-you-may-not-know-about-typhoid-mary
- Mirkin, Dr. Gabe. (2013, June 9). Typhoid Mary’s Gall Bladder.
Retrieved from http://www.drmirkin.com/histories-and-mysteries/typhoid-marys-gall-bladder.html
- Swancer, Brent. (2016, December 13). The Mysterious Ghost Island of New York City.
Retrieved from http://mysteriousuniverse.org/2016/12/the-mysterious-ghost-island-of-new-york-city/
- Wingfield, Valerie. (2011, June 13). The General Slocum Disaster of June 15, 1904.
Retrieved from https://www.nypl.org/blog/2011/06/13/great-slocum-disaster-june-15-1904
- The Ruins of Riverside Hospital on North Brother Island: By reivax from Washington, DC, USA (Riverside Hospital) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.