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Islands of The Undesirables: Roosevelt Island

Ellis Island is famous for welcoming immigrants to New York City. But there are plenty of other islands that the city used for less benevolent purposes. Atlas Obscura is presenting a five-part series about the islands that America used to use to sort, quarantine, and confine immigrants and other riffraff. First up: Roosevelt Island, which had an interesting history from the beginning. Let’s skip ahead.

Finally, the city bought the whole island in 1828 as a location for charitable and corrective institutions. Their plan was to create a “city of asylums.” In part this was a desire to create more humane institutions for the criminal and the mentally ill, although these places don’t necessarily look humane to today’s eyes. Within a few years of the purchase, two fairly grim institutions opened up—a penitentiary and a lunatic asylum. While the island was eventually home to more than a dozen different institutions, these two are among the most storied. The penitentiary was erected as a state prison in 1832, and by the early 1900s there were a series of scandals involving inmate overcrowding, drug-dealing, and favoritism.

Read more about the prison scandals, and about the lunatic asylum, the almshouse, the research laboratory, and the various hospitals that operated on Roosevelt Island at one time or another.

(Image credit: Philip Capper)

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