Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Ten Fascinating Locations in Old New York, Part Two

In my novel, A Predator's Game, set in 1896, my characters, Nikola Tesla and Arthur Conan Doyle, visit several noteworthy sites in New York and the surrounding areas. These locations range from the exotic to the macabre. In my previous post, I presented The American Tract Society Building, The Suicide Curves of the Ninth Avenue El, and The American Museum of Natural History. Today, I will deal with the fringes of Old New York and how the city handled its dead and mentally ill.


The Locations.

In today's post.
Location #7. The Bellevue Morgue.
Location #6. Hart Island.
Location #5. The Manhattan State Hospital for the Insane.


In a future post:
Location #4. Tesla's Laboratory on East Houston.
Location #3. The Eden Musée.
Location #2. The Adams Power Station.
Location #1. Goat Island and Terrapin Point, Niagara Falls.

7. The Bellevue Morgue.

The Bellevue Hospital complex resided along the border of the East River. This included the hospital and psychiatric institution to the north and the city morgue on the southern end. Here is its description from the book:

The Bellevue morgue served the entire city of Manhattan, handling eight thousand corpses a year. Situated by the East River, it lay south of its namesake hospital and mental ward, and was housed in an imposing building. Long, broad, and a single story, it stood as a virtual bunker.

Here are the totals of the traffic of bodies as detailed in the 1896 Annual Report.

From the State Charities Aid Association's Report on the Department of Public Charities of New York City, 1896
For the bodies that landed in the morgue, 48 hours were given for relatives to claim them or else they were shipped out to be buried in mass graves on Hart Island. With no system for notification, less than half of the bodies were claimed. Conveniently, the ferry to Hart Island docked just outside the back door.

Selling the dead to medical schools was a profitable venture and the high demand ensured that most corpses were obtained illegally. From time to time, the morgue had scandals regarding trafficking cadavers and skeletons. In 1896, scandals at Bellevue Hospital and the morgue came to a head, resulting in the dismissal of the long time keeper of the morgue, Captain Albert N. White.

Identifying bodies in the Bellevue Morgue

6. Hart Island

Hart Island is one of the most fascinating and troubling pieces of New York history. It is a small, flat island set at the northeastern extreme of what, in 1898, became the city. It became the repository for every aspect for which the city wanted to turn a blind eye. Over the years portions have been used as an internment camp for war prisoners, a boy's reformatory, a woman's workhouse, a sanatorium, a penitentiary, and a silo for nuclear missiles.

In its ongoing function from the 1860s through today, it has served as New York City's pauper's graveyard. Over one million individuals have been buried on its land, their coffins deposited like refuse in long ditches. For one hundred fifty years, prisoners have been used as the burial detail. I suppose I have strong feelings about this as voiced in my novel by Captain McEvoy of the Fidelity.

We launch out on two trips a day. In the afternoon we gather up the bodies from all the islands and their institutions, everyone who was terminally reformed. We haul 'em off to the Bellevue morgue. Those corpses stay two days to fester them up a bit and in hopes someone will claim them. Only as part of a sick joke, no one gets told they are there. So each morning we cart away the ripened from a previous harvest. Packed in the cheapest of coffins, we haul them off to the cemetery at Hart's Island. Only it's not a cemetery, it's a wasteyard, where the coffins get piled one on top of the other in vast pits. Not even St. Peter with his Book of Life could sort out their bones.

People ask me if ferrying bodies don’t give me the chills. The rot of dead flesh don’t do nothing to affright me. It's better than the rot of the living—the cheap bastards who tally up the cost of every grain of rice and strip the names from the dead to save a squeezed penny. I fear those dead souls in Tammany who’s got the power to transform humans into rubbish.


Prisoners on the grave detail, Hart Island. April 1, 1900, New York Tribune.
The coffins placed in ditches. April 1, 1900, New York Tribune

Captain McEvoy aboard the good ship Fidelity docked at Hart Island. April 1, 1900, New York Tribune.


The Hart Island Project is dedicated to making the public aware of the ongoing burials on Hart Island and to provide a memorial for the more recently buried.

Location #5. The Manhattan State Hospital for the Insane.

To investigate the conditions at the Blackwell Island Insane Asylum, the intrepid reporter Nellie Bly had herself locked up as a patient. The scandalous conditions and the resulting sensational stories prompted the shutting down of the facility and in early 1896 the State Lunacy Commission opened the Manhattan State Hospital for the Insane on Wards Island. With 4,400 patients it became the most-populated psychiatric hospital in the world. Among its famous occupants, Scott Joplin would die there in 1917.

Ward's Island. The Manhattan State Hospital for the Insane is on the right.

1897 Photo of the East Building

Continued in Part Three.

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Nikola Tesla, Arthur Conan Doyle and Dr. Henry H. Holmes are all characters in my thriller, A Predator's Game.

A Predator's Game is available in soft-cover and ebook through Amazon and other online retailers.


A Predator's Game, now available, Rook's Page Publishing.

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Back page blurb.

Manhattan, 1896.

When the author Arthur Conan Doyle meets Nikola Tesla he finds a tall, thin genius with a photographic memory and a keen eye, and recognizes in the eccentric inventor the embodiment of his creation, Sherlock. Together, they team up to take on an "evil Holmes." Multi-murderer Dr. Henry H. Holmes has escaped execution and is unleashing a reign of terror upon the metropolis. Set in the late nineteenth century in a world of modern marvels, danger and invention, Conan Doyle and Tesla engage the madman in a deadly game of wits.

Martin Hill Ortiz, also writing under the name, Martin Hill, is the author of A Predatory Mind. Its sequel, set in 1890s Manhattan and titled A Predator's Game, features Nikola Tesla as detective.

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