Roosevelt Island tour | Nellie Bly birthday edition!

On May 5, 2024, in honor of her birthday, we’re offering a special “Nellie By” edition of our Roosevelt Island tour! Nellie Bly was born on this day in 1864, making this year the 160th anniversary of her birth.

Intrepid reporter Nellie Bly shocked the world when she went undercover to report on the conditions at the Insane Asylum on the island in the 1880s. Bly’s writing exposed the darkest side of the Gilded Age, and changed the course of history.

This tour will take you to the site of that asylum (now converted into apartments!) as well as around the island’s many other historically significant sites.

The tour will also highlight many other women who were an essential part of the island’s history, from the nurses and inmates the island’s alms houses and insane asylums, to Mae West, Emma Goldman, Madame Restell, and more.




Now a pleasant, tight-knit residential community, Roosevelt Island was once an island of institutions inhabited by convicts, lunatics, and the destitute.

City leaders in 19th century New York viewed the small East River island as an ideal locale for their social “outcasts,” and filled the island with a smallpox hospital, an almshouse, a penitentiary, and a lunatic asylum. A narrow spit of land surrounded by swirling waters with troublesome currents, Roosevelt Island certainly seemed the place to hide the city’s undesirables away. These days the island retains vestiges of its institutional past, some only recently restored and opened to the public for the first time in decades.

Our tour visits the sites of these former almshouses, hospitals, laboratories, prisons and asylums, beginning with the eerie, romantic, and moody-looking neo-Gothic ruins of the smallpox hospital, moving to the site of the first laboratory in the country focused on pathological and bacteriological research, and finally to the site of the New York City Lunatic Asylum, built in 1841, which reporter Nelly Bly called a “human rat trap… easy to get in, but once there it is impossible to get out.”

Along the way, we will see one of the oldest farmhouses in New York City, built in 1796 and still standing, hear the tale of a criminal housed in the penitentiary so notorious she was referred to as “the monster in human shape,” and find out what happened to the bodies of the approximately 450 smallpox victims who died annually from 1856 to 1875.

And, in true Boroughs of the Dead style, we’ll ask the question that’s on everyone’s minds when they view the looming ruins of the smallpox hospital and the forbidding façade of the former lunatic asylum: is it haunted? Stories of hauntings attach themselves to such places as a matter of course. Perhaps the sinister 19th century architecture simply begs for such tales, or perhaps there is something more to these rumors: an anxiety about the way we deal with the poor and sick, a fear of being trapped in faceless bureaucratic systems, or a discomfort with our own desire to keep unpleasant things hidden from view.

More than just a historic sightseeing tour, this two-hour walk through Roosevelt Island will investigate the intersections between the history of these institutional spaces and the urban folklore that surrounds them, unearthing the secrets that isolated islands and swiftly moving rivers sometimes hide.