The first such institution established on the island was a prison which was the source of much scandal. It was built in 1825. The second institution established on the island was The New York Lunatic Asylum that was used from 1837-1894 whose buildings included the Octagon which still stands today. Over 1700 patients were housed in this asylum, twice the suggested occupancy, and these patients were supervised by convicts from the neighboring prison. Charles Dickens was one of the more famous people to have visited this asylum and he described it as horrible and "very painful." A famous reporter, Nellie Bly, disguised herself as an inpatient and spent time in the asylum as well and she described the asylum a "human rat trap."
In addition to the horrible assylum and prison that marred blackwell island, the island was also the site of a Smallbox Hospital, which housed small pox patients from 1856 until 1886. The intense suffering that went on in this building added to it's ruined state have built numerous rumors about it's ghostly activity. The ruined hospital is now known as the Renwick Ruin and is brightly lit at night giving it a ghostly glow that only adds to stories.
I was lucky enough to visit my aunt on this island last year. She lives in one the large high rises that have consumed the once forlorn landscape of this island. She reports that she felt ill at ease when she visited the octagon and that it's atmosphere conveyed a sense of old sorrow. It is easy to forget, however, that the island was once filled with such mass suffering and sorrow. The island's atmosphere has been completely changed, but the ruins of the old hospital remain, reminding visitors that it wasn't so long ago that the island belonged to the tortured souls of the dying, the mad, the forgotten, and the imprisoned. To learn more about Roosevelt Island please visit: http://nyc10044.com/timeln/timeline.html