• Abby Brenker

Haunted History: Nellie Bly & The Octagon


I categorize this article under the heading Haunted History, because that is how we talk about history at The Lunatics Project. But nothing about it is paranormal at all. As our name suggests, we are interested in the dark sides of humanity. Dark not necessarily meaning evil or bad, but meaning macabre or taboo, or difficult to digest.


This story is one of the reasons we use the name "Lunatics." An ode to the people who were misunderstood, mistreated, misdiagnosis or even simply made to feel "other." The root of the word Lunatic literally means people who are controlled by the power of the moon. A concept that many believed for a very long time. Today we are going to talk about this stunning building, but more importantly, the horrors of those who were held here while it was a mental health hospital.


The Octagon was built in 1834, it was designed by Alexander Jackson Davis. Davis was known for his work on beautiful mansions and wealthy homes. As you can see, the building still exists today.


Originally, this was the front entrance to the New York City Lunatics Asylum, also known as the NYC Mental Health Hospital. Roosevelt Island was called Welfare Island by the locals because of the number of hospitals, prisons and other facilities on the small strip of land.


This hospital received national attention after Nellie Bly tricked the facility into admitting her (after she feigned insanity and was “involuntarily” committed). After being committed, Bly was kept with the other female wards in the hospital.


She observed the conditions in the facility for ten days before she was released. She documented her experiences and published them, first in a series of articles for the New York World and later in a book called Ten Days in a Mad House, which came out in 1887.


Her journalism exposed harsh and inhumane conditions and inspired reform.


Quoting from Bly’s work: “I left the insane ward with pleasure and regret–pleasure that I was once more able to enjoy the free breath of heaven; regret that I could not have brought with me some of the unfortunate women who lived and suffered with me, and who, I am convinced, are just as sane as I was and am now myself.”



Bly's book is quite short and accessible, and still available today to read. Though, be warned, her language to describe patients is outdated. If you read it, you will also notice that she refers to Roosevelt Island as Blackwell Island, which is what it was called during her time. Referring to the prominent Blackwell family. Despite Bly's work, and the work of so many incredible mental health and medical providers and doctors that dedicate their lives to helping others, there is still not enough funding to properly care for those who need intensive mental health care in New York City, but also globally.


This branch of the hospital closed down in 1955. It sat empty for many years. And as an abandoned building endured two fires.


After restoration in 2006, 888 Main Street on Roosevelt Island was turned into a luxury apartment complex. Wings were added to the original Octagon building, which sits in the center and acts as the main entrance. The structure is complete with a family swimming pool and solar power. The Octagon renovations have been awarded for their sustainability efforts. It’s now on the National Register of Historic Places.


See more here.

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