Blackwell's Island Workhouse, New York, USA

Blackwell's Island (now known as Roosevelt Island) is a long, narrow island in New York City's East River, lying between Manhattan Island to the west and Long Island to the east. The island was purchased by the City of New York in 1828, with a penitentiary being opened at the southern end in 1832, followed by a penitentiary hospital on its south side. The New York City Lunatic Asylum was opened at the north of the island in 1839, and an almshouse at the centre in 1848.

Blackwell's Island Almshouse, New York, c.1872.

In 1850, the cornerstone was laid for a workhouse located between the almshouse and the lunatic asylum. The establishment was originally envisaged as being 'for the employment of able-bodied inmates from the Alms-house'. However, it came to be used primarily for the short-term detention of minor offenders such as vagrants, drunkards, petty thieves, prostitutes etc. The period of detention was typically less than ten days, though could be up to six months.

The original design for the establishment is shown below although some of the envisaged features were omitted from the final building.

Blackwell's Island workhouse design, New York, c.1850.
© Peter Higginbotham.

The building comprised a central block, with wings extending to the north and south, each terminating in a cross-wing. The extensive central block contained kitchens, and store-rooms, the private quarters of the Superintendent and the other officials, and a large chapel. The north wing contained the females wards, the southern the male. Each wing contained a broad hall, on each side of which were three tiers of cells, one above the other. Iron galleries, with access stairways, extended along the fronts of these cells. There were 150 cells in each wing. Each cell was provided with an iron grated door, and contained four single berths. The cells were separated from each other by brick walls.

Blackwell's Island workhouse north wing, New York, c.1872.

Blackwell's Island workhouse north wing interior, New York, c.1866.
© Peter Higginbotham.

Blackwell's Island workhouse cell interior, New York, c.1866.
© Peter Higginbotham.

All the inmates were obliged to labour. The women performed the housework and cleaning of the various institutions on the island, and were employed in washing, mending, sewing, knitting, etc.

Blackwell's Island workhouse sewing room, New York, c.1866.
© Peter Higginbotham.

Blackwell's Island workhouse hoop skirt factory, New York, c.1866.
© Peter Higginbotham.

Blackwell's Island workhouse mess room, New York, c.1866.
© Peter Higginbotham.

In the men's workshops, the carpenter's, blacksmith's, wheelwright's, tinner's, tailor's, and other trades were carried on. The men were also kept at work grading the island, building the seawall, and cultivating the gardens. Gangs of labourers were sent daily to engage in the works on the nearby Ward's and Randall's islands.

Blackwell's Island workhouse shoemakers' workshop, New York, c.1866.
© Peter Higginbotham.

Blackwell's Island workhouse tailors' workshop, New York, c.1866.
© Peter Higginbotham.

Blackwell's Island workhouse stone breaking, New York, c.1866.
© Peter Higginbotham.

Blackwell's Island workhouse building the sea wall, New York, c.1866.
© Peter Higginbotham.

In the winter, the men cut ice from a frozen pond for use in the institution.

Blackwell's Island workhouse getting ice, New York, c.1866.
© Peter Higginbotham.

Disobeying the establishment's rule could result in a spell in the windowless 'dark cell'.

Blackwell's Island workhouse dark cell, New York, c.1866.
© Peter Higginbotham.

The workhouse continued in use until the 1930s until it was replaced by a new establishment on Rikers Island. The Blackwell's Island building no longer exists.

Records

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