Judith Berdy, historical society president; Rebecca Baker, SPJ president-elect; and Andrew Seaman, SPJ Ethics Committee chair, will discuss the historical significance of the site during the dedication at 1 p.m. EDT Sunday (Aug. 13) at the Roosevelt Island Historical Society’s Visitor Center kiosk.
“All of New York City obviously has a romantic history with journalism, but no other place has captured my attention more than Roosevelt Island,” Seaman said. “Each time I visit, I can’t help but think of Nellie Bly’s journey to the ‘madhouse’ and her contributions to the profession. I’m so happy that the Society of Professional Journalists decided to recognize Roosevelt Island with this honor.”
The Octagon, which is located on the north end of the island, is an ornate stone building built in 1841 to house psychiatric patients in its two L-shaped wings. Patients brought to the island by boat were separated from the rest of society in what Charles Dickens referred to as a “lounging, listless, madhouse air.”
In 1887, Nellie Bly was sent to the island after acting strangely. Though she received the same treatment as the patients, Bly was there only on assignment from newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer. Her work “10 Days in a Madhouse” is considered among the first pieces of investigative journalism and led to improvements in treatment of psychiatric patients.
The building served as a general hospital until 1955. The octagonal entry was fully restored and now serves as the entry to a residential building.
Since 1942, SPJ has honored the people and places that have played important roles in the history of journalism through the Historic Sites program. Some honorees include: Freedom’s Journal, the first Black newspaper published in the United States, and The Wheeling Intelligencer, the oldest continuously published daily newspaper in West Virginia.