How much truth is there in Shutter Island?
One of the most popular searches on our blog is our 2010 “Shutter Island” post. Because the ferries will start to run again in May, we thought we’d repost it now.
If you’ve been watching television the last few weeks, you may have seen commercials previewing the movie “Shutter Island,” which will be released on February 19. “Shutter Island” has a lot of star power behind it. Martin Scorsese directs. Leonardo DiCaprio is in the lead. And the story is based on the novel by Boston’s own Dennis Lehane, who also wrote Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone.
The movie unfolds on a fictitious island in Boston Harbor that’s home to the Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane. While Shutter Island may not exist, Lehane’s setting was inspired by the real-life history and uses of the Boston Harbor Islands. And in some cases, the truth is stranger than fiction.
While the Boston Harbor Islands have always been gateways to the city—they were the first pieces of land spied by visitors sailing or flying into the city—they have also been treated as Boston’s backyard; a place to dump and sequester undesirable people and material unwanted in the city proper. Many islands were home to reformatories, poorhouses, prisons, and, yes, psychiatric hospitals. This was particularly true in the 1800s as Victorian-era social institutions were created and moved to the last pieces of open land, the islands, as the city population exploded.
Dating as far back as 1717, islands (including Spectacle, Rainsford, Long, and Deer) were used as quarantine stations, which protected the city from outbreaks of smallpox and other deadly, contagious diseases. Many victims of those diseases died on the islands, and today these forgotten cemeteries are as common as the ruins of old military installations.