The “Real” Shutter Islands

February 4, 2010 |

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 be fictitious, 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—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.

These isles are among the stories of the “real” Shutter Islands profiled in Discovering the Boston Harbor Islands:

On Rainsford Island, the old quarantine station was converted to an almshouse in 1852 and a home for Civil War veterans following the end of the conflict. Between 1895 and 1920, Rainsford Island hosted the House of Reformation (renamed the Suffolk School for Boys in the early 1900s). Ruins of some of the institutional buildings can still be seen on Rainsford Island along with inscriptions carved into the seaside cliffs by former resident physicians of the island.

Thompson Island was home to the Boston Farm School in 1833. It soon merged with the Boston Asylum for Indigent Boys, which was founded in the wake of the War of 1812 to care for boys left orphaned and destitute by the fighting. The institution became a farm and trade school at the turn of the twentieth century. The islands is now owned by Outward Bound, but visitors are welcome on summer weekends.

Bumpkin Island was home to a children’s hospital built in 1902 by Albert Cameron Burrage, one of Boston’s wealthiest men. (He owned the chateau-style mansion at 314 Commonwealth Avenue, which still stands in the Back Bay.) The hospital provided care and treatment for poor children with physical disabilities. It held as many as 150 children during the summer months. The island can be accessed by public ferry, and you can still see the rubbled ruins of the hospital.

A hospital and quarantine station were built on Deer Island in the late 1840s to handle the massive influx of Irish immigrants during the Great Famine. Nearly 5,000 of those who arrived on the “coffin ships” between 1847 and 1850 were quarantined on the island, and 800 passed away. The island was also used as an almshouse, house of industry, school for paupers, and house of reformation. From the 1880s to 1981, Deer Island was a veritable Atlantic Alcatraz, home to prisons and the Suffolk House of Corrections. Deer Island, which is attached to the tip of Winthrop, can be visited year-round, and there is a small parking lot and walking trails.

Long Island is the one island still continuing the institutional tradition of the harbor islands. Off-limits to the public, Long Island is home to more than a dozen human-service programs, ranging from addiction treatment centers to homeless shelters. The large institutional complex in the middle of the island includes some dilapidated and shuttered buildings, including an old safe house, that would certainly spark the imagination of any thriller writer.

While Peddocks Island was not home to any social institutions, the ruins and brick buildings of defunct Fort Andrews were used as filming locations for “Shutter Island.” Public ferries in the summertime serve Peddocks Island, so you can check it out for yourself.

For more information on the institutional uses of the harbor islands and visitor information, consult Discovering the Boston Harbor Islands.

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