The “Real” Shutter Islands

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.

  7 Replies to “The “Real” Shutter Islands”

  1. February 21, 2010 at 3:19 pm

    Very interesting and I saw the movie and got more intrigued about what was on this Island. I thought it was probably a military base at sometime but it sure fit the theme of the movie. I hope to visit sometime this summer.

  2. February 22, 2010 at 9:59 am

    Thanks for your comment! The islands are great fun, full of history, and as you’ll see–they provided great inspiration to Mr. Lehane when he wrote the novel Shutter Island was based upon.

  3. Yrose
    February 25, 2010 at 10:30 am

    I had heard it was based on some truth of the islands. Love the information. As an amateur ghost hunter and history buff I would love to visit them!

  4. February 25, 2010 at 12:08 pm

    Yrose: As a ghost hunter, you’d love the story about the Lady in Black, which came to pass during the Civil War when Fort Warren on Georges Island was used as a prison for Confederate Soldiers. Check out the book!

  5. Jeremiah Johnson
    February 28, 2010 at 10:05 am

    I was somewhat disappointed to find out that the island didn’t “really” exist. I was interested in knowing what the prison was called? The ward C in the movie, I believe they refer to it as, was really cool looking. What is the name of that place and what was its purpose. I think it was also the filming location for the beginning of “The Devil’s Own,” correct? The aerial photos of the ilsand itself also resemble something closer to a British isle than an island 11 miles off of the Boston Harbor. The cliffs, bluffs, and mountains shot from the aerial view when they’re traveling on the ship at beginning look amazing. It almost resembles Skull Island or something from Lord of the Rings movie. Where is that island located? It can’t be Peddocks Island. I did an aerial view search on Mapquest and it didn’t appear to be the same place. That island has to be in New Zealand or somewhere outside of the continental US. Does anyone have any information about this island? The one from the ship’s aerial view at the beginning…

  6. March 1, 2010 at 10:42 pm

    I believe that aerial shot is computer generated. It certainly isn’t any of the islands in Boston Harbor. There’s an interesting article here on the special effects used for the movie: Funny, Scorsese didn’t want to evoke Skull Island.

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