3. The Octagon Building Used To Be An Infamous Lunatic Asylum

The Octagon House on Roosevelt Island

Many have probably heard of Nellie Bly, a woman who pretended to be insane in order to write a breakthrough investigative piece on the cruelty of the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island. This asylum was run inside Octagon Building which still stands on Roosevelt Island. The asylum opened in 1838, and rumors quickly spread about its brutal abuse of the inmates. In her expose, “Ten Days in a Madhouse,” Bly called the asylum a “human rat-trap” with staff who “choked, beat and harassed patients.”

The asylum moved to Ward’s Island a little while later, so this building became the Metropolitan Hospital, which then moved to Harlem in the 1950s. The asylum’s original octagon still stands as a classy apartment complex near a beautiful community garden, quite a contrast to what it used to be. Visitors are generally welcome to enter the octagon, which serves as the lobby, and look at the old photographs on display.

The Girl Puzzle, a public art sculpture on Roosevelt Island

On the island, Bly’s legacy is remembered with a public art piece called The Girl Puzzle. This piece consist of a series of faces that depict women who have endured hardship in their lives and were made stronger because of it. In the center of the monument is a Bly’s face cast in silver bronze. Bly’s face is flanked by the four bronze faces meant to represent Asian American, Black, young, older, and queer women, each rendered in partial sections to appear like giant puzzle pieces.