Jon Crispin's Notebook

Ellis Island Autopsy Room

Posted in Architecture, Buildings, History by joncrispin on 09/03/2012

I spent a lot of time in the Contagious Disease Hospital wing at Ellis Island on Wednesday.  The wards were set up much like a lot of the Kirkbride asylums in which I have photographed.  Some large ward rooms and some smaller single patient rooms.  This photo is from the autopsy room.  I took a shot from the lower angle which you can see below.

It is quite an evocative space.

10 Responses

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  1. Dawn Bradbury said, on 09/03/2012 at 4:11 pm

    Jon, I just love all of your work. I ordered a book about Willard from Amazon. I love these too, sad and poignant. You have the gift of perspective and the photographs are to be cherished. Thank you so much for sharing!

  2. Ellen D. Murphy said, on 09/03/2012 at 4:33 pm

    In 2000 I was able to tour the un-restored areas of Ellis Island – the areas you have been photographing. It was on an afternoon in May; the day was humid, sullen and cloudy with the threat of rain, adding to the sense of foreboding that everyone in our small group felt as we approached the buildings.

    My grandmother had been detained at Ellis on her arrival from Ireland in 1916; she was a single woman (though engaged to my grandfather, who had gone on ahead in 1914 and had sent for her), and there was concern that unattached females would become public charges (or worse). After being violently seasick on the crossing, she had spent several anxious days waiting for my grandfather to be able to “claim” her with a letter he somehow secured that promised that a job was waiting for her. She had three hundred British pounds sewn into her clothes as her dowry – a fortune. I was imagining her terror, dread and fury as I walked through the buildings that housed the crumbling detention cells.

    We saw the tuberculosis ward buildings, with their big, open porches; the kitchens; the administrator’s house and – most eerie – the morgue. We were told that, for its time, the morgue had the most sophisticated refrigeration system in the country, and its electrical system was second to none. Just as we entered the morgue, the island was hit with a furious storm – thunder boomed and lightning crackled wildly, illuminating the rooms. Strangers – and New Yorkers – we nonetheless clung to one another … and made a quick exit after the guide finished pointing out the features of the room.

    A dozen years ago, we were told that funding was forthcoming to restore this section of Ellis; clearly, this hasn’t come to pass. You are lucky to have the chance to take these photos. Like the Willard Suitcases, they are tributes to souls past. Thank you for these evocative images.

  3. Barbara S. said, on 09/03/2012 at 4:42 pm

    This are very interesting photos. They leave room for imagination of what must have taken place in this establishment. I know very little about Ellis Island and will be doing some research. Your photos have brightened up this old ladies world…I do love to looking into the past that deals with “people” and what they must have experienced in their daily routine and life situations. Thank you again for sharing your insight into these places through your eyes and your camera lens.

  4. Pia Massie said, on 09/03/2012 at 5:16 pm

    Wow John, these are deep memory photos. So great that you had the chance to get in there and shoot them.
    Thanks for your consistent flow of inspiring and evocative images.

  5. L.S. Stuhler said, on 09/03/2012 at 6:10 pm

    Hi Jon, I am very surprised to see that this space has not been restored. Is this room open to the public? Do you know if the state or some historical society is working on it? What a shame to let it fall into such a terrible state of disrepair. Great photographs as always!

    • joncrispin said, on 10/03/2012 at 10:57 am

      Lin, they are working on restoring all the buildings, but as you can imagine, it takes buckets of money.

  6. Elizabeth Jackson said, on 09/03/2012 at 6:26 pm

    Very interesting! I have researched several people who came through Ellis Island, but this is my first chance to get an inside look! Thanks, Jon!

  7. sanslartigue said, on 09/03/2012 at 7:31 pm

    Your comparison to the Kirkbride buildings you’ve been in is right on. It’s partly the age and institutional function, but there is also an aura about these places that is very distinctive.

  8. […] is really quite a space, and reminds me a bit of the autopsy room at Ellis Island that I photographed a few years ago.  After I left the morgue I headed over to Elliot Hall which […]


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