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Rainsford Island

Rainsford Island

Author William A. McEvoy Jr. & Robin Hazard Ray
Publisher Printed on Paige
Publication Date July 2019
Section Boston / Cambridge / New England / Espresso Book Machine Books / Printed Here
Type Print on Demand
Format Paperback
ISBN 9781792315589

      Throughout the Rainsford Island project, I came across the term “The Unfortunates” to describe those who suffered in poverty. I view that term as a euphemism that dehumanizes the poor. Those that could have helped the victims, specifically the government, and did not, may have found comfort from their belief that the poor suffered from fate and not neglect by the system.

      This book provides an in-depth history of Rainsford Island beginning with its private ownership from 1636 to 1736.  It then came under government control, first by the Province of the Massachusetts Bay, followed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and then the City of Boston. 

      The island’s complex history is best told by segmenting the various uses of Rainsford Island. This book's table of contents defines those segments. Until 1854, it was occasionally a place of quarantine, however its 11 acres of land was also available for use by certain “Fortunates”.  One use is as follows: 

“the Old Mansion House built in 1819, which was for many years the chief summer resort in the harbor, and has given comfortable shelter to many well-known Bostonians of the old régime. The town authorities allowed the keepers to take boarders, when no infectious diseases were upon the island; and the fever and small-pox hospitals were often crowded, besides the old mansion. It must have been a grewsome [sic] summer-resort, and abounding in suggestions not conducive to hilarity; yet our grandfathers appear to have found real and lively pleasure here”

      In 1854, while under the ownership of the Commonwealth, the island’s story took a sinister turn beginning sixty-six years as an off-shore dumping ground for Boston’s unwanted. 

      During that period the common factors that were shared by many sent there were: poverty; lack of health care; mental illness; senility; addiction; lack of proper housing; poor sanitary conditions;  inability to pay a small fine; men unable to find work who were incarcerated as paupers; and pregnant women.

      This book dedicates fifteen pages to those that never left the island - Chapter 7, “The Dead of Rainsford Island”. We also thought it important to include twenty-eight pages listing the 1,775 names, their birthplaces, ages, as well as the dates and causes of death.

      Though historic anecdotes allude to a later removal of the dead from Rainsford Island, I believe that more than 1,775 bodies remain there in unmarked graves (see Chapter 7). No City of Boston Records of death were ever amended to note their removal to another location. No records for expenditures of funds to relocate the bodies were found in government publications. 

      The 1,775 persons buried includes a War of 1812 Sailor; 9 Civil War soldiers who died on active duty; and 108 Veterans of the Civil War who died between 1873 and 1893. Fourteen of those Veterans were African American. 

      One of those African American Veterans was Stephen Ennis, a musician from Montrose, PA. He was paid $50 for enlisting in the famous 54th Massachusetts Regiment. He joined the Regiment on March 27, 1863, and serving until August 20, 1865. He died from phthisis at Rainsford on August 12, 1882. One can look at the magnificent Memorial to the 54th Regiment on Boston Common by sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens and think, perhaps, Ennis is the drummer portrayed leading the marching soldiers. It is bitter to conclude that Ennis died forgotten at a place like Rainsford and lies there still in an unmarked grave. To quote another man who died on a different “godforsaken island” (Napoleon Bonaparte), “Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever.”  

      There are two heroes whose efforts resulted in the City of Boston terminating the use of Rainsford Island as a warehouse for the poor, the unwanted, and the mentally ill. Alice North Towne Lincoln (1853–1926) began her efforts to provide proper housing for the poor in 1879, at the age of 27, the year before she married. In 1890, she stepped up her efforts to reform Boston’s Public Institutions, including Rainsford Island and the Long Island Hospital, which opened in late 1887.

      Her dogged complaints at board meetings and letters to the editors of Boston newspapers resulted in the Boston Board of Aldermen holding fifty-eight days of hearings between May 15, 1894, and December 28, 1894. The record of those hearings totals 3,700 pages (see Chapter 4). 

      Mrs. Lincoln was represented, pro-bono, by our second hero, Attorney Louis Dembitz Brandeis (1856–1941), later the first Jewish Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. He remained for all of the hearings and actively participated in the presentation of witnesses and evidence to support Mrs. Lincoln’s charges. His deft cross-examination of the Board of Aldermen’s witnesses, most of whom simply wanted Mrs. Lincoln to go away, make great reading even a century later. 

      By January 31, 1895, as a result of Mrs. Lincoln’s complaints, Rainsford Island "Hospital" was finally closed. 

      However, as Chapter 6 notes, the victory of Mrs. Lincoln and Justice Brandeis was not the end of its sordid history. Rainsford entered is final twenty-six years phase as the Boys’ House of Reformation. In 1901 it was rebranded the Suffolk School for Boys. Only the name was changed, not the treatment.

      Further examples of inept government management, cruelty, neglect, and death, of “Unfortunate” boys ages eight to eighteen are documented. The reader will not find any youthful offenders of means. In 1896, three young boys were sentenced for thirty days as they were unable to pay their fines for “playing ball on The Lord’s Day”. In 1913 two "boys" ages 16 and 13, were sent to Rainsford after being convicted of murdering a Japanese boy while in the act of robbing him. Those are but two examples of the range of boys comingled on the island.

      This book is dedicated to the memory of all who were sent to Rainsford Island, especially those who remain buried there, still neglected but now not forgotten by anyone who reads this book.

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