Secret Harbor

The real-life version of Scorsese's Shutter Island imports hundreds of homeless from the South End every evening; they’re among the few allowed on Boston Harbor’s isle of mystery.
By CHRISTOPHER KLEIN  |  February 17, 2010

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Photos: Boston Harbor's Long Island. By Christopher Klein.

Review: Shutter Island. By Peter Keough.

A home for the criminally insane it might not be, but the real-life Shutter Island is, like the one in the new Martin Scorsese film that hits theaters this week, a spooky and controversial land mass in Boston Harbor that is indeed off-limits to the public. It’s also home to scores of rehabbing drug users and mental-health patients, and every night hundreds of homeless are imported there from the South End.

Fictitious Shutter Island — with its vine-choked fort ruins, obsolete lighthouse, and sprawling hospital compound — bears a striking similarity to Boston’s Long Island and its old city hospital. According to Dennis Lehane, who penned the novel on which the movie is based, that’s no accident.

“My uncle took us out to Long Island once when my brother and I were kids,” the Dorchester native tells the Phoenix. “He started telling us how the ghosts of the most dangerous patients were rumored to still walk the grounds. Then he vanished. My brother and I walked around, all creeped out, and then my uncle jumped out from behind a tree, which gave us both early heart attacks.”

When Lehane conjured up Shutter Island and its Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane, that boyhood adventure provided the necessary spark of inspiration. “I remember it was just bleak and creepy,” he says. “And that’s all I needed to charge the battery for the book — bleak and creepy.”

As protagonist Teddy Daniels approaches Shutter Island by boat, he wonders “what purpose could it have.” It’s a thought many Bostonians likely share about the mysterious and very real Long Island.

For centuries, Bostonians used the harbor islands to sequester and provide for those suffering from physical and social ills. While reformatories, asylums, poorhouses, and hospitals have disappeared from the rest of the islands, the tradition of providing vital human-service programs to those in need endures on Long Island.

The campus of brick buildings huddled in the middle of the island houses more than a dozen programs run by the Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC) and nonprofits such as the Pine Street Inn, including homeless shelters, mental-health-treatment facilities, drug- and alcohol-detox programs, a secure residence for adolescent boys, and transitional housing. Two buildings are also equipped to handle a potential swine-flu epidemic.

The island serves close to 1000 people every day, including hundreds of homeless who each evening board specially chartered MBTA buses at the South End’s Woods Mullen Shelter and are shuttled by the BPHC for overnight stays in the city’s largest homeless shelter.

Even though a gated security checkpoint guards the bridge to Long Island, it’s a far cry from the fictional maximum-security Ashecliffe Hospital. But at times it’s reminiscent of another stultifying cinematic compound, the one depicted in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. On a recent frigid morning, a group of residents are braving the bitter winter winds and congregating outside in their bath robes, swapping stories and smokes. Still, a walk down any of the sterile corridors with their dim, flickering fluorescent lights stirs faint echoes of Ashecliffe. (While none of the movie was filmed on Long Island, some scenes were shot on nearby Peddocks Island.)

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  •   SECRET HARBOR  |  February 17, 2010
    A home for the criminally insane it might not be, but the real-life Shutter Island is, like the one in the new Martin Scorsese film that hits theaters this week, a spooky and controversial land mass in Boston Harbor that is indeed off-limits to the public.
  •   PHOTOS: BOSTON HARBOR'S LONG ISLAND  |  February 16, 2010
    Images taken on Long Island, the Boston Harbor island that inspired Dennis Lehane's Shutter Island.

 See all articles by: CHRISTOPHER KLEIN