Damnation Island Poor, sick, mad & criminal in 19th-century New York

Stacy Horn

Book - 2018

"On a two-mile stretch of land in New York's East River, a 19th-century horror story was unfolding ... Today we call it Roosevelt Island. Then, it was Blackwell's, site of a lunatic asylum, two prisons, an almshouse, and a number of hospitals. Conceived as the most modern, humane incarceration facility the world had ever seen, Blackwell's Island quickly became, in the words of a visiting Charles Dickens, 'a lounging, listless madhouse.' In the first contemporary inv...estigative account of Blackwell's, Stacy Horn tells this chilling narrative through the gripping voices of the island's inhabitants, as well as the period's officials, reformers, and journalists, including the celebrated Nellie Bly. Digging through city records, newspaper articles, and archival reports, Horn brings this forgotten history alive: there was terrible overcrowding; prisoners were enlisted to care for the insane; punishment was harsh and unfair; and treatment was nonexistent. Throughout the book, we return to the extraordinary Reverend William Glenney French as he ministers to Blackwell's residents, battles the bureaucratic mazes of the Department of Correction and a corrupt City Hall, testifies at salacious trials, and in his diary wonders about man's inhumanity to man. In Damnation Island, Stacy Horn shows us how far we've come in caring for the least fortunate among us--and reminds us how much work still remains."--Dust jacket.

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Chapel Hill, North Carolina : Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill 2018.
First edition
Physical Description
xii, 284 pages ; 24 cm
Includes bibliographical references.
Main Author
Stacy Horn (author)
  • I: The New York City Lunatic Asylum: opened on Blackwell's Island 1839, to accommodate New York City's lunatic poor. Reverend William Glenney French: the Blackwell's Island Episcopal missionary from 1872 to 1895 ; Sister Mary Stanislaus: committed to the Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island August 3, 1872, Diagnosis monomania ; Sister Mary Stanislaus is admitted into the Asylum ; the trial of Sister Mary ; Suicide, murder, and accidental deaths on the rise in the Lunatic Asylum ; Lunacy investigation: December 1880, Metropolitan Hotel, New York City ; Nellie Bly: ten days in a mad house, September 1887
  • II: The workhouse: a penal institution for people convicted of minor crimes, opened on Blackwell's Island in 1852. New York City and the unworthy poor ' Rev. William R. Stocking: superintendent of the Blackwell's Island Workhouse from 1886 to 1889 ; A workhouse exposé and Lawrence Dunphy: superintendent of the Blackwell's Island Workhouse from 1889 to 1896
  • III: the Almshouse: completed in 1848, to house the poor and disabled of New York City. The Almshouse complex, the end of the line for many
  • IV: The hospitals for the poor: in operation beginning 1832, to serve the sick people of New York City, and the inmates of the penitentiary, workhouse, and almshouse. Penitentiary Hospital aka Island Hospital aka Charity Hospital aka City Hospital
  • V: The Penitentiary: completed in 1832, for people convicted of more serious crimes, and with sentences generally from three to six months to two years although sometimes more. Adelaide Irving: sentenced to the Penitentiary December 6, 1832 ; William H. Ramscar: the Old Gentlemen's Unsectarian Home, sentenced to the Penitentiary December 23, 1899 ; Reverend Edward Cowley: the Shepherd's Fold, sentenced to the Penitentiary February 20, 1880
  • VI: Separating charity from correction: New York City divides the department in two in 1895. The end of a dangerous conglomerate
  • Epilogue: Blackwell's Island after 1895.