Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, and Criminal in 19th-Century New York by Stacy Horn, Algonquin Books, US $27.95, Pp 304, May 2018, ISBN 978-1616205768
The City of New York bought Blackwell’s Island, now known as Roosevelt Island, for $32,500 in 1828, the City government wanted to relieve the crowded conditions at Manhattan’s Bellevue, which in addition to being a hospital was also the city’s penitentiary, the Lunatic Asylum, Almshouse for the poor, and the Workhouse, a prison for people convicted of minor crimes. The number of the poor, the lunatic, and the criminal, all of whom had to be treated somewhere when they got sick also grew when the city grew. In Damnation Island, Stacy Horn says that the idea was to move the sick, mad, and punishable away from the general population and into the more humane, stress-free, and healthful environment of this lush, pastoral island, thick with fruit trees, where they could be classified according to their affliction or crime, and reformed. Blackwell’s Island was an extension of everything the New World offered. Even the marginalized and maligned would have it better here and nothing less than the latest scientific methods would be employed to give them a chance to turn their lives around. But, this was not to be.
In 1842, just three years after the Lunatic Asylum opened, Charles Dickens visited it and wrote, “everything had a lunging, listless, madhouse air… the moping idiot, cowering down with long disheveled hair; the gibbering maniac, with his hideous laugh and pointed finger; the vacant eye, the fierce wild face… there they were all… in naked ugliness and horror.” Built to accommodate 200 patients, Stacy Horn says that the Asylum was doomed by two fatal flaws in the plan. First, the commissioners appointed to manage the institutions on Blackwell’s Island drastically underestimated the need, a miscalculation they would make repeatedly as the island grew to accommodate an average of 7,000 people daily, across all the institutions. The other flaw was putting the Asylum under the management of the same commissioners who ran the Penitentiary and then isolating these different populations on the same small island.
Stacy Horn says that reforms came late and slowly. In 1896, New York State was given until 1901 to move all the inmates in the Lunatic Asylums to the facilities on either Wards Islands or Central Islip. Because it wasn’t able to build accommodations quickly enough, the women were transferred to a building that was neither safe nor sanitary. The East and West hospitals on Wards Island were consolidated and became the largest psychopathic hospital in the world. The consolidated hospital is still there and is called Manhattan Psychiatric Center. The Central Islip State Hospital closed in 1996.
Stacy Horn tells that Blackwell’s Island was largely abandoned by the 1950s. In the 1960s, it was re-envisioned as a progressive community of racially diverse and mixed-income residents, where everything would be handicapped accessible. Residential developments began in 1969, and the name of the island was changed again in 1973 to Franklin D. Roosevelt Island or simply Roosevelt Island. More than one hundred years ago, the municipal leaders thought they had identified all the problems in the system. But adequate healthcare for the poor is currently in jeopardy, and the homeless and the mentally ill are back on the streets, except when we imprison them in jails that are in some ways worse than they were in the nineteenth century. The connection between crime and poverty persists, as does the idea that helping the poor only teaches dependency.
Damnation Island is an indictment of the way we treated our poor, sick, mentally ill, and delinquent citizens in the 19th century. Stacy Horn shows that we condemned them to what she calls Damnation Island. Known as Blackwell’s Island in the 18th century and before, Roosevelt Island was a place that should have scared anybody with a heart. Stacy Horn has done a commendable job by shedding light on the dark corners of our history. Damnation Island is a book of history written like a novel. Every American needs to read it.