Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, and Criminal in 19th-Century New York

Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, and Criminal in 19th-Century New York

by Stacy Horn


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“A riveting character-driven dive into 19th-century New York and the extraordinary history of Blackwell’s Island.”
Laurie Gwen Shapiro, author of The Stowaway: A Young Man’s Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica

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 ever seen, Blackwell’s Island quickly became, in the words of a visiting Charles Dickens, “a lounging, listless madhouse.”

In the first contemporary investigative 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781616205768
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Publication date: 05/15/2018
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 802,374
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Stacy Horn is the author of five nonfiction books, including Imperfect Harmony. Mary Roach has hailed her for “combining awe-fueled curiosity with topflight reporting skills.” Horn’s commentaries have been heard on NPR’s All Things Considered and she is the founder of the social network Echo. She lives in New York City. Her website is stacyhorn.com.          

Table of Contents

Prologue xiii

I The New York City Lunatic Asylum

Opened On Blackwell's Island 1839, To Accommodate New York City's Lunatic Poor 1

Reverend William Glenney French: The Blackwell's Island Episcopal Missionary from 1872 To 1895 3

Sister Mary Stanislaus: Committed to the Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island August 3, 1872, Diagnosis: Monomania 20

Sister Mary Stanislaus Is Admitted into the Asylum 24

The Trial of Sister Mary 32

Suicide, Murder, and Accidental Deaths on the Rise in the Lunatic Asylum 44

Lunacy Investigation: December 1880, Metropolitan Hotel, New York City 60

Nellie Bly: Ten Days in a Mad-House, September 1887 78

II The Workhouse

A Penal Institution For People Convicted Of Minor Crimes, Opened On Blackwell's Island In 1852 91

New York City and the Unworthy Poor 93

Rev. William R. Stocking: Superintendent of the Blackwell's Island Workhouse from 1886 to 1889 108

A Workhouse Exposé and Lawrence Dunphy: Superintendent of the Blackwell's Island Workhouse from 1889 to 1896 125

III The Almshouse

Completed In 1848, To House The Poor And Disabled Of New York City 133

The Almshouse Complex, The End of the Line for Many 135

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 163

Penitentiary Hospital aka Island Hospital aka Charity Hospital aka City Hospital 165

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 187

Adelaide Irvine: Sentenced to the Penitentiary December 6, 1862 189

William H. Ramscar: The Old Gentlemen's Unsectarian Home, Sentenced to the Penitentiary December 23, 1889 203

Reverend Edward Cowley: The Shepherd's Fold, Sentenced to the Penitentiary February 20, 1880 216

VI Separating Charity From Correction

New York City Divides The Department In Two In 1895 237

The End of a Dangerous Conglomerate 239


Blackwell's Island after 1895 257

Acknowledgments 264

Appendix 265

Source Notes 267

Index 284

Author Interview 295

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