Damnation Island: The mad, disturbing horrors of 19th century institutions for the ‘undesirable’

Little remains on Roosevelt Island today to remind us of its ghastly, unspeakable past, of the terrible days when it went by the name of Blackwell’s Island. Remnants of a lunatic asylum are incorporated into bright, friendly apartment complex. Well-lit ruins of a smallpox hospital still creep out visitors to the nearby Four Freedoms Park. An ancient stone lighthouse at the island’s far north tip no longer lights Hell Gate.

But for more than 150 years, this East River island was the site of many houses of horror, so grim that most pop cultural depictions of insane asylums and workhouses trace their inspirations — directly or otherwise — to the island’s unfortunate history.

DAMNATION ISLAND
Poor, Sick, Mad & Criminal in 19th-Century New York
by Stacy Horn
Workman Publishing

Damnation Island should be your page-turning horror read for the summer. But the disturbing details revealed by author Stacy Horn aren’t mere campfire terror tales. This is the shameful history of how New Yorkers treated its ‘undesirables’ — its poor, its weak, its mentally ill — banishing them to a set of structures governed by bureaucratic incompetence, antiquated science and pure chaos.

Horn’s book is uniquely arranged almost like a guide book, venturing from one institution to the next, discovering intimate stories of mayhem and malfeasance more unbelievable than the last.

She begins in the most infamous institution of all — the New York Lunatic Asylum which opened in 1839, a place where mental illness was treated harshly and haphazardly. By the 1880s its abuses were well known to New Yorkers, but little was done before a reporter named Nellie Bly took on her famous — and quite dangerous — assignment.

The neighboring workhouse for “people convicted of minor crimes and the criminally lazy, otherwise known as the ‘unworthy poor'” embodies all the misjudged philosophies about poverty in the 19th century. Banishment to the workhouse was often a death sentence. A reporter named William P. Rogers, undercover at the workhouse, experienced its terrible qualities firsthand. “‘Every evening after supper’, he wrote, there was a hunt for vermin in the cells, and on ‘Sundays there is a grand slaughter.'”

The female almshouse, photographed by Jacob Riis (Museum of the City of New York)

The almhouse follows next (an especially loathsome place for people of color, Horn notes), then the hospitals for the poor where truly bizarre (and occasionally beneficial) experiments took place.

But all roads lead to the penitentiary where criminals of serious crimes were imprisoned. The reasons why anybody thought it was good policy to put career criminals on an island of sick and disturbed people — indeed, they were sometimes put in charge of those people — are incomprehensible to us today. But the tragic results will send shivers down your spine all the way through Damnation Island to its final page.