Damnation Island

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


By Stacy Horn

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"Enthralling; it is well worth the trip.” —New York Journal of Books

Conceived as the most modern, humane incarceration facility the world had ever seen, New York’s Blackwell’s Island, site of a lunatic asylum, two prisons, an almshouse, and a number of hospitals, quickly became, in the words of a visiting Charles Dickens, "a lounging, listless madhouse." Digging through city records, newspaper articles, and archival reports, Stacy Horn tells a gripping narrative through the voices of the island’s inhabitants. We also hear from the era’s officials, reformers, and journalists, including the celebrated undercover reporter Nellie Bly. And we follow 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 his fellow man. Damnation Island shows how far we’ve come in caring for the least fortunate among us—and reminds us how much work still remains.









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To all those who have ever

been judged unworthy.



The New York City Lunatic Asylum

Reverend William Glenney French

Sister Mary Stanislaus

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

Nellie Bly

The Workhouse

New York City and the Unworthy Poor

Rev. William R. Stocking

A Workhouse Exposé and Lawrence Dunphy

The Almshouse

The Almshouse Complex

The Hospitals for the Poor

Penitentiary Hospital aka Island Hospital aka Charity Hospital aka City Hospital

The Penitentiary

Adelaide Irving

William H. Ramscar

Reverend Edward Cowley

Separating Charity from Correction

The End of a Dangerous Conglomerate




Source Notes

Photograph and Map Credits

About the Author

About Algonquin


Workers for the Edison Electric Illuminating Com­pany had spent more than a year ripping up the streets of lower Manhattan. The miles of cable that now lay unseen somewhere beneath their feet were making some people nervous. Two weeks before the new lamps were to be lit for the first time, the New York Times ran a story about horses that had been shocked on one of the blocks within the electrified grid. Absurd, Edison Electric responded. The conductors were buried two feet underneath the street, and encased in an iron pipe a quarter of an inch in diameter. Even if the pipe broke, the current would "scatter through the earth" rendering it utterly harmless. Anything could have spooked those horses.

The first test of electric light distributed via a central power station in New York City would go ahead as planned, on September 4, 1882.

On Monday afternoon at 3 p.m. the switch was thrown. Four-­hundred lamps for eighty-­five initial customers came to life, powered by six 27-­ton, exuberantly named dynamos (today called generators). One of those customers was the New York Times. A grateful reporter wrote about working that night by light as "bright as day . . . without a particle of flicker, and with scarcely any heat to make the head ache." The new lights also lit up their rooms without the nauseating smell of the gaslights that electricity replaced. That December, a vice president of Edison's company wrapped his family's Christmas tree with eighty red, white, and blue light bulbs, and placed it on a revolving pine box. As the tree turned, the tiny lights went off and on, creating a "continuous twinkling of dancing colors" for his lucky children, and neighbors who strolled by for a peek inside. Everything, "all the lights and the fantastic tree itself with its starry fruit," which "kept going by the slight electric current brought from the main office on a filmy wire," so delighted a Detroit Post and Tribune reporter who was in New York that he could "hardly imagine anything prettier."

The city itself became a fantastic display as Edison and his competitors raced to illuminate all the streets. An editor visiting from London described the sight: "The effect of the light in the squares of the Empire City can scarcely be described, so weird and so beautiful is it." What some had feared, he saw as magical. "Enormous standards, rising far above the trees, are erected in the centre of each square. From these standards the light is thrown down upon the trees in such a way as to give them a fairy-­like aspect . . . the shadows they cast on the pavement below appear very like living objects."

As time went on, more and more outdoor lamps lit up Manhattan, and by 1884 the "bright, white moonlight effect" could be seen for miles around, a glow that illuminated the city every evening, like a brilliant cloud.

That same year, the City of New York sent tens of thousands of people to Blackwell's Island, a narrow, two-­mile-­long strip in the East River where they'd built a "Lunatic Asylum," an "Almshouse for the Poor," two penal institutions, and over half a dozen hospitals for different classes of inmates. For those who caught an evening glimpse the night before being ferried across, it might have felt like they were being carried away from a radiant future that they would never inhabit. Instead, they were transported into the dank, nauseating, gas-­ and kerosene-­lit past of Blackwell's Island, where they would be swallowed up—the enchanted, incandescent island of Manhattan in fact lost to many of them forever.

Those sent to the prisons, or even the Lunatic Asylum, could at least entertain a hope of one day getting out, assuming they weren't committed during a cholera outbreak which could kill them, or housed with a murderous inmate, who might do the same. But a great number of them, especially the unfortunates sent to the Almshouse, were generally too old or their bodies too broken to hope they would ever return to the bright city again. Their prospect for recovery had been judged so unlikely that someone had written Future Doubtful, or worse, Permanently Dependent, on their application for relief. For them, the Almshouse would be their last stop before death, dissection, and a burial in the potter's field.

Initial planners for Blackwell's would have been mortified at how wretched and deadly conditions there had become. When the island was bought by the city for $32,500 in 1828 (they would end up paying $20,000 more to settle a lawsuit), their goal was to relieve the crowded conditions at Manhattan's Bellevue, which in addition to being a hospital was also the location of the city's Penitentiary, the Lunatic Asylum, an Almshouse for the poor, and the Workhouse, a prison for people convicted of minor crimes. As the city had grown, so had the number of the poor, the lunatic, and the criminal, all of whom had to be treated somewhere when they got sick.

"Why have we not establishments worthy of our city?" an expert they would consult later asked, summing up just what legislators had been thinking at the time. Their 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, installed in their respective institutions, controlled, and finally reformed. The inmates would get all the benefits of modern science and a chance at a future, and except for the employees of the institutions, no one need be troubled about their existence ever again. The island also conveniently had stone quarries that could serve the dual purpose of providing the city with the materials for the buildings, and the prisoners and the poor with a useful occupation: breaking, blasting, and preparing rocks.

Everyone was in high spirits on that promising day when the cornerstone of the first institution was laid. John Stanford, the city's prison chaplain, thanked God for teaching America "how to season justice with mercy," and a confident Mayor William Paulding Jr. told the assembled crowd of guests that their state-­of-­the-­art establishment would "prove an honor to our city." What could be more restorative for the unfortunates of the burgeoning metropolis, it was reasoned, than the peaceful, verdant island in the East River, tucked safely away from vice and crime between two swiftly running channels, surrounded by picturesque sailboats, ferries, and steamers, and the wooded reaches of upper Manhattan and Queens behind them?

Blackwell's Island was an extension of everything the New World offered, poured into 147 acres. 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. On the Island everyone would be tended to in brand-­new institutions with pioneering facilities. Whether they were consigned there for humane punishment, healing or relief, this was America, and here in America we were going to do everything better. The mayor and his fellow dignitaries crossed the river back to Manhattan satisfied that they'd put the largest city of the expanding young country firmly on the path of enlightened reform.


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

He would cross and re-­cross the East River thousands of times, including the day before his last on earth. It was a short journey, less than a quarter of a mile, and it wouldn't give him a lot of time to think. But on his first voyage, as he traveled to Blackwell's Island to begin what would become the most important mission of his life, the Reverend William Glenney French was likely full of the same sense of hope and aspiration that followed the mayor and his fellow officials back to New York City over forty years earlier.

In 1872 New York was exploding with realized potential, and the promise of unimaginable delights still to come, like the blazing electric lights that Edison would bring to light their race to the future. The Metropolitan Museum of Art had opened, immediately putting itself on the world-­museum map by snatching a collection of priceless Cypriot antiquities out of the grasp of curators in France, Russia, and England. "The trustees of American museums are more enterprising," one paper fumed with envy. Businessmen on the Fulton Ferry could watch the daily progress on the Brooklyn Bridge, as laborers and stonemasons got to work on the towers, blasting through old docks, early shipwrecked vessels, anchors and chains. Over at 195 Broadway, Western Union, one of the companies that symbolized all that was thrilling about America, had commenced construction on what would become the first entrant in the architectural race to the skies, a new office building that would reach up ten stories and further by adding a clock tower.

Still, a mission on Blackwell's Island was a potentially lethal assignment. The first Jesuit missionary to go to Blackwell's died after contracting typhoid fever, followed by three more who would also die over the next three years. Anyone could fall. Dr. Moses Ranney, the resident physician of the Lunatic Asylum, and his assistant, Dr. A. Falls Marvin, both died of typhus in 1864. But French was tenacious, with a will as strong as the steel that would soon allow New York to fling itself up into the heavens and across the river as the city completed what was then the world's longest suspension bridge. He never backed down from a challenge.

A few years after his ordination, French was sent to a remote valley in rural North Carolina to establish a monastic community. To get from Manhattan to the sparsely populated region along the Watauga River, he boarded one steamship after another, then several trains, before walking roughly 196 miles alongside a two-­horse wagon from Raleigh to the place they would call Valle Crucis. The next three punishing years were spent digging out and replacing brick from cellar walls, chopping wood, building walks, traveling miles through the mountains to visit his flock, with often only a biscuit and some mush to sustain him, and in a coat he'd made from a discarded blanket.

When the New York Protestant Episcopal City Mission Society offered French the position as a missionary on Blackwell's Island, he didn't hesitate. Two weeks later, and only days after celebrating his fifty-­eighth birthday, Reverend French boarded the ferry at Twenty-­Sixth Street, confident that he would not fail at what he was about to begin, just as certain as the mayor and the city planners had been when they first envisioned what they would build on Blackwell's Island.

The New York City Lunatic Asylum looks so idyllic in early paintings and drawings, and that was exactly what the municipal authorities intended it to be. Before plans for the structure were submitted, a trip was made to an asylum in Philadelphia, now known as the Friends Hospital. Founded by Quakers in 1813, their asylum was based on what came to be known as "moral treatment," which had evolved from reforms begun in England and France, and elsewhere. It was the new scientific approach which New York City aimed to fully embrace.

Insanity was once believed to be due to a lack of faith, or demonic influence and possession, and it was treated by bleeding, starvation, prison cells, and straitjackets. Moral treatment was kinder and more humane, and therapy was focused on the patient's emotional and spiritual needs. There would be no more iron wristlets or leg-­locks or bleedings; instead inmates would be cared for with exercise, self-­esteem-­building work, and amusements. "Never for a moment should it be forgotten, that insanity is a disease," was now the prevailing belief, and if we treat patients like fellow human beings they will respond with humanity.

Moral treatment also dictated the design of the buildings that would house the inmates, reflecting the city planners' faith in classification, institutionalization, and control. Their criteria were often conflicting, however. For instance, they wanted the Asylum to feel more home-­like. It should be set in the country and restful, and "be as little like the Penitentiary as possible." There were to be no more than 250 patients, and each would get their own room with a window and access to a wash closet. But the plan also called for a grand and imposing structure, in order to make the inmates easier to control. A "great show of power," reflected in part by an awesome structure, they believed, would help "in subduing the violence of patients." That sounds a little stressful, and less humane.

Still, it was going to be better than prison, which is where the insane were often sent until 1827, when an "An Act concerning Lunatics" was passed, forbidding the mentally ill from being "confined in any prison, gaol or house of correction, or confined in the same room with any person charged with, or convicted of, any criminal offense."

Accordingly, design elements that had any suggestion of a prison were avoided. Small openings in the doors to the inmate's rooms would no longer be allowed. "To be looked at in this manner like a wild animal, is sufficient to excite the indignation of any one, and there is nothing more calculated to render the lunatic fierce and reckless or the attendant careless and cruel." Sash windows with iron instead of wood surrounding the windowpanes were used instead of bars.

There had also once been an accepted theory that the insane were not affected by variation of temperature, and so proper heating and ventilation had never been a high priority. "The error arose probably," wrote Dr. James Macdonald, an attending physician at the Bloomingdale Asylum who was advising New York's municipal authorities on the design, "from seeing one violent maniac, who generated an extraordinary degree of animal heat, bear and even seek the extremes of cold. Others suffer from cold who have not the intelligence to take cognizance of what causes them to suffer," and so would endure freezing temperatures "without uttering a complaint." This asylum would be properly heated in the winter, and have plenty of windows placed to provide for cross breezes in the summer.

A chapel was also part of the original plan. Most people practiced one form of religion or another, Macdonald reasoned, and "to deprive them of this privilege when removed from home and from the natural objects of their affection, will be to deprive them of one of the few consolations that should be left."

In the end, architect Alexander Jackson Davis was also influenced by the County Asylum at Hanwell in England. The original plan called for a series of wings forming the letter U, but it was eventually scaled back. At first only one wing was built, then two, which came together at right angles to each other, one for the men and one for the women. These two wings met at a fifty-­foot-­high octagon, which served as a central administration building with offices, storerooms, a sewing room, and the home of the resident physician who ran the Asylum. The crenellated patterns along the tops of the outer structures gave the Asylum a castle-­like appearance, creating the imposing air advocated by some—although not Macdonald—who proposed a group of smaller, separate buildings. As planned, the Asylum was built entirely from thousands of tons of stone quarried on the island, a Precambrian rock called Fordham gneiss.

Although Dr. Macdonald reached for a note of realism when presenting his recommendations, it's clear he was confident the asylum on Blackwell's could become a beacon for all the world. "All plans for asylums yet offered or carried into effect, either in this or other countries, are not without defects. Nor do we flatter ourselves that our plan will be faultless, but it will be our endeavor so to profit by all preceding inquiries as to avoid errors and adopt improvements; and above all to adapt our building to its inmates."

But it all went south almost immediately. Only three years after the Lunatic Asylum opened in 1839, Charles Dickens visited and wrote that "everything had a lounging, 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."

The Asylum was doomed by two fatal flaws in the plan. First, the commissioners appointed to manage the institutions on Blackwell's 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 commissioner positions were political appointments and the men weren't necessarily chosen for their expertise. But they hired everyone else who worked on the Island, and made most of the important operational decisions. The wardens, physicians, and superintendents who actually lived and worked on the Island had to appeal to them for all their needs. In the early years the commissioners reported to the Common Council, the legislative branch of New York at the time. Later, they reported to the mayor, who'd taken over making their appointments.

The initial asylum structure was built to accommodate 200 patients, which was within the parameters recommended by all the arbiters of moral treatment at that time. And while the Common Council and the commissioners knew they'd eventually have to provide for a larger population, they thought that would be enough for a while (it was also originally going to be twice the size, with two more wings). But no one really had an accurate sense of just what percentage of the population was, in today's terms, suffering from mental disorders. In 1858 it was estimated it to be .002 percent. Today around 28 percent of Americans suffer from some form of anxiety disorder, an affliction that would have been enough to get you committed in the nineteenth century. On the Asylum's very first day of operation, June 10, 1839, they came right up against their maximum when 197 patients—116 women and 81 men—were transferred from Belle­vue to Blackwell's.

The commissioners immediately started adding additional structures. A Mad House for the most violent and disturbed cases was quickly erected and was so inadequate to the need that inmates were sleeping in the corridors, prompting one of the commissioners appointed to overseeing Blackwell's to call it a "disgrace to the institution." It was replaced in 1848 by a seemingly more humane structure called the Lodge. Then the Retreat was added, likely named after the York Retreat in England, which pioneered moral treatment. The Retreat was built to house chronic cases, those who were suicidal and generally too "noisy" and unhinged for the main Asylum, but not as violent as the people sent to the Lodge. After that, whenever things got really bad they'd throw up smaller shelters they called pavilions. These were installed along the northern shore of the Island and were nothing more than wooden shanties. While they were built to hold fifty of what were designated "quieter" cases, they frequently housed seventy-­five to ninety or more.

The second great flaw was putting the Asylum under the management of the same commissioners who ran the Penitentiary (and later the Workhouse and the Almshouse for the Poor) and then isolating these different populations on the same small island. Although the insane were no longer thrown in prison (mostly), the criminal and the insane still formed one group in people's minds, along with the poor, who were often thought of as defacto "guilty." The arrangement on Blackwell's Island only reinforced this devastating association, which persists to this day. The mentally ill are dangerous and poor people are thieves in disguise.

That tragic relationship was taken literally. To deal with their overcrowding issues, available space within the various institutions was often used interchangeably. When needed, patients from the Lunatic Asylum (including those who were deemed incurable) were moved to the Almshouse or into garrets in the Workhouse; Almshouse inmates were relocated to the Workhouse, and Charity Hospital patients who couldn't be made whole again might end up anywhere except the Penitentiary.

The worst decision to ever come out of this disastrous alliance was to put convicts to work in the Lunatic Asylum as nurses and attendants. It would save the city money, the commissioners reasoned, and as long as they were careful, what could possibly go wrong?

The men actually running the Asylum knew better. One early resident physician, Moses Ranney, pointed out what should have been terribly obvious: "That the same individuals who were committed in the City as criminals, and required an armed keeper in the Penitentiary, were sent here to take charge of a class who require the most mild and soothing treatment." He was ignored.

Ranney didn't give up. Year after year he begged the commissioners to reconsider. He told them how the convicts stole clothes from the patients, and anything else they could get their hands on. One night a particularly vulnerable patient who'd just been admitted found herself cornered in a room with a worker from the Penitentiary who held her down and completely shaved her head. The convict planned to sell her ringlets to a wig maker. "The idea that the citizens of New York could not afford, or were unwilling to have suitable attendants for the insane," Ranney argued, "is ridiculous in the extreme." In reality, the cost for the care of the insane was down to 18 cents a day ($4.88 in today's dollars) and the commissioners were quite proud of that accomplishment, even though it was already clear that this amount wasn't close enough to even feed everyone properly.

In 1848 Ranney took such an audacious step that it's surprising it didn't cost him his job. He invited Thomas Story Kirkbride to tour the Asylum. Kirkbride was the superintendent of the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane, a founder of the Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions for the Insane (AMSAII), and the preeminent authority and proponent of moral treatment in the United States.


  • “In her fine new book . . . Stacy Horn lucidly, and not without indignation, documents the island’s bleak history, detailing the political and moral failures that sustained this hell, failures still evident today in the prison at Rikers Island.”
    —The New York Times Book Review

    “Fast moving and entrenched in detail . . . History buffs will be terrified by what occurred [at Blackwell’s Island] a century ago.”

    “Horn creates a vivid and at times horrifying portrait of Blackwell’s Island (today’s Roosevelt Island) in New York City’s East River during the late 19th century . . . Horn has created a bleak but worthwhile depiction of institutional failure, with relevance for persistent debates over the treatment of the mentally ill and incarcerated.”
    —Publishers Weekly

    “This is an essential—and heartbreaking—book for readers seeking to better understand contemporary public policy.”
    —Booklist, starred review

    "[A] fascinating look at a piece of nearly forgotten New York City history—one that will make you thankful for modern conveniences."
    Mental Floss (Best Books of 2018)

    “Horn engagingly explores a history that, perhaps surprisingly, extended into the 1960s.”
    —Kirkus Reviews

    “Having reviewed a seemingly endless array of archival materials, Horn brings this subject to light in stunning detail. Readers will instantly see how this history continues to haunt us, as the boundaries between the four classes of people on the island (the poor, the mad, the sick and the criminal) are, in the public imagination, as blurred as ever.”
    “Teeter-tottering between a history textbook and a murder mystery, Stacy Horn's Damnation Island is fast moving and entrenched in detail . . . What's even more horrifying—it's all real . . . These days, the island is a residential community dotted with scenic parks and landmarks. But history buffs will be terrified by what occurred there a century ago.”
    Brianne KaneforBUST
     “A stunning examination of bureaucracy gone wrong, and the evolution of the place we now call Roosevelt Island.”

    “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.”
    The Washington Book Review
    “Stacy Horn's history of Blackwell’s Island is a shocking tale, and an invaluable account that will reward anyone with an interest in the history of New York.”
    Simon Baatz, New York Times bestselling author of For the Thrill of It and The Girl on the Velvet Swing
    “Through a wealth of harrowing anecdotes and fascinating case-studies, Damnation Island tells the real story of how America has treated its poor, its tired, and its huddled masses: with petty cruelty, often in the name of Christian charity. A gripping and compelling read.”    
    Mikita Brottman, author of The Maximum Security Book Club
    “Riveting. Horn brings alive this forgotten history, and her extraordinary book has far-reaching significance not only for the past but for the future.”
    Jan Jarboe Russell, best-selling author of The Train to Crystal City

    “At Blackwell’s, the inmates really were running the asylum. An important piece of history in public medicine, Damnation Island weaves a compelling narrative with threads of thorough research and realism.”                 
    Julie Holland, M.D., author of Weekends at Bellevue

    “A riveting, character-driven dive into 19th-century New York and the extraordinary history of Blackwell’s Island. Stacy Horn has an uncanny knack for making history come alive.”
    Laurie Gwen Shapiro, author of The Stowaway: A Young Man’s Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica

    “Blackwell’s Island’s descent into darkness is chronicled with clarity and conscience by master-story-teller Stacy Horn. No one who has taken that journey with her will return the same.”                                                   
    Teresa Carpenter, Pulitzer Prize-winner and editor of New York Diaries: 1609 to 2009

    “New York’s Victorian-era reformers had an idea: to isolate the city’s indigent, diseased, mentally ill, and delinquent on an island in the East River, where they could be cared for with competence and compassion. Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out that way. Stacy Horn is the perfect Virgil for this chilling, vivid, and enthralling journey through the Inferno that was 19th-century Blackwell’s Island.” 
    Gary Krist, author of Empire of Sin

    “Revelatory. What occurred during the 19th and early 20th centuries in the prisons, hospitals, and insane asylum on the New York City spit of land that is now home to the fashionable Roosevelt Island constitutes the stuff of nightmares.”
    Steve Weinberg, author of Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller

    “More than a diligent expose, Damnation Island presents a cautionary tale for what could happen even now, informing and educating in a way that urges us toward humbling self-reflection.”
    Katherine Ramsland, author of Confession of a Serial Killer  
    “Blackwell’s Island and its troubled history haunt New York City. Who better to delve into its many-layered secrets than one of America’s foremost storytellers, Stacy Horn.”      
    Philip Dray, author ofAt the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America

On Sale
May 15, 2018
Page Count
320 pages
Algonquin Books

Stacy Horn

About the Author

Stacy Horn is the author of five previous 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.

Learn more about this author