The Best of Intentions: Damnation Island

December 11, 2018

It was standing room only at the Roosevelt Island branch of the New York Public Library Thursday night, as Islanders braved below freezing temperatures to hear Stacy Horn talk about Damnation Island, her book that spans a particularly depressing 60-year period of Island history. The lecture was hosted by the the Roosevelt Island Historical Society.


The book starts in 1839, with the founding of the New York City Lunatic Asylum (which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972, after which it was restored and built out into the Octagon building in 2006). As with many policy initiatives, high hopes and conviction surrounded the project, which aimed to ease overcrowding at Bellevue Hospital. By the book's end, it is clear that its premise – that the mentally ill, those convicted of felonies, and poor people should be segregated together, away from everyone else, and forced to suffer similar fates – was disastrously wrong. Ultimately the book serves as the origin story to some of the societal problems we are still trying to solve today.


From Noble Beginnings


With good intentions, Roosevelt Island is purchased by the City from the Blackwell family for $32,500 in 1828 to relieve crowding at Bellevue Hospital. The Lunatic Asylum opens in 1839. The goal is to move the sick, the mad, and the punishable to a “lush pastoral Island, thick with fruit trees” – our very own Roosevelt Island. The belief is that the environment will soothe, heal and rehabilitate. A penitentiary breaks ground on the Island in 1829, and an almshouse, workhouse, and numerous charity hospitals are built during the course of that century.


 A drawing of the Lunatic Asylum with the Octagon rotunda visible in the middle


Within three years, however, all bets are off. When author Charles Dickens visits the Island in 1842, he reports on the horrible conditions and expresses how painful just being there as witness is for him.


Turnover among the physicians is fast and frequent, and ultimately, Horn says, convicted felons from the nearby penitentiary are employed as nurses. Of all of the institutions on the Island, the lunatic asylum had the highest mortality rate, even higher than the hospital. She says 40-50,000 people were sent to Blackwell’s every year, with a daily population of around 7,000. Somewhere between 80% and 100% of the infants and children born or brought here died.


The City grossly underestimated the sizes of the populations they expected to serve on the Island, and the cost. Horn explains that by 1880, 8.4% of the entire population of the City was being treated at the lunatic asylum.


Abandoned and Abused


In 1880, after hearing hours of testimony adding up to 900 pages, the Senate concludes an investigation into the conditions at Blackwell without making a single recommendation for change. Forgoing traditional testimony, one witness, 28-year old Dr. Edward C. Spitzka, read hospital accident reports into the record, revealing a very violent population and a staff more interested in keeping patients contained, (in what they call cribs but are really body length cages), than in helping them in any way. Some were strapped to chairs or put under other types of restraints. Sick and injured patients were not sent to the hospital after being attacked, and often died of injuries.


The main source in the book is Episcopal missionary Rev. William Glenney French, who Horn describes as “my hero.” French took very detailed notes of the conditions there, including what he saw and heard. He visited all of the institutions on the Island daily in the same order, and the book is structured in that order, institution after institution.


Despite being threatened - the commissioners attempt to ban French from the Island, arguing his service was at their pleasure and his role solely to serve as spiritual advisor – he testified that isolating these people far away on an Island left them to the mercy of nurses and attendants who abused them. Patients who complained were not believed and were later punished even more cruelly by the very nurses whose abuse motivated their complaints.


Charity Hospital


A Prison for the Poor


Researching the penitentiary section was a “real revelation of the criminal justice system,” said Horn, explaining that, “Wealthy people just don’t go to prison – only poor people.” For at least a 20-year period she says there were more women imprisoned here than men. Most of them were sent to the workhouse for disorderly conduct which could have consisted of making a scene or causing trouble in public; “In practice, [disorderly conduct] means whatever the police want it to mean.” She said back then women and people of Irish descent bore the wrath of those arrests and that now disorderly conduct is used against black people in exactly the same way.


The penitentiary held arsonists, female murderers, and others convicted of felonies, including children aged 14 and below. There were records of six-year olds being detained, and “a lot of eight-year olds,” said Horn.


Ultimately there were 25 institutions built on five islands - Roosevelt Island, Randall’s Island, Ward’s Island, Manhattan, and Hart Island. The institutions were controlled by three men, comprising what was called the Department of Public Charities and Prisons, who Horn says were appointed based upon political connections not skills. “Their power is hard to exaggerate.”


Today’s equivalent would be if three people controlled operations and employment at all of the City’s penal institutions, City hospitals, and the City Department of Human Resources and Social Services. “Putting convicts and people getting charity together created an association that persists today,” said Horn.


The book ends in 1895, with the purchase of Riker’s Island. At that point the City opted to separate corrections from charities and Blackwell’s Island later became Welfare Island, ushering in the Island’s next phase. The Lunatic Asylum was renamed Metropolitan Hospital and became a general hospital, with special emphasis on the treatment of tubercular patients. In 1939, Goldwater Memorial Hospital, a chronic care facility, opened with almost a thousand beds in seven buildings.Thirteen years later, Bird S. Coler Hospital, another chronic care facility, opened, and three years after Coler Hospital's opening, Metropolitan Hospital moved to Manhattan, leaving the Lunatic Asylum buildings abandoned. The people in the Almshouse were moved to Staten Island.


Welfare Island, pre-Tram and subway. See Goldwater Hospital's chevron shaped buildings on the south end. 


Horn says she came here about three years ago armed with the vague sense that bad things happened here in the nineteenth century. She pitched a book idea to her publisher about a little boy wandering around Manhattan who ended up here, then called Blackwell’s Island. Her publisher said the Blackwell’s Island parts of the pitch sounded the most interesting.


"How Far We Haven't Come"


In an interesting tie to today, the City was armed with plans and rationale when they built all of those institutions here in the mid-1800’s. Now the City is going in a new direction, promoting a New York City based tech hub. Land earmarked for affordable housing will go to Amazon and there are rumors of Coler Hospital, a City hospital, closing. Another City hospital, Goldwater, has already closed to make way for Cornell Tech.


After the financial crisis hit in 2008, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg pushed initiatives to make the New York economy less dependent on finance and championed tech programs and education. In the former case, innovation – putting poor people, the mentally ill, and prisoners together – became a problem that needed to be solved; sometimes today’s solutions are tomorrow’s problems.


“At the time they bought Riker’s Island” said Horn, “They were planning not to repeat those mistakes. It’s depressing to see how bad Riker’s ended up and how far we haven’t come,” said Horn.


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