Thursday, May 31, 2018

Book Review: Damnation Island

Author: Stacy Horn
Publication Date: May 15, 2018
Publisher: Algonquin Books

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.

It can easily be said that I am OBSESSED with the popular TV show, Gotham.I am in love with the darkness that haunts its streets and citizens. So, when I picked up Damnation Island, I know that I had thoughts of Gothamin mind. Stacy Horn takes readers on a journey to what was known then as Blackwell’s Island. Horn sets out to educate readers about the almshouse and workhouse, its various hospitals, its lunatic asylum and penitentiary, and how they were built to provide the poor social services of every stripe. 

Stacy Horn takes us on a horrific trip, institution by institution, where we witness the poor and insane metaphorically and quite literally beaten down by these asylums that set out to do anything but help the poor, vagrant citizens of New York’s streets. Doctors operated without orders, physical and psychological harm was done to these patients, they nearly starved to death, and really the insanity was quarantined instead of being cured. Horn writes about a rich history that is not an easy one to read, but is completely stimulating for the mind and lovers of history like me.

Stories of people locked up in insane asylums against their will have always held a particular fascination with the public.

There were cruel nurses in her account, too, and stories so over the top her report reads like a script for a horror movie.

The women on the Island would have to wait until the state once again felt compelled to intervene and finally take a step for which many had been crying for decades.

This was such a satisfying look into the past of insane asylums. Stacy Horn’s account is thorough and tremendously research. If and when I read non-fiction, it has to be extremely interesting in order to hold my attention for that long. This book did not disappoint me, although hard to stomach at times. I now feel like I can watch Gotham and truly understand the past behind places like Arkham!

***A free copy of this book was provided to me by the publishers at Algonquin Books in exchange for my honest review***

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