May 2018

Stacy Horn

A harrowing past

In Damnation Island, Stacy Horn explores the horrific past of a small island in New York City’s East River, where the “criminally insane” were imprisoned in the 19th century.

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In Damnation Island, Stacy Horn explores the horrific past of a small island in New York City’s East River, where the “criminally insane” were imprisoned in the 19th century.

How did Blackwell’s Island capture your attention and inspire you to write this book?
I had a vague awareness that the island had a dark past—that something terrible had happened there—but I didn’t know the details. This is irresistible to me. A horrific but forgotten story? I had to recover it.

You researched so many individuals for this book—can you briefly share one story that you find the most affecting?
Adelaide Irving, a mixed-up, headstrong 15-year-old who was sent to the penitentiary for two years for her first offense: picking someone’s pocket. It was an outrageous sentence, and she never recovered. She was dead by the time she turned 23. They buried her in a convict-built coffin on a hill. I was once a mixed-up, headstrong 15-year-old, and I was acting out in all sorts of ways. But I come from a background of relative privilege. There are million safety nets for people like me, and people like me don’t usually go to jail. It was true in the 19th century, it was true in the 20th, and it’s still true now.

Blackwell’s Island was founded with very positive intentions. How and why did things go so far awry?
They wanted to save money. To reduce overhead, they starved the inmates, didn’t properly clothe or house them, and instead of hiring paid nurses and attendants, the administrators employed convicts from the workhouse to look after the inmates in the lunatic asylum and other institutions on the island. (The workhouse was a prison for people convicted of minor crimes.) It was not a secret. The abuses on Blackwell’s Island were regularly reported in the papers, and grand juries would visit and issue damning reports. Priests attending to the spiritual needs of the inmates would alert their superiors. But nothing ever happened. I recognize this paralysis. There isn’t a day that I don’t hear about some horrible miscarriage of justice in America. If I pay attention to the papers and my Twitter feed, I’m reading about fresh new cases every few minutes. We all are. And just what are most of us doing about it? Why is extreme injustice allowed to continue?

What did undercover reporters find when they visited the island?
To use an expression of Emma Goldman, an anarchist who was sent to the penitentiary, they found patients who were “legally murdered,” either by the lack of food, improper hygiene, careless attendants, murderous roommates or by succumbing to lethal epidemics. Police courts would continue to send people to the island even when they knew there was an active disease outbreak.

In what way does the history of Blackwell Island continue to haunt us—either in terms of contemporary New York City or in terms of misguided ideas about the relationship between mental illness and crime?
By throwing the poor, the mad and the convicted altogether on one narrow island they unwittingly reinforced a devastating association which persists to this day. That the mentally ill are dangerous and poor people are thieves in disguise. The priest featured in my book wrote, “The dark shadow of crime spreads right and left, from the Penitentiary and the Workhouse, over all the institutions, the Asylum, the Alms-House and Charity Hospital, so that, in the minds of the people at large, all suffer alike from an evil repute. . . .” Being poor had become a character trait that needed “correction,” like the impulse to steal or cheat. If they were poor it was due to their own moral failing and laziness. The Christian impulse to help the needy had been tamped down and replaced with an inclination to punish them.  

There were so many aspects of Blackwell’s Island that inspire disgust—the food, the shelter, the hygiene, the quickness with which disease spread. What do you think was the worst aspect for those living there?
I always go back to what could I have withstood. Have you ever had an anxiety or panic attack, or suffered from depression? Imagine that instead of kindness you’re thrown into a chair, strapped in so you can’t move or get up, and you have to stay there hour after hour, all day long, without talking, and if you go to the bathroom in your chair because no one will unstrap you, an attendant will likely come along and beat you or drag you to a tub of used bathwater and hold your head under until you’re near death. People could do whatever they wanted to these helpless inmates because they were out of the public eye on this now off-limits island. It’s the same today. Look how long it took people to acknowledge that what goes on in the facilities on Rikers Island is immoral, and to start talking about change. I cried reading a Justice Department report of what happened to teenagers on Rikers Island. What they describe has been going on for centuries. What took us so long?

Why did the people who suffered from the abuses of Blackwell’s Island so rarely have a chance to be heard by people in authority?
I read through a 900-page report from a Senate investigation of the conditions inside asylums in New York. In all those pages there was not one single testimony from an inmate. It’s hard for the poor, the mentally ill and the convicted to have a voice and to be heard and not dismissed today. It was almost impossible then.

Who are the heroes of Blackwell’s Island, if there are any? 
Even though most did not succeed in effecting change, I came across many wardens who tried. They showed up every week, day after day, doing what they could. I don’t know if I could have faced inmates crying to me for help, inmates dying, knowing that so much of their suffering was preventable. I think it would have destroyed me. But they showed up.  

What do you hope readers take away from this book?
I didn’t want to force it down anyone’s throats, but I hope people pick up on the fact that in many ways the same things, and worse, are taking place today. The idea that some people are unworthy and they have all these terrible things coming to them is still prevalent, as is the conviction that the poor are entirely responsible for their financial struggles and that we should not help them.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Damnation Island.

Get the Book

Damnation Island

Damnation Island

By Stacy Horn
ISBN 9781616205768

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