STARRED REVIEW
May 2018

A history of horrors

By Stacy Horn

Stacy Horn opens Damnation Island with a description of the advent of electricity on the streets of New York in the late 19th century. She contrasts this mystical wonder, which enchanted people and gave them a feeling of eternal progress, with the stagnation experienced just a short boat ride away. Blackwell’s Island, now known as Roosevelt Island, was—simply put—a hellscape.

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Stacy Horn opens Damnation Island with a description of the advent of electricity on the streets of New York in the late 19th century. She contrasts this mystical wonder, which enchanted people and gave them a feeling of eternal progress, with the stagnation experienced just a short boat ride away. Blackwell’s Island, now known as Roosevelt Island, was—simply put—a hellscape.

Purchased by the city in 1828 with the best of intentions, the island soon harbored an almshouse, an insane asylum, a hospital, a prison and a workhouse along its narrow two-mile strip. Proponents imagined a pastoral landscape where charity and punishment were doled out in equal measure, but from its outset, it was a site of barely contained chaos. The Gothic-style structures were instantly overcrowded, and shacks sprang up to accommodate the overflow. Heating and ventilation were nonexistent, disease ran rampant, and the established budgets didn’t even begin to cover the actual cost of feeding and caring for the various populations of each facility. Over the next 100 years, mayhem ensued, with wrongly admitted patients, death by murder and disease, inedible food and unspeakably dirty bathing water.

With chapters that feature the sordid history of each institution on the island, Horn’s book is populated by all the characters you might expect in such a story: idealistic social reformers, clueless judges, abused patients, incompetent doctors and caring but powerless priests. 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.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our Q&A with Stacy Horn about Damnation Island.

This article was originally published in the May 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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Damnation Island

Damnation Island

By Stacy Horn
Algonquin
ISBN 9781616205768

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