Today it is known as Roosevelt Island. In 1828, when New York City purchased this narrow, two-mile-long island in the East River, it was called Blackwell’s Island. There, over the next hundred years, the city would send its insane, indigent, sick, and criminal. Told through the gripping voices of Blackwell’s inhabitants, as well as the period’s city officials, reformers, and journalists (including the famous Nellie Bly), Stacy Horn has crafted a compelling and chilling narrative.
Damnation Island recreates what daily life was like on the island, what politics shaped it, and what constituted charity and therapy in the nineteenth century. Throughout the book, we return to the extraordinary Blackwell’s missionary Reverend French, champion of the forgotten, as he ministers to these inmates, battles the bureaucratic mazes of the Corrections Department and a corrupt City Hall, testifies at salacious trials, and in his diary wonders about man’s inhumanity to man.
For history fans, and for anyone interested in the ways we care for the least fortunate among us, Damnation Island is an eye-opening look at a closed and secretive world. With a tale that is exceedingly relevant today, Horn shows us how far we’ve come—and how much work still remains.
Published May 15, 2018
I received this book in exchange for my honest review.
This book is a sad, sad reflection of how low human nature can go when addressing treatment of the insane, poor and criminally charged during the 1800s that truly will make you cringe.
Well researched and documented, professionally laid out in details that are horrifically heart-wrenching. The author did a very good job at reconstructing the unfortunate past of what is today called Roosevelt Island. When reading about such historical places, you sometimes wish people would learn from their mistakes and not repeat them as is the purpose of studying the past, but the more and more put out there, people seem to never learn.
The conditions of care in the number of hospitals that were erected throughout history on the Island, and the way people with mental illnesses were treated… it’s hard to believe that we have evolved at all. Even when it was a prison… I think how the author laid out each era and showed without pulling punches just how low humans can sink with their treatment of others less fortunate or ill was done with expert precision and the end results being as sharp as a doctor’s scalpel. The events listed in “Damnation Island’s” pages will cut you to the bone.
It is a fast-paced read, but you’ll want a break or two from its contents. The author’s voice will hold your attention until you finish the last page at which time, I’m certain you’ll shake your head and pause for reflection.
Stacy Horn did a fantastic job.
I gave this book: