• CMTU History

Episode #3: Damnation Island

Updated: Oct 28, 2018

How do we treat the poor? It's an open-ended question that our country wrestled with a century ago and one it still wrestles with today. For most of the 1800s, New York City addressed this issue by ferrying large numbers of its poor and mentally ill across the East River to a horrific place called Blackwell's Island, a tragically underfunded and grossly mismanaged institution for the city's so-called "undesirables."

My guest on the show today is Stacy Horn, who is the author six nonfiction books including Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing with Others, Unbelievable: Investigations into Ghosts, Poltergeists, Telepathy, and Other Unseen Phenomena from the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory and The Restless Sleep: Inside New York City's Cold Case Squad. Her work has received starred reviews from both Kirkus and Publisher's Weekly Over the years Stacy has produced pieces for the NPR show, "All Things Considered," including the 1945 story of five missing children in West Virginia, the Vatican’s search for a patron saint of the internet, and an overview of cold case investigation in the United States. Stacy also founded the New York City-based social network Echo.

Her latest book is Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad & Criminal in 19th Century New York and she joined the podcast this week to share her research.

Key Points in Today's Podcast

Some of the major topics I discuss with Stacy in this episode are:

  • the creation of Blackwell's Island as a repository for New York City's poor, mentally ill, and sick

  • how reprehensibly inmates at Blackwell's Island lunatic asylum were treated

  • Nellie Bly's undercover investigation of the hellish conditions in the lunatic asylum

  • conceptions of "worthy" and "unworthy" poverty during the Victorian Era

  • the loose standards of due process in the 19th century justice system

  • comparisons between the mass incarceration of the poor in the 1800s and that of today

Personal Reflections

In the last few minutes of the podcast, Stacy made an insightful point in which she tried not to blame 19th century New Yorkers for allowing the horrors of Blackwell's Island to happen. She recognized (wisely) that the people of the time were not all that dissimilar from us and looking around at the political and social issues that dominated their world with as much a feeling of anxiety and helplessness as we do today. While we may read of the tragedies that occurred on Blackwell's Island and find them unbelievable and shocking, and rightfully so, I think we need to remember that our generation is not immune from committing very similar injustices against our fellow human beings. Our society may not be staffing our mental health facilities with prisoners, but we have yet to fully tackle all kinds of issues that future historians will look back on us with just as much disbelief as we exhibit towards these stories.

History, particularly the uncomfortable dark history like this, needs to be read and acknowledged as a warning for what not to repeat and a challenge to be better. Damnation Island was difficult to read at times, but I am grateful that Stacy Horn put in as much effort as she did into researching this project. What happened to the people on Blackwell's Island deserves to be shared because sadly at the time no one was listening.

For the Ever Curious

If you are interested in learning more about this topic, consider checking out these resources:

www.stacyhorn.com - For more information about Stacy Horn (or her cats) and her work, as well as her upcoming speaking schedule, check out her personal website and blog.

Nellie Bly's Ten Days in a Madhouse - This is such an quick read at only 100 pages and extremely worthwhile. The things Nellie Bly witnessed during her stay at Blackwell's Island are both sad and disturbing. However, it is important to understand the conditions on Blackwell's Island in order to fully appreciate the reforms that came in the 20th century.

© 2018 by Can't Make This Up History Podcast.

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