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Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, & Criminal in 19th-Century New York

3.64  ·  Rating details ·  1,691 ratings  ·  249 reviews
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, a ...more
Hardcover, 284 pages
Published May 15th 2018 by Algonquin Books
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Average rating 3.64  · 
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 ·  1,691 ratings  ·  249 reviews

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Diane S ☔
Sep 29, 2018 rated it really liked it
A true to life horror story. I guess you could say, well, that's in the past, but is it really? Blackwell Island, New York, four institutions built to shelter, the poor, the mad, the sick or the mad, supposedly compassionately. Almst from the beginning this did not work, not enough money, doctors, supplies, criminals providing care for the insane, you can imagine how that worked out. Charles Dickens touring the facility was beyond appalled, the smells, the noises, lack of care, thought he had to ...more
mindful.librarian ☀️
Thanks to Algonquin Books for this free review copy!

OH MY GOODNESS. This book was a total binge read for me - I received it in the mail on Saturday, picked it up to read Sunday night at 7:30 and finished it by 1:30 on Monday afternoon. And then I proceeded to spend WAY too long online looking at any pictures I could find of Blackwell's Island (today Roosevelt Island) and the structures/people/interiors/EVERYTHING. I'm absolutely fascinated with medical history and NYC history, and this book is a
Jul 06, 2018 rated it it was amazing
In 1828, New York City purchased a small island. Located in the East River, Blackwell Island was the perfect location for a new asylum. At first, the plans were for a humane facility to help the mentally ill, indigent and criminal elements in the city. They estimated the number of mentally ill in the city to be less than .5% and planned an initial structure to house 200 people. The mentally ill and criminals would never be housed together and the facility might be able to help some of the chroni ...more
May 30, 2018 rated it it was amazing
An alarming, heartbreaking history of the handling of poor, ill, convicts, vagrants, and child criminals in NY City starting in the mid 19th century. Several locations are documented, with the focus mainly on the place known today as Roosevelt Island.

As a native New Yorker who held only the mildest curiosity about the tram sliding back and forth above the East River and seeing road and train signs to Roosevelt Island, I'd only ever heard vague whispers of that place's dismal past. Well, the bli
Marilyn Katz
Mar 14, 2018 rated it really liked it
I was lucky enough to win a copy of this book from Goodreads. This is an important book for several reasons. It tells the sad and very political story of what became Roosevelt Island in New York City and it tells, through some grim historical accounts, the mistreatment of this city's poor and mentally ill in the 19th century. How many misconceptions and poor treatment practices are in place today? Although this is not an upbeat and pleasant topic, it is an important one and this book should be r ...more
May 09, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Interesting, sad look into the sad residents of early NY incarceration (criminal and "insane") facilities.
Jill Hutchinson
This book started out with a bang as the author set the stage for the description of the treatment of the poor, criminal, and mentally ill in NYC in the late 19th century.

Blackwell Island (now Roosevelt Island) located on the East River across from Manhattan was the site of detention of the "unworthy" and contained five buildings to house them: the Lunatic Asylum, the Workhouse, the Almshouse, the Hospital for the Poor, and the Penitentiary. The administration of these facilities was under the s
David Beatty
Apr 25, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This book is a well written and well researched on the horrors of the past. It is not light bedside reading, it is a great read for anybody interested in learning about the history of Roosevelt Island at this time.
Geraldine Kelly
Jun 12, 2018 rated it really liked it
I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway.

As a New Yorker who has explored some of the ruins that could be found on what is now called Roosevelt Island, I was always interested in the stories of the island. Home to several hospitals as well as a prison in the 19th Century, then Blackwell Island was used as a place to banish the poor. Conditions in the hospitals for the insane were horrid, as documented by Nellie Bly at the time.

Her account and many others are included in this well researched,
Sarah Furger
May 07, 2018 rated it really liked it
Solidly researched and well constructed history of Blackwell’s Island. Horn pulls no punches - this is a nasty slice of American history. While it is extremely dark and unpleasant, it is certainly something 21st century Americans should consider when looking at our current correctional and mental health care systems...
Jun 11, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Fascinating read. At times this book can be quite depressing, but it does a great job of telling about the lives of those that tried to improve the conditions on the island. I cannot believe how horribly people were treated in the late 1800s.
Book received from NetGalley.

Review to come.
Katie B
I've read a couple of historical fiction books that have had storylines loosely based on the Blackwell Island Asylum so I was interested in finding out the history behind it. Even though the place closed well over 100 years ago, your blood boils as you read about everything that went on there. It's absolutely appalling.

The book is well-researched but I wasn't a big fan of the writing. The facts were there but the book as a whole just didn't have a cohesive flow to it and felt disjointed. I'm gl
Jun 07, 2018 rated it really liked it
A chilling account of the infamous Blackwell’s Island. Set within viewing distance of glittering Manhattan, Blackwell Island was home to a lunatic asylum, two prisons, an almshouse, and a number of hospitals. Built in the 19th century and touted as the most humane and modern facilities, it quickly became a house of horrors for the unfortunates incarcerated there. Stacy Horn brings the long-dead voices of its inhabitants to life in tis investigative report.
Rhonda Lomazow
Apr 18, 2018 rated it really liked it
A sad at times heartbreaking revealing look at how we treated the mentally ill first locking them up in horrible conditions then throwing them out on to the streets.A harrowing look at a horrible time in our history.All students of history should read this,
May 16, 2018 rated it really liked it
Though we all know how awful many if not most mental health facilities were, even into the 20th century, this book was a revelation.
In the 1800’s, Blackwell’s Island, now Roosevelt Island in New York’s East River, was home to a lunatic asylum, prisons, hospitals, poor houses and work houses. All built with the greatest of intentions, but all ending as abominations. From over-crowding, physical abuses, and utter disregard for sanitary practices, these buildings meant to protect, rehabilitate,
Oct 11, 2018 rated it it was ok
Shelves: history
Apart from booking a flight, we rarely consider New York City from a geographic perspective. This internationally-renowned metropolis does not often bring to mind the image of islands scattered like so many glacially-deposited game pieces on a field of Atlantic blue. We're aware, of course, of the isle of Manhattan. And Long Island, and Staten. And if we take an instant we can call to mind Ellis Island, Fire Island, Riker's Island, and Liberty. There are, in fact, dozens of which sits ...more
♥ Sandi ❣
4 stars

There is a 2 mile strip of land just off New York City's shoreline. Currently known as Roosevelt's Island, when it was purchased in 1828 it was named Blackwell's Island.

The first building built on the Island was the Penitentiary in 1832. The original building was to be 240 cells, but before completion it had grown to 496 cells. Then one man cells had to house two men. Another 240 cells were added. Still not enough. The prison ballooned to 865 prisoners and continued to climb. There were
L.M. Ransom
I don't read a lot of nonfiction work; if I do, it's usually about horses or airplanes. Every once in a while a title comes across in the Book Pages magazine we get at the library that looks intriguing - such was the case with this particular book.

From the get-go, it's an interesting read, but it's also depressing. The book is divided into different sections that deal with the different types of groups situated on Blackwell's Island. The first section is about the "lunatic" asylum buildings an
Michael Kearney
Jun 10, 2018 rated it really liked it
This thoroughly researched book examines the states administration of mental health and other services to the poor. Somethings just don't change. While well intentioned the actual care for the mentally ill has been a disaster. The conditions described were hard to read. Taking a bath in water that was used by others gives one the idea of just how bad off anyone sentenced to Blackwell Island had to endure. Really, how much could a tub of clean water have cost? I wish there would have been more ph ...more
Mar 29, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: first-reads
This book gives a look at what life was like for the poor, insane and criminals sent to Blackwell's Island in New York City during the 1800's. The best parts were the stories of actual people like Sister Mary Stanislaus and Adelaide irving. The hero of the book was the Rev. William French who spent his life ministering to the poor souls on the island.
victor harris
Aug 29, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: american-history
You will need a strong stomach to tolerate the depravity, cruelty, and sadism that marked the treatment of criminals and the insane in one of NY's most infamous settings. Whatever reforms that were introduced proved to be piecemeal as powerful political forces controlled the institutions and their membership was largely indifferent to the squalid conditions and despicable abuse of the inmates. The corruption contaminated the entire law enforcement and judiciary system which fed the incarceration ...more
Jun 07, 2018 rated it really liked it
Extremely interesting of NY and Blackwell Island and a reflection of what was happening all over the country at that time. The author has so much work in this book. Well done
Peter F
Jun 09, 2018 rated it really liked it
A quick read on the history of a piece of NYC that no longer serves its original purpose.

And an honest view of the impacts of good intentions that aren't matched by actions.
Mar 31, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Horrifying. How did we go from locking up everyone who is mentally ill to just letting them roam the streets homeless. A shocking reflection on how the mentally ill have been and ARE treated.
BAM The Bibliomaniac
Audio #144

Well-written microhistory
Focus on late 19th century
All topics in title are discussed
Renee Ortenzio
Jun 17, 2018 rated it really liked it
Horrifying. A sad reminder of how we treated the mentally ill, elderly, and poor. And really, how they are still treated.
Terry Pearson
Mar 22, 2018 rated it liked it
I won a free copy of this book in a on Goodreads.


Roosevelt Island ( NEE Blackwell Island ) was originally purchased in the 19th century to house facilities created to tuck away the insane, the ill, the indigent, and the criminals from the general public. The injustice bestowed on the island's inhabitants is nothing short of cringe-worthy .

Descriptive, horrific yet oddly fascinating. A damn good piece of history.
Peter (Pete) Mcloughlin
Roosevelt Island was the last stop before death for the underclass. It was the end of the line for NYC poor. Once your mind or body fell apart or you ran afoul of the authorities which can include things like disorderly conduct a crime that is fit to the discretion of a police officer's whim you were sent to hell just before death. It included a workhouse, an almshouse, a lunatic asylum, and penitentiary. The underclass could pick their poison for a ticket to oblivion. The conditions were squal ...more
Feb 08, 2018 rated it really liked it
To my surprise, this is the second of Horn's books that I finished reading. Didn't realize until later that she also authored The Restless Sleep: Inside New York City's Cold Case Squad , another history/true crime book that I previously read.

Though the topics are different between the two books, I think The Restless Sleep is a more engaging read because Horn incorporates herself into the book by interviewing related parties, whereas Damnation Island edges towards a scholarly retelling told th
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I've just finished up my sixth non-fiction book. It's about Blackwell’s Island, now called Roosevelt Island. In the 19th century, management of New York City’s poor, insane, and lawless were thrown together and warehoused on the same narrow, two-mile-long island in the East River. It didn’t go well.(Algonquin Books, 2018).

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