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

3.69  ·  Rating details ·  234 Ratings  ·  55 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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Kate Olson
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
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
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 09, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Interesting, sad look into the sad residents of early NY incarceration (criminal and "insane") facilities.
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 it was amazing
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,
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.
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...
Book received from NetGalley.

Review to come.
Kalendra Dee
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,
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 and
Jun 24, 2018 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: ebook, non-fiction
The title of this book leaves nothing to the imagination. It is exactly as it suggests: an account of the lunatic asylums, penatenturies and workhouses, mostly located on Blackwell’s Island, in 19th-century New York. While ultimately disturbing and disheartening, there were no facts beyond what I was expecting: deplorable conditions, illtreatment of patients and inmates, and a handful of in-depth looks at some of the most notoriously inhumane perpetrators who took neglect to the extreme. Unfortu ...more
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Mar 23, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: adult
A good source of information if you are doing research about this place. Engaging? No, but I don't think it is supposed to be; it is just a recount of history. I personally didn't enjoy it because I am not interested in the subject, but I do recognize its information and historical value.
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 thro
Jun 13, 2018 rated it really liked it
It was very good, though a sad book. A little to political and a few points for my liking but over all a excellent book
Mar 16, 2018 rated it it was ok
This book discusses the history of the many facilities on New York’s notorious Blackwell’s Island: lunatic asylum, almshouse, workhouse, penitentiary, and charity hospital primarily for treating venereal disease. The treatment was abysmally cruel, and there was an odd echo of some current philosophies rejecting help for those deemed lazy and parasitic rather than those considered the “deserving poor.”
Todd Stockslager
Jun 30, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
Review title: Are there no poorhouses?

Horn has written an American horror story: The history of Blackwell's (now known as Roosevelt) Island in the harbor of New York City and its use in the 1800s for punishing, curing, or correcting poverty, disability, and criminality. In those days, in fact not that far removed from our own more enlightened time, there was seen no need to separate the institutionalization of these groups of people, so in fact for much of the century all of the institutions on
Jun 14, 2018 rated it it was ok
This was a fascinating and horrifying record of New York City's attempts to turn Blackwell's Island into a pastoral refuge for the insane, the indigent, the sick, and the criminal. NYC got it horribly, horrifyingly wrong (as did every other city or state in the 19th century, if we're being honest). What began with the best of intentions went wrong from the very beginning. The bright spot in Horn's narrative is the presence of the Reverend William French, who for over 20 years ministered to the i ...more
Martha L Crouch
Jun 29, 2018 rated it did not like it
Shelves: did-not-finish
Repetitive and boring. I was disappointed. I did not finish it. Returned to the library on its due date.
Kim McGee
Mar 10, 2018 rated it liked it
Blackwell Island within sight of Manhattan was the dumping ground for New York's poor, diseased, mentally ill and criminals. It was a place where many traveled to and few came back unscathed and housed men, women and children. Over the near century it existed it was a place of abuse, cruelty, torture and unbelievable neglect. Not all the people working there were bad but the majority of them did very little to really help anyone there. The one person who fought for the inhabitants of the island ...more
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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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“Poverty,” journalist Junius Henri Browne explained in 1869, “is the only crime society cannot forgive.” 0 likes
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