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

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

Written by Stacy Horn

Narrated by Pam Ward


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

Written by Stacy Horn

Narrated by Pam Ward

ratings:
3.5/5 (68 ratings)
Length:
10 hours
Released:
May 15, 2018
ISBN:
9781684411993
Format:
Audiobook

Description

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 build a lunatic asylum, prison, hospital, workhouse, and almshouse. Stacy Horn has crafted a compelling and chilling narrative told through the stories of the poor souls sent to Blackwell's, as well as the period's city officials, reformers, and journalists (including the famous Nellie Bly).

Damnation Island re-creates 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. In a tale that is exceedingly relevant today, Horn shows us how far we've come—and how much work still remains.

Released:
May 15, 2018
ISBN:
9781684411993
Format:
Audiobook

About the author

Stacy Horn, a contributor to National Public Radio's All Things Considered, is the author of The Restless Sleep, Waiting for My Cats to Die: A Memoir, and Cyberville. She lives in New York City.


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Reviews

What people think about Damnation Island

3.5
68 ratings / 9 Reviews
What did you think?
Rating: 0 out of 5 stars

Reader reviews

  • (2/5)
    Excellent narration, but the story is an unremitedly depressing tale of cruelty, incompetence, deprivation and banal indifference to the mentally ill, old, poor and infirm. Way too much detail made it all overwhelming. I had to quit listening.
  • (3/5)
    The content was very interesting, but 5he book jumped all over the place and it was very hard to follow. Going from when the island was first constructed, to later uses and then back to the fist use again. People where introduces, fired, and then showed up again becaue they were talking about a previous era. Also several chapters had the end of the audio cut off
  • (3/5)
    The content is amazing; the narrator is awesome. But the audio is missing a part from the end of each section. It would've been 5 stars if the audiobook was complete.
  • (4/5)
    In David Morrell's 1972 novel “First Blood,” Rambo is arrested for vagrancy because he lacks a job and has less than five dollars in his pocket. Treated like a criminal, he becomes one, and all the violence and death that follows stems from that arrest for the crime of being poor.A century before that story takes place, poverty and crime were even more closely linked, as Stacy Horn explains in “Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad & Criminal in 19th-Century New York.” New York, in fact, had just one agency, the Department of Public Charities and Correction, for dealing with the poor, the mad and convicted criminals.In consequence, Blackwell's Island (now Roosevelt Island), a narrow, two-mile long stretch of land in the East River, became home to a lunatic asylum, a workhouse, an almshouse, a charity hospital and a penitentiary. Convicts from the penitentiary were used as nurses and aides in the other institutions, leading to mistreatment barely worse than that provided by the hired staff. The only place in the city where poor people could be treated for syphilis was the penitentiary hospital, but one needed to be a convict to be admitted. No problem. Patients were simply charged with a crime.The phrase "out of sight, out of mind" was never more apt than on Blackwell's Island, where the city's most undesirable residents were sent, promptly forgotten about and, in many cases, died. Just pennies a day were provided for food and other necessities for each of the thousands sent there. The prisoners were actually considered to be the lucky ones, for they at least had sentences with release dates. So many others sent to the island had, in effect, life sentences.Reform came slowly. What reform there was partly due to Nellie Bly and other newspaper reporters who went undercover to reveal what life was like on the island and partly due to William Glenney French, a priest who visited the island almost daily for many years and whose reports helped bring change and also proved invaluable to Horn's research.Yet though corrections and care for the poor and the mentally ill were eventually divided among different departments, some things haven't changed much. Horn points to Rikers Island, where convicts today are still treated much as convicts were on Blackwell's 150 years ago.Horn's book shows evidence of padding. A trimmer account would have been more readable. Still this is a valuable, fascinating book for it shows how attitudes toward society's undesirables have changed since the 19th century — and how they haven't.
  • (4/5)

    1 person found this helpful

    The audio version is missing some seconds at the end of chapters.

    1 person found this helpful

  • (5/5)
    The narrator was incredible and the stories themselves were perfectly conveyed. One of the best nonfiction books I’ve read in a long time.
  • (2/5)
    I actually hated this book but it was certainly well-researched and informative - which is why I went with two stars instead of one. There was so much of the same sort of abuse and misery described that, after a short while, it all ran together and the individual cases meant nothing to me - it was all the same horrible and disgusting treatment.

    If the point of the book was to discuss on the atrocities inflicted upon those unfortunate enough to be sent to any of the work houses, alms houses, or asylums of the time, it did that ad nauseam. It felt like I was reading misery porn. It was honestly just too much of the same thing over and over and over and over.

    If you're looking for something to give you a feel for what life in an asylum was like in a short, emotionally manageable dose, I highly recommend Ten Days in a Mad-House by Nellie Bly. I took a break from Damnation Island and listened to Bly's book and feel like I got a lot more out of the small book than I did from nearly 10 hours of this one.
  • (5/5)
    The title is very fitting, Damnation Island is the well researched history of Roosevelt Island, a two mile island in the East River. The original intentions of what to do with this island were well meaning but the idea of how to house three different populations of people, the poor, the ill and criminal were not well thought out and the buildings themselves were sweltering hot in the summer with only thin slits for windows, cold in the winter and the rooms became filthy. The description of the filth on the audio book would make you be outside immediately, where ar least the air was better.The inmates who had a criminal record were very poor and were used to take care of the ill who were also very poor. No training, very poor food, just terrible conditions What made all of this worse was the resistence to improving the buildings, the food, clothing was fuled by politucs. Charles Dickens visted the island and was horrified. A young woman reporter took on the assignment of a tell all of what it was like by pretending to be a lunatic. Nellie Blye's report was well written and gained a lot of readers. The conditions were truly shocking.That is just a brief glimpse of the history. I am not going into detail, but I assure there will be times when you listen to the story that you will be thankful to be living now and also not there.I bought the audio book myself and think that the author had the right amount of detail to help you imagine what it was like. I highly recommend it.
  • (3/5)

    1 person found this helpful

    This book was a hard read, because of its really depressing subject. However, Stacy Horn did a good job of detailing all the different, miserable aspects of Damnation - Welfare - Roosevelt Island in NYC!

    1 person found this helpful