Damnation Island was a book I pulled off my shelves when quarantining and social distancing began back in March. I had read Ten Days a Madwoman in February and I decided an adult non-fiction trip to Blackwell Island was needed to balance and expand the accounting in Noyes’s book. I was right, there is much important history here – particularly pertinent to our times as we reexamine and revisit the functioning of corrections, and how we as a society care for those around us. Often as I read I was shaking my head – both at how far we’ve come and how much farther there is to go before we can be said to be treating our fellows humanely, and with care.
From Goodreads: “On a two-mile stretch of land in New York’s East River, a 19th-century horror story was unfolding. Today we call it Roosevelt Island. Then, it was Blackwell’s, site of a lunatic asylum, two prisons, an almshouse, and a number of hospitals. Conceived as the most modern, humane incarceration facility the world ever seen, Blackwell’s Island quickly became, in the words of a visiting Charles Dickens, ‘a lounging, listless madhouse.’ In the first contemporary investigative account of Blackwell’s, Stacy Horn tells this chilling narrative through the gripping voices of the island’s inhabitants, as well as the period’s officials, reformers, and journalists, including the celebrated Nellie Bly. Digging through city records, newspaper articles, and archival reports, Horn brings this forgotten history alive: there was terrible overcrowding; prisoners were enlisted to care for the insane; punishment was harsh and unfair; and treatment was nonexistent. Throughout the book, we return to the extraordinary Reverend William Glenney French as he ministers to Blackwell’s residents, battles the bureaucratic mazes of the Department of Correction and a corrupt City Hall, testifies at salacious trials, and in his diary wonders about man’s inhumanity to man.”
On the whole, this is a good book. Horn does an impeccable job researching her topic – the Source Notes at the back of the book could make a course curriculum all their own. Damnation Island tells its story through the people who lived and worked and suffered on Blackwell’s in the 19th century and Horn is a talented writer in bringing these real people to life on the page. Unfortunately, the book was also slow. Horn is telling us so much in the narrative that it takes awhile to process, to completely follow what is on the page. Structurally all her decisions work, following a few main characters throughout and introducing specific ones to tell specific tales, breaking the history of the Island up by the different facilities, but it still remains a bit flat, at times a bit clinical.
But, this is still a good important book, but be prepared to have to work at it a bit.