On a two-mile stretch of land in New York’s East River, a 19th-century horror story was unfolding: Blackwell's, the 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 her fine new book about those horrors, Damnation Island, Stacy Horn lucidly, and not without indignation, documents the island’s bleak history, detailing the political and moral failures that sustained this hell, failures still evident today in the prison at Rikers Island.
Stacy Horn takes us, institution by institution, on a tour of that hell. She begins, with what by far is the most gripping and informative section of the book, at the northeast end with the Lunatic Asylum ... This brilliantly-realized exposé of the Asylum, however, Horn never quite achieves in her exposés of the Island’s other institutions. Her tour of the island, it becomes clear, is a selective one, selective both by choice and by necessity ... More than this, Horn, it seems, is hampered by the lack of evidence of the everyday cruelties in many of the institutions ... In Damnation Island, therefore, Stacy Horn has given us the short tour of the Island. But what we learn is enthralling; it is well worth the trip.
...a searing account of good intentions gone awry ... Horn offers no solutions; she is a storyteller, and a good one. The problem is that her often riveting account rarely connects Blackwell’s to the outside world. There is little about the waves of immigration that transformed New York City, or the professionalization of its police force, or the advances in medicine and public health during a century of revolutionary change. As such, we never quite get off the island.