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.”
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.
Having reviewed a seemingly endless array of archival materials, Horn brings this subject to light in stunning detail. Readers will instantly see how this history continues to haunt us, as the boundaries between the four classes of people on the island (the poor, the mad, the sick and the criminal) are, in the public imagination, as blurred as ever.
...reads like something out of a horror novel, and it’s certainly a book you should consider if you’re a history buff ... Unfortunately, Horn’s writing style can be choppy and distracts from what should be a compelling narrative ... it’s clear Horn has done extensive research that enriches her book immensely. Many of her chapters include minute details that a less-conscientious writer might have dismissed as unimportant ... The less plot-driven parts of the book also feel cobbled together. Horn combines different types of narratives seemingly at random ... invaluable insight into how such tales of history’s dark periods can inform our present and future decisions.