Roosevelt Island, a skinny strip of land in the East River, became known by many names across the centuries.
To the Native Americans, it was Minnehanonck; to the Dutch, it was Varkens Eylandt — Hog Island. Early English colonists called it Blackwell’s Island. It was dubbed Welfare Island in 1921, for the city hospitals within its 147 acres. Look at it now and you’ll see a tramway and modern apartment buildings.
But in the 19th century, the land between Manhattan and Queens was known to its inhabitants by a more menacing name: Damnation Island.
Historian Stacy Horn’s “Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad & Criminal in 19th-Century New York” looks deeper at how difficult it was to be any of those four things 200 years ago.
Because for the poor, sick, mad and criminal, Blackwell’s was the place you were likely to land. Permanently.
Like some of the world’s worst things, this incarnation of the island started with the best of intentions. The city’s ill and indigent had previously suffered on the streets.
Then reformers promised those unfortunates could find shelter and medicine in the island’s new charity homes and hospitals. Petty criminals would be rehabilitated in a modern penitentiary.
The truth: Convicts doubled as hospital orderlies in a house of horrors where doctors performed gruesome medical experiments. Unsupervised inmates rampaged through the asylum’s halls. New Yorkers whose only real offense was poverty lived in filth and died en masse.
The island did serve one purpose: It swept the city’s poorest and most despised citizens out of sight from the rest of the population.
Particularly unfortunate New Yorkers could spend their entire lives traveling from one part of Blackwell’s Island to another.
The able-bodied poor could start in the Workhouse, established in 1852 for minor criminals — mostly drunks and prostitutes.
With joblessness itself a kind of crime, the indigent were arrested regularly and charged with vagrancy. Hauled before police courts, without lawyers, most were quickly sentenced to a term on the island.
A steamboat left regularly from East 26th St., delivering new arrivals.
Once there, new arrivals took a quick bath — in water still wriggling with the vermin from the dozens of people who went before. Then you were off to work. Private companies used prison labor to make everything from cigars to hoop skirts.
Others sewed straitjackets for the island’s asylum, or crafted coffins for its dead.
If you were hearty enough to survive your sentence — and regular epidemics made that a challenge — you were shipped back to the city, just as penniless as when you arrived.
If you weren’t a thief before, you were likely to be one now.
Even the good-hearted landed on Damnation Island, often through no fault of their own.
Women were swept up just for strolling innocently down the street. Some immigrants never even knew why they were arrested; a missionary assigned to Blackwell’s Island found bewildered inmates who spoke nothing but German.
And if you were arrested again? Now it was off to the Penitentiary. Built in 1832, it was intended for those serving sentences of up to two years — although some men served up to 10 and some women did life.
After arrival, you received another revolting bath and a set of rough, striped clothes.
Infamously corrupt politician Williams (Boss) Tweed arrived in 1874 to serve a year’s sentence for his sins; he landed a private room and a soft hospital job.
Less connected convicts — some as young as 14 — shared tiny windowless cells and worked under armed guards.
Imagine that you survived this sentence, too, and left the island again. Once again you arrived in Manhattan — penniless. Even if you avoided arrest this time, poverty had other ways of taking you hostage.
You might develop a chronic disease. You might go mad.
Either one could return you to the island, maybe for good this time.
The unluckiest weren’t sick or crooked — just inconvenient.
One woman, identified only as Aunt Delia, was dispatched to the island because her relatives wanted her money. They found a doctor willing to commit her. By the time the fraud was uncovered and Aunt Delia released, her small savings was gone.
On assignment for the New York World, newspaper reporter Nellie Bly went undercover at the Lunatic Asylum in 1887. The resulting article, “Ten Days in a Mad House,” detailed inedible meals and unheated cells.
Inmates shared a wooden bucket for a bathroom, and had only a thin shawl to ward off the biting cold.
The cruelties were relentless. Nurses choked inmates who gave them trouble, or beat them with broom handles. The doctors’ therapeutic treatments included massive enemas and swaddling patients in wet sheets.
At night, particularly restless inmates were locked into coffin-like cages.
After the World secured Bly’s release, her expose garnered national attention. Hearings led to reforms. The amount spent on each inmate was raised eight cents a day — to 31 cents.
But Bly never stopped thinking about those who stayed when she exited the island. “I left them in their living grave,” she said.
If anything, the asylum was a step up from the Charity Hospital, which provided doctors with a steady supply of human subjects for experiments.
In 1894, one physician decided to use hypnosis in place of anesthesia. While the doctor managed to put the patient into a trance, the man later reported he had felt the surgeon’s every agonizing cut.
Other turn-of-the-century doctors, more suited to horror films than hospitals, experimented, too.
One, looking for a new tuberculosis treatment, injected a patient with milk. Another surgeon, seeing a boy with a malformed limb, tried to do a bone graft from a living dog — encasing both patient and suffering animal in plaster.
Unsurprisingly, none of the experiments worked.
So what if, as an impoverished New Yorker, you survived all this — the Workhouse, the Penitentiary, the various hospitals?
You probably had nothing to look forward to at that point but the Almshouse, built in 1848 for the seriously disabled and the very old.
As these inmates were already deemed hopeless, their conditions were perhaps worst of all. People slept on the floor, and were fed spoiled food. One man was put in his coffin while he still gasping for breath.
And yet, at a time when as many as 2,500 New Yorkers arrived each year at the Almshouse, one 1882 survey listed exactly four black women, two black men, one “brown” man and one “red” woman.
It may have been a cesspool — sometimes literally — but it was still basically whites-only.
Reforms came eventually, if slowly.
In 1895, the long-standing Department of Public Charities and Correction was split in two, finally drawing a distinction between the poor and the criminal.
New investigations were launched, and changes were made. Hospital facilities were combined and updated. The state took over care of the mentally ill, and the inmates were transferred to other facilities.
Finally, in 1936, the island’s fearsome Penitentiary — where the bullying of brutal guards had given way to the rule of vicious gangs — was torn down.
It was no longer needed, replaced by a newly completed modern prison with a $10 million price tag.
This would be, the city announced, “an institution designed to return the prisoner to society better than when he entered it, not worse, as is the case today.”