Roosevelt Island Paths of History

Damnation Island Legacy

Updated 10 weeks ago David Stone
Damnation Island Legacy
Click to see this book on Amazon

Reader Sylvan Klein turned me on to a New York Times review of DAMNATION ISLAND, Poor, Sick, Mad & Criminal in 19th-Century New York By Stacy Horn. Along with Long, Hog, Welfare and Blackwell's, Roosevelt Island gets another name, this one more description than label.

A quick look at what once was... 

 

Horn's book looks at a not unfamiliar story of Roosevelt island history and makes the connection with a legacy she sees in the prison at Rikers Island. The facility along with its inmates migrated after Blackwell's was reinvented as a more benign Welfare Island.

For more than a century, what is now Roosevelt Island had been home to not just the prison, but also the almshouse, the lunatic asylum and the Smallpox Hospital. It was where you were likely to end up if were deemed undesirable by conduct, illness or poverty and, therefore, unfit for brushing elbows with Manhattanites.

As the city grew rapidly, so did crowding on Blackwell's Island along with other horrors.

Most notorious was the New York City Lunatic Asylum, built in 1839. When Charles Dickens visited three years later, he wrote of its “naked ugliness and horror.”

What's surprising now and a demonstration of the distance we've covered in 200 years is that there's no such thing as a "lunatic asylum" anymore. What once disgusted Charles Dickers had enough of its structure remaining for it to form the central lobby of The Octagon apartment complex.

WNYC's Radio Rookies did a report on it in 2010.

Few people realize that Thomas Edison, along with his work with electricity, was also a pioneering videographer nearly a hundred years before the term got invented. From the National Archives, here's video he shot from a boat passing Roosevelt Island on the Queens side in 1903.

You can see the lighthouse, the (Octagon) Lunatic Asylum and at the tip, where FDR Four Freedoms Park now harmonizes the southmost tip, the notorious prison that later moved to Rikers.

 

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