One of the reasons I love reading nonfiction is that I get to learn so much. Not only does the book itself satisfy my mind’s need for new information, but an excellent nonfiction book will also lead me to topics outside the main subject of the book. I will go down a Wikipedia rabbit hole and find myself down there two hours later and realize it’s one in the morning and I need to go to sleep.
Tracy Horn’s Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, & Criminal in 19th-Century New York did not disappoint. It gave a detailed history of the horrors of what was once called Blackwell’s Island but also introduced me to political figures and historical events in New York that I looked up on my own. I have lived in New York for almost ten years now, and I appreciate it when an author focuses in on one part of the city but provides historical context so that I can learn more about the city I love.
But even though I love this city, it’s hard to deny that it has a dark and somewhat shameful past, especially after reading this book. The conditions that existed for New York’s sick, poor, and mentally ill were atrocious and allowed to be so for years. I imagine that this was true in a lot of areas but was exacerbated by the city’s enormous population.
But still, when reading this, I found it hard to fathom how this could be tolerated for so long, especially when it came to the treatment of women on the island. Horn spends a lot of time talking about the female patients at the asylum because it was a mostly-female facility. The most striking thing to me was that many families committed women as a way to get rid of them, and not because they were indeed mentally ill. When I read that, I have to wonder how many suffered because they may have had a dissenting opinion or were just “different.” At another location of the island, the Almshouse, widows found themselves overcrowded because they had nowhere else to go after their husband’s died.
And yet, is it really that hard to believe? While I don’t think there is a practice of warehousing widows in facilities with abusive staff with little food and no space or privacy of their own, it is easy for me to see that a lot of the ideas about women that existed in the 19th century still perpetuate today. Many women who report sexual assaults and abuses are not believed. We are often accused of being “moody” and “too sensitive.” This is not to say that nothing has improved for women, because I know that is not true. The last 100+ years have obviously brought about a lot of positive change for women, but there is still a long way to go.
We still have a lot of work to do when it comes to the more vulnerable members of society. I mentioned in a previous post that I often see a homeless man on my commute who is clearly mentally ill. I have to believe there is a better option to be had for him than being on the street or in a facility like what was on Blackwell’s. I’m not sure what the answer is, but I hope we find one soon.
Photo credit: I can’t remember if I took this, or if it was my fiancé, but this is the abandoned Smallpox Hospital on Roosevelt Island (formerly Blackwell’s Island). The island is now full of condos and academic facilities, but some of it’s past is still present.