If walls had words… a brief history of the Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum


Alexander_Jackson_Davis
Alexander Jackson Davis via Wikicommons

Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum – a pivotal location in The Girl Puzzle – was designed in 1834 by famous American architect Alexander Jackson Davis. His plan was for a U-shaped building near the tip of Blackwell’s (now Roosevelt) Island looking across toward Manhattan, roughly level with Seventy-Ninth and Eightieth Street, but only a portion of the building was ever erected, with two wings stretching out at right angles from a central octagonal tower.

There was already a prison on the island, opened in 1832, and the addition of the asylum was part of a policy decision to locate institutions on ‘quiet islands’, including Blackwell’s, Ward, Hart, Randalls and Long Island. With more construction on Blackwell’s Island – including a Penitentiary Hospital, a Charity Hospital, an almshouse, a Smallpox Hospital and more – by 1872 there were eleven institutions operating on the Island. It’s not hard to imagine that these islands were a convenient place to confine undesirable elements of society, notwithstanding the grand and costly architecture.

View_of_the_lunatic_asylum_and_mad_house,_on_Blackwell's_Island,_New_York_(NYPL_Hades-1792045-1659187)
From the New York Public Library

This 1853 illustration appears tranquil at first glance. The scene is pastoral with a dog frolicking and a couple sitting under a tree. The asylum looks like a museum more than anything else. But what about that building on the left of the picture? What is that?? Is that the Lodge? Or the Retreat?  – gentle, caring names for buildings that were anything but those things. As Stacy Horn writes in “Damnation Island – poor, sick, mad and criminal in 19th Century New York”, things at the lunatic asylum “went south almost immediately.” On the day that it opened, June 10th 1839, 116 men and 81 women were transferred there from Bellevue. That’s 197 patients from day 1. The place was only supposed to house 200. Additional structures were added. Horn describes the Lodge, built in 1848, and the Retreat:

“The Retreat was built to house chronic cases, those who were suicidal and generally too “noisy” and unhinged for the main Asylum, but not as violent as the people sent to the Lodge.”

By 1868, 190 women were housed in the Lodge (and there would still have been male inmates too). The building’s capacity was 66. (2)

Nellie Bly’s Ten Days in the Madhouse

MadhousecvrWhen a new asylum for the insane was built on Ward Island in 1872, Blackwell’s Asylum became an all-female establishment. Nellie Bly carried out her undercover work there in September and October of 1887 and brave though she was, Nellie was not fool enough to get herself sent to either the Lodge or the Retreat. Here’s one of her descriptions:

“The insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island is a human rat-trap. It is easy to get in, but once there it is impossible to get out. I had intended to have myself committed to the violent wards, the Lodge and Retreat, but when I got the testimony of two sane women and could give it, I decided not to risk my health – and hair – so I did not get violent.”

Nellie’s expose, detailing cold baths, dreadful food and the violent conduct of some staff had immediate effects. Doctors and nurses in the asylum read her articles and improvements were made, even before a Grand Jury was summoned to visit the Island and inspect the premises.

Entertainments in the Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum

jacob riis walk photo
Photo by Jacob Riis, likely of the women at Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum

In her 1887 expose, Nellie Bly described hours of tedium with women confined to hard benches with little to occupy them. Mild patients, according to her report, could work in a scrub-brush factory, a mat factory, and the laundry. Patients were expected to do housework, including keeping the wards and nurses bedrooms tidy. An important component of the daily routine was a walk in the asylum grounds but this was wholly weather dependent and strictly monitored by staff. Unruly patients walked roped together to keep them under control.

Other entertainments included dancing and a carousel. Nellie Bly reports that staffed danced with patients and both Halls she was placed in during her stay had a piano. This excellent post by Ephemeral New York, describes an annual Lunatic’s Ball reported by Harper’s Weekly:

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Harper’s Weekly, Dec 2, 1865

The one entertainment that Nellie Bly reports she heard much about, although never experienced due to poor weather, was a carousel. The following image is of the Central Park Carousel, built in 1871, so perhaps the Blackwell’s Island one looked something like this:

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1871 carousel, from carouselhistory.com

It’s hard to imagine a group of grown women in their ill-fitting striped asylum dresses, shawls and battered hats riding round and round, but that’s what they did.

Closing Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum

Following Nellie Bly’s expose, changes were made in the asylum. Improvements were made to food and bathing arrangements as funding increases were approved. But in 1894, the Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum was closed and its patients dispersed into other facilities, particularly the on Ward Island where space became available after the opening of immigration facilities on Ellis Island.

The building, after significant renovation, became the Metropolitan Hospital, specializing in the treatment of tuberculosis. The hospital operated until 1955 but afterwards the building fell into disrepair. Today, only the original Octagon remains, but it has been restored. The building is an apartment complex and can be toured. More information here. If only the walls had words… imagine what stories they could tell.

Roosevelt Island today – The Octagon

I visited the Octagon in October 2018, and although the inside was closed so I didn’t get to see the spiral staircase, just being on Roosevelt Island and seeing the building in person was wonderful. There are scenes in The Girl Puzzle that definitely benefited from that research trip. Here’s my then & now photos of the asylum:

Sources & further reading:

“Images of America – Roosevelt Island”, Judith Berdy and the Roosevelt Island Historical Society.

“Damnation Island – poor, sick, mad and criminal in 19th Century New York”, Stacy Horn

www.asylumprojects.org

Ephemeral New York


2d girl puzzle coverThe Girl Puzzle – a story of Nellie Bly

Her published story is well known. But did she tell the whole truth about her ten days in the madhouse?

“…a well-researched and engrossing tale that focuses on female empowerment” Kirkus Reviews

“Here is Nellie Bly in all her fascinating complexity: outspoken, courageous, kind, clever, sometimes headstrong, other times self-doubting” Matthew Goodman.

“Everything a historical novel should be – illuminating, intriguing and intelligent.” Olga Wojtas

2 thoughts on “If walls had words… a brief history of the Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum

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