Think of Roosevelt Island today and you may think of the waterfront promenade, or the bright red car of the aerial tramway connecting the island to Manhattan’s Upper East Side. When Charles Dickens visited in 1842, Roosevelt Island had a different name and a different association. Blackwell’s Island was known as a dumping ground for criminals, lunatics and the city’s indigent population. It was Blackwell’s prisons, asylums and almshouse that led Dickens to describe it as having “a lounging, listless, madhouse air.”

In “Damnation Island — Poor, Sick, Mad & Criminal in 19th-Century New York,” on sale now from Algonquin, author Stacy Horn tells the island’s chilling history through the voices of its inhabitants, along with some help from archival records, statements from reformers and the work of celebrated 19th-century journalist Nellie Bly. 

Stacy Horn is an author, business owner and journalist. She has contributed to NPR’s “All Things Considered” and is the founder of the groundbreaking NYC social network Echo. “Damnation Island” is her fifth book of nonfiction.

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