Blackwell's Island 1869

Thousands of people who live in New York have never seen Blackwell's Island ; and quite as many, I venture to assert, cannot tell where it is. They hear it mentioned day after day ; they know it is devoted to penal institutions, and somewhere in the vicinity of the Metropolis. But whether it is in the Sound, or East or North river, or in the Bay, they are wholly

Time and again I have heard my fellow-passengers, residents of this city, inquire, while steaming to Providence or Boston through the East river, "What place is that?" as they passed the pleasant-looking spot. And they were much surprised when informed that it was the notorious Blackwell's island.

To the poor loafers, vagrants, and small rogues of the Metropolis,the Island, as it is called by way of distinction,
is better known. They have learned its exact location and peculiarities by sad experience ; and they are continually refreshing their memories by repeated incarcerations. I say the poor loafers and small rogues, for the prosperous and great ones are clad in purple and fine linen, instead of striped uniforms, and go to Long Branch and Europe instead of
Blackwell's island.

Men not one-tenth as guilty as the dwellers amid Fifth-Avenue luxury or Grammercy-Park splendors have passed half their lives on the island, at Sing Sing, and Auburn ; and the wealthy and superior scoundrels have wondered meanwhile at the depravity
of the poor.

The island, the lower end of which is opposite Sixty-first Street in the East river is one of the pleasantest spots, to the outward eye, in the vicinity of the Metropolis. During seven or eight months of the year it is as green, and cool, and picturesque a place as one could desire to linger in. The skies are so fair and spotless ; the air is so soft and
fresh ; the water so smooth and clear around it, that it appears quite the ideal of a Summer resort. Few pass it on steamers without admiring it, and declaring what a charming abode those villains have ; forgetting their own, perhaps, greater sins, and that the crime of the villains is only misfortune by another name.

The early history of the island is 'involved in mystery and tradition. It was a favorite pleasure ground with the Indians, it is said, and the early Dutch settlers celebrated their festal days there with a simplicity characteristic of their fatherland. In 1823 it passed into the hands of James Blackwell, an Englishman, who occupied it with his family as a farm for a number of years, and from whom it received its present name. About thirty-five years ago it was purchased by the City, and has since been employed as a prison for the violators of municipal ordinances.

The buildings are of gray granite, with a few frame outhouses, well constructed, spacious, airy, and as comfortable as such
outhouses, well constructed, spacious, airy, and as comfortable as such places can be. They seem decidedly desirable at a distance, vastly preferable to the over-crowded tenement houses of the Fourth, Sixth, and Eighteenth wards, and induce one to believe that therein mercy tempers justice. But prisons are never handsome to persons confined in them ; and he who
imagines the island attractive can have his illusion dispelled by a short confinement.

The buildings are the hospital, workhouse, lunatic asylum, almshouse, and penitentiary. The indigent and the criminal have different quarters, but are treated in much the same manner. There is a species of worldly justice in this; for poverty is the only crime society cannot forgive.

The men and women are kept apart in all the buildings, though they contrive to elude vigilance and get together often, as is shown by the fact that children are born there whose mothers have been on the island for more than a year.

The paupers, and criminals, and lunatics vary in number from three to five thousand all told ; and they increase every year, so that some of the departments are greatly crowded and unhealthy in consequence. The care of the paupers and criminals is as good as could be expected; but it is anything but what it ought to be ; and flagrant acts of injustice, oppression,
and even cruelty are not uncommon.

It is usual, in writing about superintendents, overseers,wardens, and turnkeys of charitable and penal institutions, to speak of them as humane and sympathetic, which they very rarely are. I have seen a good deal of this class, and I have often found them hard, unfeeling and tyrannical, and not unfrequently brutal and cruel to the last degree. Their position is
not calculated to develop the sensibilities or refine the sentiments, and they do not enter upon their duties with any surplus of charity or tenderness. To expect the cardinal virtues of them is unreasonable. If they were fine or gentle natures, they would not be there ; for saints do not gravitate to the custodianship of prisons and poor-houses, any more than vestals do to stews.

I seldom see men or women in such a place, particularly the former, without an instinctive shrinking from them. Their faces, their manner, their voices betray them generally for what they are. I cannot but pity the unfortunate committed to their keeping, subjected to their power.

The attaches of Blackwells island are not exceptions. I have read their praises in the papers, from the pens of partial reporters ; but those praises were for the most part either the blunders of ignorance or the result of premeditated misrepresentation.

The hospital is a stone building, 400 by 50 feet, and usually contains 200 to 400 patients suffering from every form of disease. They are fairly cared for ; their beds clean ; their diet wholesome, and medical attention good. They are ranged on little iron bedsteads in long rows, and are melancholy-looking enough ; for little intelligence or moral culture illumines their pale and wasted faces.

The mortality among them is large, because they have abused themselves or been abused sadly by severity of circumstance. Many of them have been drunkards and outcasts from their birth ; others have inherited broken constitutions and ancestral disease ; and all have come into being out of parallel with nature — organization and destiny against them.

Death can have few terrors for them (it is always less fearful when near than at a distance); and I do not marvel they breathe their last with perfect resignation, or that they pass out of life cursing all that has been and is to come.

Sickness is ever painful. But sickness there, without hope, without means, without sympathy, without future, without friends, must be agony unrelieved.

Their logic must be this: What have they to dread from change ? What other sphere can be worse than this to them ? If God be powerful, He must gradually lift their burthens. If He be good, He will not punish them ; for they have already suffered beyond their sin. And if He be not, then they will not be either. What then have they to fear ?

The workhouse much resembles the other buildings. It is gray, granite, grim. Its inmates vary from 600 to 800, fully half of whom are women ; though females would be the fitter word, inasmuch as woman suggests gentleness, tenderness, and lovableness, —qualities in which the island is deplorably deficient.

Persons are sent there for minor offenses, such as drunkenness, disorderly conduct, carrying concealed weapons, vagrancy, and the like. Very few of the inmates that have not been there again and again. They are sentenced for 30, 60, or 90 days, and at the end of this term they are discharged only to be brought back for a similar offense before the week is fairly gone.

A number of the men are employed at trades.They make clothes, or shoes or brooms ; but most of them are engaged in quarrying or farming upon the island. They assist in repairing the different structures and raise vegetables for home consumption.

The women make hoop-skirts and braid straw ; do the necessary cleaning, and wash and iron for the other prisoners and paupers. Many seem quite contented, and are very different creatures from what they are when intoxicated ; intoxication usually being the cause of their commitment. Some of the men and women have been sent to the island 30, 40, even 50 times, and are doomed to die there. They have no restraining,no reforming influences ; and they return to their old ways and habits by the same law that impels the tides of the sea.

The almshouse includes forty acres, almost a third of the entire island, and has 800 to 1,000 inhabitants; the men generally being in the majority. Both sexes are worthless creatures, and their surroundings remind one of the perpetual palaver of Mrs. Gummidge, whose constant apprehension was, that she would be "sent to the House." Their advanced age is particularly noticeable, and you wonder how such poverty and distress can have sustained life so long. They are with rare exceptions extremely ignorant ; have been born to the fate they follow ; have always had for familiar companions stupidity, squalor and sin.

Nineteen-twentieths of them are foreigners, the Irish being the most largely represented. And at least half of them came paupers to our shores. Not a few, however, were once industrious and honest, and have been prevented from earning a livelihood by loss of health or some accident that has maimed them.

The baby department attached to the alms-house has usually about 200 little children who have either been taken there with their mothers, or found without parents. They are generally from a few months to two or three years old, and are great favorites with and pets of the aged, and even the younger women. Such is the maternal instinct of the sex that no deprivation,nor suffering, nor adversity, nor degradation can suppress it wholly.

Ill-natured stories are afloat that some of the infants are, strictly speaking, home productions; but those who are acquainted with the purity and continence of the attache's will not be slow to pronounce such stories vile slanders.

The penitentiary is an enormous building, and contains at present about 600 inmates — all masculine. They are employed very much as their companions in the workhouse, though they are more closely watched, and the discipline is more severe. They rise at 6 in the morning, and after breakfast, they begin their tasks and labor until nearly 6 in the evening. When they
have taken their not very savory supper, they are locked up in their cells over night. They are attired in striped uniforms, and for refractory conduct they are put on bread and water diet and confined in dark dungeons. Most of the criminals are ruffians and thieves who have been committed for serious assaults, stabbing, shooting and stealing. They are a hopeless and
graceless set, the greater part at least, and are usually fitted there for the higher honors of Sing-Sing.

Very many of them are quite young, and the generality in good health and of excellent physique. But their faces, especially their eyes, indicate their character, and strengthen faith in the truth of physiognomy. You can see now and then, a strange mixture of cunning and boldness, of restlessness and desperation in their repulsive countenances, and you feel those men
are capable of any crime under temptation or opportunity. A strange, sad place is Blackwell's island. After going there you are relieved when you return on the ferry and feel the breeze from the sea Blowing through your hair as if to purify you from the unwholesome atmosphere you have just breathed. You look back at the island, and all its beauty is gone. Never again
does it seem picturesque ; for you see through its outside down to its black and cankered heart.

Website: The History
Article Name: Blackwell's Island 1869
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY: The Great Metropolis; A Mirror of New York by Junius Henri Browne; American Publishing Company 1869
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