Dancing at the Lunatic’s Ball on Blackwell’s Island

City officials had good intentions when they built the New York City Lunatic Asylum, which opened in 1841 on Blackwell’s Island.

Rather than confining city residents who were deemed insane to prison cells (which had long been the preferred course of action), this new institution with the octagon entrance was all about “moral treatment,” explains Stacy Horn in her new book, Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, and Criminal in 19th-Century New York.

Insanity was to be considered an illness, not demonic possession. And “therapy was focused on the patient’s emotional and spiritual needs,” wrote Horn. That meant exercise instead of shackles, work that would build self-esteem, and recreation to lift spirits.

What kind of recreation? Activities included lectures, concerts, magic lantern shows—and a periodic event dubbed the Lunatic’s Ball.

“On special holidays they’d fit up one of the pavilions as a dancing hall and everyone—patients, attendants, and doctors alike—would dance,” explains Horn.

In 1865, Harper’s Weekly covered one of these Lunatic’s Balls in an article titled “Dancing by Lunatics.”

“The Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island was the scene of a most interesting and remarkable spectacle on the night of November 6,” the article stated.

“The completion of the first of a series of four frame buildings was celebrated by a ball, in which the patients of the Asylum were the dancers, ‘tripping the light fantastic toe’ after a fashion even more fantastic than Milton dreamed of in ‘L’Allegro.'”

The new buildings were necessitated by an increase in asylum residents, causing overcrowding and making the place much less therapeutic and more dangerous than the city had hoped.

“A prominent fiddler, himself a patient, is lost in ecstasy in the sounds which he produces, and in their influence upon his fellows. Every variety of ‘pigeon wing’ is being cut by the active dancers. Now and then there darts out one who enchains the attention of all her acquaintance by her excellent execution of the most difficult pas.”

“Occasions of this sort no doubt tend in a great degree to relieve the sluggish melancholy which too close confinement or too monotonous surroundings are apt to produce in our institutions for insane people. It is often the case that isolation renders incurable diseases of the mind which a more considerate treatment might ameliorate, or perhaps entirely relieve.”

This is the same asylum Nellie Bly would go on to write about in 1887, when the Lunatic Asylum had become women-only and “sluggish melancholy” was the least of the problems residents encountered.

Bly’s expose on the terrible conditions there ultimately led to its closing. Residents were relocated to a cleaned-up facility on Ward’s Island, one that didn’t seem to continue the Lunatic’s Ball tradition.

[Top image: Lunatic asylum scene in 1868; second image, the Lunatic’s Ball, Harper’s Weekly; third image: NYPL, 1850s; fourth image: Lunatic Asylum in the 1890s; fifth image: Lunatic Asylum, undated]

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15 Responses to “Dancing at the Lunatic’s Ball on Blackwell’s Island”

  1. alaspooryorick Says:

    oh! to have an invitation to the lunatic’s ball. i would cavort with those closest to my heart.

  2. Herb Moskovitz Says:

    Charles Dickens visited the Lunatic Asylum in 1842. He wrote about it in his travel book, AMERICAN NOTES…

    One day, during my stay in New York, I paid a visit to the different public institutions on Long Island, or Rhode Island: I forget which. One of them is a Lunatic Asylum. The building is handsome; and is remarkable for a spacious and elegant staircase. The whole structure is not yet finished, but it is already one of considerable size and extent, and is capable of accommodating a very large number of patients.

    I cannot say that I derived much comfort from the inspection of this charity. The different wards might have been cleaner and better ordered; I saw nothing of that salutary system which had impressed me so favourably elsewhere; and everything had a lounging, listless, madhouse air, which was very painful. The moping idiot, cowering down with long dishevelled hair; the gibbering maniac, with his hideous laugh and pointed finger; the vacant eye, the fierce wild face, the gloomy picking of the hands and lips, and munching of the nails: there they were all, without disguise, in naked ugliness and horror. In the dining-room, a bare, dull, dreary place, with nothing for the eye to rest on but the empty walls, a woman was locked up alone. She was bent, they told me, on committing suicide. If anything could have strengthened her in her resolution, it would certainly have been the insupportable monotony of such an existence.

    The terrible crowd with which these halls and galleries were filled, so shocked me, that I abridged my stay within the shortest limits, and declined to see that portion of the building in which the refractory and violent were under closer restraint. I have no doubt that the gentleman who presided over this establishment at the time I write of, was competent to manage it, and had done all in his power to promote its usefulness: but will it be believed that the miserable strife of Party feeling is carried even into this sad refuge of afflicted and degraded humanity? Will it be believed that the eyes which are to watch over and control the wanderings of minds on which the most dreadful visitation to which our nature is exposed has fallen, must wear the glasses of some wretched side in Politics? Will it be believed that the governor of such a house as this, is appointed, and deposed, and changed perpetually, as Parties fluctuate and vary, and as their despicable weathercocks are blown this way or that? A hundred times in every week, some new most paltry exhibition of that narrow-minded and injurious Party Spirit, which is the Simoom of America, sickening and blighting everything of wholesome life within its reach, was forced upon my notice; but I never turned my back upon it with feelings of such deep disgust and measureless contempt, as when I crossed the threshold of this madhouse.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thank you for posting this Herb. Dickens’ American Notes covers his trip to New York City in the 1840s and is quite illustrious, from his accounts of the women on Broadway to the pigs running through the streets eating garbage to the pile of “bastard Egyptian,” as he called the Tombs.

      • Herb Moskovitz Says:

        In 2005, actress Miriam Margolyes did a documentary where she traveled around America in the footsteps of Charles Dickens’ 1842 trip. There are ten segments and one is devoted to Dickens’ visit to NYC. She visits Blackwell (Roosevelt) Island and sees the Octogon, then in ruins. She visits other places EphemeralNewYork has showcased incuding Five Points, the Tombs and even sees a pig on Broadway. The DVD set is called Dickens in America. There is a description of the program on Wikipedia. where the New York segment is described in detail. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dickens_in_America

  3. Shayne Davidson Says:

    The photographer, Mathew Brady, took photos of the inmates of the New York Lunatic Asylum. Unfortunately the photos and negatives did not survive.

  4. Brian Says:

    It should prolly be pointed out that Blackwell’s Island is now Roosevelt Island, and that the Octogon is still standing:


    Also, on a different note, Mr. EA Poe seemed to thing the mentally ill were already more influential than one might expect:


  5. Donna Lee Ray Says:

    I am so moved by Dicken’s accounts, as they are so forthcoming, and I would only wish and hope that his writings contributed to the attention needed to those living at the site.

  6. Tom B Says:

    IMO, These Asylums have their place in society. But it’s a no win deal to justify. Case in point, today in Tampa a well documented young lunatic decided to drive his car off road and run over bicycle riders, killing one. Probably would not of happen if we had an Asylum.

  7. danielwalldammit Says:

    Fascinating read. Thank you for writing it.

  8. David H Lippman Says:

    Boy, that is weird stuff…

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