Posts Tagged ‘New York City Lunatic Asylum’

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

June 25, 2018

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]