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Authors: Alix Kirsta

Island of the Damned

BOOK: Island of the Damned
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Island of the Damned


Alix Kirsta

© Alix Kirsta 201

Alix Kirsta has asserted her rights under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.

First published 2013 by Endeavour Press Ltd.


Chapter One - Operation Hellgate


Early on Tuesday January 24th 1934, while the streets were still dark, a slim, neatly dressed man with steel rimmed spectacles strode into the Municipal Building in Lower Manhattan, and took the lift to the fifteenth floor. Commissioner Austin “Spike” MacCormick was in a hurry, eager to embark on the most audacious and challenging mission of his career. A fortnight earlier, New York’s new mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, had invited him to become the Commissioner of New York’s Department of Correction, responsible for the running of the city’s prisons. MacCormick immediately accepted the offer. Mayor La Guardia, a pugnacious firecracker of a man, who had come into office declaring all-out war on organised crime, lost no time in putting together a crack team to take on New York’s underworld. He also appointed as MacCormick’s right hand man, Deputy Commissioner David “Mickey” Marcus, a self-described “tough street kid”, former boxer and military academy graduate from Brooklyn, who became a lawyer and had until then been assistant U.S Attorney in the Southern District of New York. Between them, canny “Spike” MacCormick and his pugilistic deputy had many years’ experience of investigating mob related crime. That morning, both men knew they would have to draw on every lesson they had ever learnt in dealing with the mob to carry out the operation that lay ahead.

and Marcus had called a conference for 8 o’clock that morning. An emergency had arisen, although for now strict secrecy surrounded the crisis, so no one knew the reason for the meeting. Among the two dozen men who crowded into MacCormick’s office were a dozen deputy prison wardens and head keepers from other penal institutions, numbers of policemen and four of Manhattan’s most senior detectives including three from the narcotics squad. To everyone’s surprise a handful of crime reporters and photographers from the New York press were also present. None of them knew what was going on; why they were called so early in the morning was a mystery. The last person to arrive was a stocky middle aged man with a beefy face: he was Joseph McCann, Warden of New York’s oldest, most infamous prison on Welfare Island.

everyone’s astonishment, on the dot of 8.00, without preamble, Commissioner MacCormick tapped a glass ashtray with his pen, requested silence, then picked up the phone and called Daniel Sheehan, Deputy Warden of the Welfare Island prison. In crisp tones, that everyone in the room could hear, MacCormick ordered Sheehan to lock all the inmates in their cells until further notice, saying he had been informed of a prison break out. When he replaced the receiver, MacCormick finally turned to the assembled police and other officials. The call, he explained, had been a ruse, to maintain order at the prison that morning.

the next hour we are going to carry out a raid on the prison; that is the reason I have called you all here today. We will also conduct a thorough search of the whole of Welfare Island.”

the scale of this operation dawned on the men, there were murmurs of surprise around the room. MacCormick then fixed his gaze on the warden of the Welfare Island prison, sitting in front of his desk with a puzzled expression.

McCann, I personally have taken this decision to investigate the prison. Deputy Commissioner Marcus and I are leading the team and you will accompany us to facilitate the search of the premises.”

McCann stared disbelievingly at the commissioner, MacCormick added brusquely. “You are henceforth suspended from your usual duties. You will supervise only routine matters, and that too will be subject to my approval. Let me warn you that once we arrive at the island, I intend to place Deputy Sheenhan under arrest.”

Warden McCann sat tensely, saying nothing, MacCormick proceeded to outline the strategy of the impending raid, telling each police officer, keeper and warden that they would be assigned to investigate a specific area of the prison. To their astonishment, the newspapermen learnt that they were permitted to witness the entire operation, record events as they unfolded and to take photographs. Lamoyne Jones, a veteran crime reporter from the
rubbed his hands, anticipating a major scoop. Mostly Spike MacCormick’s speech was met with silence. Every man there, including hardened police officers, knew what possible danger lay ahead. Going into a large prison to “investigate” unannounced, was like walking into a crocodile infested swamp. Convicts are notoriously temperamental, and prone to overreacting violently. Stirring up a prison population is invariably risky, and everyone there knew it, realising there was no way to avoid danger. There could be violence, or deaths.

their disquiet, MacCormick added a final word of advice: “I hope things will move smoothly. I don’t want any rough stuff unless it’s necessary,” he warned. “But if it is necessary make it good and rough. If you have to smack a man, smack him so hard the other prisoners can hear the blow. Don’t touch off any powder magazine though. God help the man who does that.”

8.30 the conference was over. The men filed out and made their way downstairs to the street. Leaving the Municipal Building as thousands of men and women began arriving for work, the team split into groups and, led by Austin MacCormick and David Marcus, jumped into their cars and drove northwards on their mission.


These days, Welfare Island is a verdant, residential retreat which was renamed Roosevelt Island in 1973. Surrounded by the East River, its shores face Manhattan’s midtown and Upper East Side on one side and the borough of Queens on the other. Overhead is the Queensborough Bridge accessed from East 59th Street. A two and a half mile sliver of land, barely 270 yards wide, its panoramic views embrace the Manhattan skyline including the United Nations building. Each year the island provides a spectacular location for the July 4th fireworks extravaganza that lights up the skies above Manhattan and is mirrored by its skyscrapers. Since 1976 access for residents and visitors has been provided by the red cable cars which shunt backwards and forwards across the river between East 59th and First Avenue to the island. A subway stop, built in 1989, links the island to Times Square, one stop away. Today’s islanders, who have chosen to live here because of the fresh sea breezes, heady scent of flowers, widespread fields, parkland and quiet, largely traffic-free streets, enjoy regaling visitors and day tippers with tales of their island’s sinister past. Much of that past had already become an urban legend by 1934 when Commissioner Austin MacCormick and his team prepared to raid the city penitentiary, long notorious as the “worst and most unmanageable prison in the world”.

the early 20th Century, the grotesquely misnamed Welfare Island was known to most New Yorkers as the city’s most wretched hell hole, the setting for some of the darkest episodes in the city’s history since the mid nineteenth century. As late as 1940, a tabloid journalist, Seymour Ettman, wrote an article entitled “Hell in Mid-Channel” recalling the island as “a slag-hole of the [American] melting pot; a scavenger shark feeding off the festering stream of filth and pain and heartbreak that the city spews out…the human garbage from the sidewalks of New York.” It was originally named Blackwell’s Island after generations of the affluent Blackwell family who once owned the island, farmed its land and mined its stone quarries. In 1828 the Blackwells sold the island to the City of New York whose municipal authorities eventually turned it into a squalid human dumping ground.

this bleak, inaccessible land, cut off from the rest of New York City by the treacherous rip tides of the East River’s aptly named “Hellgate Channel”, new institutions were built to imprison and isolate all the city’s “undesirables” including the incurably sick, homeless, destitute, and unemployed. Unmarried mothers, prostitutes, alcoholics and junkies lived in close proximity to people with deadly infectious diseases and mental illnesses. 200,000 drug addicts were incarcerated there by 1910. In the overcrowded prison, first time petty offenders and mass murderers jostled for cell space. The workhouse was crammed with vagabonds and alcoholics as well as dangerous violent offenders who should have been in prison. A gothic smallpox hospital designed by James Renwick, the architect of St Patrick’s Cathedral on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, stood near a smallpox laboratory, where, at the height of the smallpox epidemic of the 1890s, scientists endeavoured to develop a vaccine at what remained the only such specialist unit within the USA. In 1921 Blackwell’s was renamed Welfare Island to reflect its role as a one-way destination for the ill and outcast.

air of menace hung over the island. Many of its fortifications and structures such as the prison, as well as the sea wall and lighthouse and the gothic ruins of the smallpox hospital, which today remain as historic monuments, were built of stone hacked from surrounding quarries by prisoners put to hard labour. The penitentiary was an immense building of hewn stone, four stories high with 510 cells for men and 256 for women. Although its capacity was for a maximum of 1,368 prisoners, it was usually seriously overcrowded. An official report going back as far as 1871, claims that 2,368 inmates – of whom 400 were women – had been incarcerated that year. In 1934, the year of the prison raid, 1,700 men were being held – the women’s prison having recently been closed. For decades, reports of appalling human misery abounded. Most chilling were tales of the island’s most shameful institution, Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum. A forbidding octagonal structure, it was developed according to a “panoptic plan” theory propounded by the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who believed that the ever watchful eye of the sentry sitting at the centre of the octagon would eventually be interpreted by the insane as their own conscience. On a practical level, the design also ensured that inmates could never escape constant surveillance. Outside, guards were posted along the river bank to prevent escape from any of the large institutions. Four boats were also moored on the river to prevent suspicious looking craft from landing, and to pursue escaped convicts.

of this proved much of a deterrent. Prisoners and asylum inmates attempted regularly to escape from the island, usually trying to swim to the city’s shore; of those who weren’t caught by the guards, the majority perished in the river’s icy cross-currents, usually swept out to sea by a mighty undertow. Such was their desperation to escape their fate that the prospect of death does not seem to have put off many asylum inmates. Records show that between 1847 and 1870, ten asylum inmates jumped to their death in the river, including a young Irish woman who had made several unsuccessful attempts to swim to freedom but died in a final escape bid one biting January night in 1873. According to one report, thirteen inmates attempted to escape in a single day. In 1871, the number of escapees from the prison and the workhouse reached 550. One rare case was a woman who repeatedly managed to escape successfully each time she was locked up on the island. She confessed to a judge that every time she was transferred to Welfare Island, she immediately sent a letter from the island to Manhattan: “and the boys come in a boat and take me off.”

island was condemned by Charles Dickens among other social reformers and writers. On a visit in 1841, Dickens was rowed across the East River by convicts “dressed in striped uniforms of black and buff in which they looked like faded tigers.” He was appalled by the condition of the asylum: “the lounging, listless madhouse air, 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..…the terrible crowd”. Such conditions were often exacerbated by the city’s policy of saving money by enlisting prisoners, not medical staff, to act as nurses. Dickens’ visit to the prison left an equally negative impression and he declined an invitation to tour the whole establishment. The asylum attracted further censure in 1894 when the explorer and campaigning journalist Elizabeth Cochrane, aka Nellie Bly, feigned insanity and, after being admitted as a patient, wrote an exposé for the
of the horrors suffered by women whose conditions often amounted to no more than anxiety or premenstrual syndrome. Several decades later, a pioneering neurosurgeon was invited by the directors of the asylum as a guest of honour to demonstrate his newly perfected procedure: the fast-track completion of several trans-orbital lobotomies per hour: the surgeon had become something of a showman, performing twenty five such lobotomies a day. Lining up selected patients in the great octagonal hall, he passed swiftly from one to another, pushing an ice-pick through their eye socket and severing the temporal lobe – a treatment alleged to benefit agitated, anxious patients.

island’s penitentiary gained a global reputation as “the worst prison in the world”. It was often in the news, due as much to its grim overcrowding as to its celebrated inmates. These included millionnairess Madame Restell, New York’s famed society abortionist; Tammany Hall’s corrupt 19th Century leader William Marcy ‘Boss’ Tweed; the actress Mae West was fined $500 and imprisoned on Welfare Island in 1927 after being convicted of an ‘obscene exhibition’ in “Sex”, a Broadway play of which she was both star and author. Reportedly appalled at the conditions and lack of books available to women prisoners, the actress donated $1,000 to the jail to fund the Mae West Memorial Library. Other celebrated women imprisoned on the island include the singer Billie Holliday, convicted at 16 of being a ‘dissipated vagrant’, then a euphemism for a prostitute, and the Russian-born anarchist Emma Goldman, who served a year’s sentence there for attempting to incite a riot among left-wing supporters. Goldman wrote extensively about the brutality and degradation of prison life, which she credited with making her an even more committed social reformer.

BOOK: Island of the Damned
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