A fire occurred last evening in the “Lodge,” a four-story building on the eastern side of Blackwell’s Island … used for the confinement of refractory female lunatics. There were at the time nearly 100 patients in the building, but all were safely removed. …. To allay their fears, and to quiet the excitement which many of them began to exhibit owing to their being disturbed at an unusual time, the lunatics were told that there was to be a dance in the Amusement Hall … by means of the fire escapes on the outside of the structure [the inmates] made their exit from the [Lodge] in good order and marched across the grounds to the Amusement Hall. A merry air was played on the piano, and in a few minutes the lunatics were dancing and capering about in high glee.
“Fire on Blackwell’s Island,” New York Times (May 16, 1879)
by Jacqueline Doyle
Flames lick window frames and doors, fire glows behind glass windowpanes. The entire island smells of smoke. Inside, attendants are running through halls, they’re rattling keys, they’re unlocking cells. They’re counting heads, as scores of female lunatics scamper down fire escapes—one, two, three, four—to leap and frolic in the grass outside the Lodge at Blackwell’s Asylum, ghostly apparitions in white nightgowns. It’s an after hours lunatics’ ball! A jumble of firemen adds to the fun. Who invited them? Can they dance? Round and round we go. One two three. One two three. Bow or curtsy to your partner. Then start up again, bobbing and hobbling, swaying and dismaying, marching to the Amusement Hall, bare feet wet and cold from the dew. Left right left right. Who knows left from right? Raise your hand. Strike up the band. Tra la la. More firemen! Bow or curtsy again. One hundred refractory lunatics. Who knew we’d be dancing in the dark tonight? Or that they’d turn on the lights for a ball in the Hall?