Lunatic Impromptu

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?


  1. Meg Tuite

    Hi Jackie! haha! Reminds of a film from 1966 “King of Hearts”
    This is beautiful and absolutely scenic and visceral!
    I have a few suggestions: ‘flames lick’ (sort of a cliche, and especially the first 2 words). I love the sound of that and the image it brings up, but can you play around with that and make it your own? Also: ‘lunatics’ is an amazing word and sound, but there are 3 ‘lunatic’s in this short piece. Can you work that with another that keeps this moving? ‘scamper, frolic, leap, ghostly apparitions, jumble, bobbing, hobbling, swaying, dismaying, ball in the hall, marching, dancing (you might want to mix up the gerunds, drop a few and change to present singular or plural: bob, bobs…)
    Great job with the senses! I can definitely see it, smell it, hear it, feel it, (does anyone get bit?)
    Beautiful and rousing! LOVE!

  2. Jacqueline Doyle

    Thanks, Meg! I’ve been working on a collection called The Lunatics’ Ball that has little or no comic relief, so I’m glad this made you laugh. Great suggestions for tightening up and varying the prose.

  3. Faye Rapoport DesPres

    I loved the movement in this piece…I felt like I was drawn along with the current. I like Meg’s comments/suggestions. What a great idea, what lively imagined scenes!

  4. Robert Vaughan

    Hi Jacqueline, love the concept of a Lunatics Ball, I am all over that! Sounds like a book I would want, for sure. Also your fragmented collage which has tons of sensory details and mayhem, and useful imagination. I wondered if we might have a micro moment with one specific character? But overall, the idea, the seed (if you will) is set and ready to germinate, no doubt.

  5. Sara Comito

    Oh wow, what an undertaking! I too would read the book. I think you match well the tone and tenor of the times AND The Times. I think with “Who knows left from right?” you highlight the cultural underpinnings that misunderstand madness as limited intellect. And you subvert the assertion that these human beings are “refractory,” i.e. stubborn or hard to deal with by demonstrating how willingly they go along with the fantasy – or is that what The Times wants us to believe? Totally fascinating.

  6. Koss Just Koss

    Jacqueline, love the imagery of this and has some great sonic moments. It was shocking in a way to hear “lunatic” as I seldom here it used. It felt a bit like a Bruegel dance transposed into a fiery turn-of-century scene.

  7. Aimee Parkison

    There’s a wonderful juxtaposition of the sad and funny, the danger and the glee. I love the use of dancing in unexpected moments. Very poetic and inspired!

  8. Todd Clay Stuart

    Jacqueline, what awesome source material you have for inspiration here. I love that whole lunatics ball concept, so ethereal and creepy and yet with everything else that went on in a place like that, why not? The great thing about this is how malleable it all is. I’d love how this might transform if you experimented with the order of these sentences. Just about any one of these sentences could begin the piece and sort of flip it to another angle, move it in a nonlinear way like in an asylum. Cool, haunting work!

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