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Horrors of Roosevelt Island/ Secret History of Jersey Devil

Date Saturday - June 30, 2018
Host Ian Punnett
Guests Stacy HornBrian Regal

Author and radio commentator Stacy Horn joined guest host Ian Punnett to discuss her latest work researching the horrors of Roosevelt Island, known then as Blackwell's Island (related images). It was the site of a lunatic asylum, prisons, an alms house, and a number of hospitals. Despite good intentions of relieving the overcrowded and poorly maintained wards at Bellevue Hospital, the pastoral island soon epitomized the worst conventions in the treatment of the mad, the criminal, and the poor. "They planned to build state-of-art institutions that would be a beacon to all the world... it all went south almost immediately," Horn said.

The facilities on Blackwell's Island soon were overcrowded and underfunded leading to the abandonment of 'moral treatment,' in which patients were supposed to be managed unrestrained and with compassion, she explained. Convicted criminals sent to the work house were employed as nurses and attendants in the lunatic asylum, Horn revealed. As evidence of the inhumane treatment, Horn cited the case of a female patient who gave birth in a solitary cell while restrained in a straight jacket. She also reported on the case of Sister Mary Stanislaus, who was committed by her family and sued to get off the island. According to Horn, the legacy of Blackwell's Island is still with us. "It created this association in the public mind that [the poor, mentally ill, and criminals] were all basically one in the same... and I think that association still exists today," she lamented.

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According to legend, in 1735 a witch named Mother Leeds gave birth to a grotesque monster―a deformed horse-like creature with wings and glowing red eyes―that escaped through the chimney of her New Jersey home and vanished into the Pine Barrens. During the latter half of program, Brian Regal, assistant professor of the history of science, technology, and medicine at Kean University, examined the fascinating circumstances surrounding the genesis of the Jersey Devil myth. "With mythology of any kind it's never one thing... it was a complex interplay of Native American legends, of European legends, and other elements like political and religious infighting [behind the Jersey Devil's creation]," he argued. The legend that most people know came together slowly over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, Regal explained, noting there was no concerted effort to create the idea of the Jersey Devil until the 20th century.

He traced the real story to Daniel Leeds, who had upset his Quaker community in 17th century West Jersey with the publication of an almanac and philosophical treatise. Leeds eventually breaks with the Quakers, continues writing his almanac as well as pamphlets disparaging his former religious order, and is branded the 'Devil's Harbinger' for it, Regal revealed. This is the beginning of the narrative thread linking Leeds and his family to a demon that would become known as the Jersey Devil, he added. After Leed's son Titan takes the almanac over, Ben Franklin mentions him unfavorably in his rival publication, Poor Richard's Almanack. "Over time it picks up other bits and pieces and slowly you get the kind of evolution where the Leed's Devil, which is a political animal, sort of morphs into the Jersey Devil, which is a physical monster," Regal said.

During the first half hour, meteorologist Scott Stevens talked about the extreme heat moving across the United States.

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