Lunatic Impromptu by Jacqueline Doyle

“Unlocked Closet,” Kathrine Savu, Acrylic on canvas

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)

  1. It’s a Surprise Party

Blackwell’s Island smells of smoke tonight. Flames play on the perimeters of window frames and doors at the mental asylum Lodge, flicker and glow in windows. Inside, attendants run through halls, rattling keys, unlocking cells. Wake up! Madwomen jostle and push, tumbling down fire escapes—one, two, three, four—freed to leap and frolic in the grass outside the dormitory, ghostly apparitions in white nightgowns.

It’s an afterhours 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, and march to the Amusement Hall, bare feet wet and cold from the dew. Left right left right. Who knows left from right? a guard calls out. Raise your hand. Strike up the band. Tra la la. More firemen! Bow or curtsy again. One hundred of us, the so-called “refractory lunatics.” Who knew we’d be dancing in the dark tonight? And that they’d turn on the lights for a ball in the Hall?

  1. Who’s Invited?

Blackwell’s was already overcrowded within a few years of opening in 1839, when it was built to house 250 patients. The budget per asylum patient was the lowest in the state, possibly in the nation. With only 13 cents per day spent on food for each patient, inmates were actually dying of starvation. Others died of tuberculosis, dysentery, syphilis, and what was called “exhaustion from mania.” There were occasional murders in the small cells, never designed for more than one violent patient. The lunatic asylum had a higher mortality rate than the Workhouse, the Almshouse, and the Penitentiary on the island: 171 deaths in 1871, more in years with cholera outbreaks. When Blackwell’s became a facility mostly for women in 1872, it housed well over 1000 female inmates. According to the reporter Nelly Bly, there were 1600 women at Blackwell’s by 1887.

At least one hundred of the most violent (“refractory”) inmates were housed in the Lodge, locked in cells with no windows every night, not allowed outside during the day because too many of them had made a run for the East River. The “river runners” may have been hoping to swim to Manhattan, though the currents in the river were treacherous, and there are no records of successful escapes. They may have been suicides.

Were the inmates at the Lodge really allowed to frolic on the lawn the night of the fire? Was the New York Times journalist even there?

  1. Not a Surprise After All

They’ve never awakened us for a dance in the Hall before. We can smell the smoke, see the orange glow behind windows. Some of the old bats in the Lodge may be too gaga to understand why brigades of firemen are rushing by, but we’re not all idiots. They’re marching us to the Amusement Hall—left, right, left, right. Who knows left from right? one of the keepers shouts. Raise your hand.

Who knows right from wrong, true from false? I’d like to answer, but backtalk’s what got me here. Backtalk and my fists and conduct unbecoming. I raise my hand instead of punching someone this time, grin like a fool, check my anger at yet another deception. Left right, left right. No ropes in sight, only a few frantic attendants, one two three, and what if I were to give them the slip right now?

But no, I don’t fancy myself another Ophelia floating in the frigid waters of the East River when the sun rises tomorrow, garbage strewn around me instead of flowers. You promised me to wed, the silly fool said. Her father Polonius was dead. There’s many a woman here could tell a story of her faithless lover or absent father without throwing herself into the drink. I march with the others to the Amusement Hall. Left right, left right. We’re in our nightclothes. Everyone but the real loonies knows it’s not a real ball. We play along and dance, why not, it beats being locked in a cell—one two three, one two three—until the piano player stops and we’re marched back to bed. Good night, ladies; good night, sweet ladies; good night, good night. Lights out. The doors clang shut, keys turn in locks. We’ve learned to bite our tongues, most of us, even in our sleep. We dream of dancing, of Prince Charmings and beloved Cinderellas long gone or never real to begin with, we dream the Lodge burns down to the ground, every one of the cursed keepers with it. We dream of swimming, a hundred of us surfacing on the other side, drenched and filthy, shivering and alive.

Jacqueline Doyle (she/her) is the author of the flash chapbook The Missing Girl (Black Lawrence Press). Creative nonfiction and nonfiction flash from her WIP The Lunatics’ Ball have appeared in EPOCH, Passages NorthThe CollagistmatchbookPermafrost, and F(r)iction. Her work has been featured in Creative Nonfiction’s “Sunday Short Reads,” and has earned numerous Pushcart nominations and eight Notable Essay citations in Best American Essays. Find her online at and on twitter @doylejacq.

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