By Michael Nichols
Islands are natural quarantines, hard to get to and hard to get off, so it was natural that the islands of the East River would find their purpose as a repository for those who would not or could not learn to live in public. Give me your tired, your poor… the country air will do them some good. Blackwell’s Island, the long and narrow outcropping of rock bisecting the river just below Hell Gate, gained its history as being just such a place apart. Especially attractive were the island’s base of gray gneiss and the fact of a captive labor pool of inmates, whom the city pressed into service to build the workhouses, prisons, almshouses, and asylums that housed them. The first in the long line of isolatos to be exiled here was Captain John Manning, who owned the island at the time and whose misfortune it was to be serving as a provisional governor of New York during that fractured period when England and Holland were exchanging the colony back and forth like a ping-pong ball. On one volley, in 1673, the English ceded to Dutch after nine years of rule, and though there wasn’t a blessed thing Manning could do about it, blame focused on him as it was he who was in charge. After a court-martial, Manning’s own sword was broken over his head at a ceremony at City Hall and he thence retreated to his island. But Manning eventually salved his isolation. In the best of New York traditions, he threw parties, entertaining his friends with bowls of rum punch. Manning’s daughter married a man named Robert Blackwell and the island thereafter changed hands, and soon the name of its new owner caught on, Blackwell’s, in the possessive.
The lighthouse stands at the northern tip of Roosevelt Island Designed by James Renwick and built in 1872, the lighthouse is 50 feet tall with an octagonal shaft, and built of hewn blocks of gneiss in Gothic style. It is an imposing structure. City planning has since created a circular plaza around it and bulwarked the plaza with low seawalls and rip-rap. The whole of this looks like a ship’s prow: the seawalls are the bulwarks, the river on three sides is the sea. At the bulwarks are fishermen who have cast their lines and now sit for hours on end and wait. They are trying for bluefish and bass. These are top-feeders and so, it is said, are not dangerous to eat, as the surface water is ocean water owing to the constant ebbing and flooding of the river. The fishermen are a mute bunch. None seems to know any of the others, and each has his place along the bulwark.
He was speaking of the harpooners aboard the Pequod and what he meant by isolato was a man of skill and workmanship, loyal to those skills and not necessarily to any captain.
Legend: Fort Maxey
Beneath the lighthouse and its plaza is a cluster of rocks, on old maps called the Bread and Cheese Rocks, which until a century or so ago stood off the tip of the island by several yards. Legend has it that before the lighthouse was built the outcropping was the site of a small fort and house belonging to the fort’s builder and who thereafter became the de facto caretaker of the property. To build the fort, the builder used materials found nearby and which were common on the island: clay, rock, dirt, and tall grasses. To get the materials to construction site on the outcropping, the builder faced an engineering challenge: the watery gap between island and outcropping. He solved his problem by creating a landfill using the clay, till, and rock. The power to accomplish all this work was supplied by the builder’s own brute strength and intelligence, working alone and by his own hand. It took determination, imagination, and time. Time was something he had in spades, as he was an inmate at the Lunatic Asylum, located just down the road apiece from the fort. His name was Thomas Maxey.
What we know of the legend of Maxey and his fort comes from the pen of W. H. Davenport, who re-visited Blackwell’s Island as a reporter–he claimed to have once been a patient there–and who wrote of his sojourn for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in February, 1866. Escorted by commissioners and doctors, Davenport met a variety of grotesques who made good copy, including one who imagined herself to be a steam boiler, another who believed she was the wife of President Buchanan, and a “jolly, clever darkey,” Black Jimmy, fisherman, who furnishes the resident physician’s table a “fine mess of black-fish, bass, and eels.” But Davenport saves the best till last, a visit with Maxey at his impossible fort, and the small house in its midst. Though it is only twelve by eight feet, it is commodious enough to contain two sleeping compartments, a sitting room and a kitchen. With its garden of overgrown hollyhocks and sunflowers and the causeway that leads to a huge stone gate, the place today would be an example of “outsider art,” the art of the unschooled, the undisciplined, or the insane, and almost always vivid, ingenious, and strange. But it was home. Its real purpose, though, was to serve as the city’s defensive battery against an imminent invasion by rebel privateers or possibly the British. (Presumably Maxey is Irish, and fighting the long war.) Thus the reason for the leftover Civil War cannon that Maxey procured, possibly from the gardai.
Luckily, Maxey is there to greet the commissioner and his guests, though in no time the brief interview descends into a Rabelaisian burlesque, at Maxey’s expense of course.
Before taking his leave of the island though, the author is distracted by something else: the sight of Black Jimmy on the dock, “busy at his piscatorial occupation,” and he stops to make a sketch.
Some excitement from a row of fisherman: Hold onto it, yells one to another. A fisherman lifts his line out of the water and at its end is a large bluefish flapping its body wildly to free itself of the hook in its mouth. The fisherman lifts him over the seawall and begins to extract the hook. He retrieves a length of line but no hook. Then he sticks his hand through a gill opening it wide enough so that one can see daylight on the other side. What appears to be blood, copious streams of it, drip down the side of the fish. The fisherman drops it on the slabs of the walk and then he takes residence in his beach chair parked in the shade of the lighthouse. The fish flaps its tail, lies still, then minutes later flaps again. Then the end, the fish’s small pectoral fin extending vertically in what appears to be a kind of rigor mortis. Not ten minutes has passed. Death comes quickly, at least to those not going through it. Later, the fisherman carries it away by its tail and returns without it. A half-hour later, other fisherman are still talking about the guy up there who caught a blue. It was about two feet long, maybe longer. Later still, at a picnic on the lawn, a family munches a fresh catch, just grilled, gingerly lifting the soft meat off paper plates.
One imagines Maxey fishing for his supper from this spot, maybe the jolly Black Jimmy nearby, their solitude regained, and Maxey certain of two things: that a man is his own empire and that his fortress could withstand an invasion whether by the British or officials from the city of New York.
Dedicated to Thomas Maxey, a true isolato – if he even existed.
W. H. Davenport, “Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Feb 1866, Vol 32, No 189
Making of America, Cornell University Library, http://dlxs2.library.cornell.edu/m/moa/
John Romeyn Brodhead, History of the State of New York, Vol. 2 (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1871)
Roosevelt Island Historical Society, “Lighthouse”
NYC Dept of Corrections, “The Islands of Correction” http://www.correctionhistory.org/html/chronicl/nycdoc/html/nycdoc.htm#islands
Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999)
Herman Melville, Moby Dick
Michael Nichols lives in Manhattan, works in Jersey City, and is an avid city wanderer and collector of historical names, lore, facts, relics, documents, souvenirs, and ruins. His project is to find in these bits and particulars their place in the historical landscape.
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