“My own mind is perfectly unprejudiced and impressible on the subject of ghosts. I do not in the least pretend that such things cannot be…” - Charles Dickens
Dickens and the Octagon Tower
Roosevelt Island is where the big, gray dome (the Octagon Tower) that was once the New York City Lunatic Asylum stood erect (“out on the edges of town, on the East River island, behind stone walls and high hedges”) abandoned and boarded-up surrounded by a fence with “No Trespassing” signs posted everywhere. I’d discovered this building was declared a landmark and that a popular novelist, E.L. Doctorow, had written about (in his novel, The Waterworks) the structure having been inspired by Charles Dickens who had visited the Asylum in 1842. Dickens wrote of his admiration for the architecture as well as his painful observations there. That’s when I knew Dickens must truly be a great mystic artist of the most unusual kind… that there must have been some other reason for him to have visited the Asylum.
Though he became known as one of the greatest writers of ghost stories and was very fascinated with all things supernatural, Charles Dickens was basically a skeptic. Most of us remember his most famous story of Scrooge - A Christmas Carol. But he wrote dozens of other ghost stories inspired by “the grim and the ghoulish through the stories told to him by his nursemaid, a remarkable young woman named Mary Weller, whom he referred to in later life as Mercy, ‘though,’ he noted, ‘she had none on me.’” Mary helped fuel his imagination and shaped Dickens’ young mind as did young Mary Shelley, the creator of Frankenstein (whose fascination with the life force contained in electricity and a recurrent dream inspired her famous novel). In the six years Mary Weller spent with the young, impressionable boy, she horrified him with her stories and spoke often of her fascination with death and ghosts. While A Christmas Carol is a happy, wintry Christmas story, meant to “haunt their houses pleasantly,” it is mainly a story of change, transformation and conversion.
Spiritualism interested Dickens a great deal and was very popular during the latter part of his life. He was very skeptical on the topic of contacting the dead and published many articles on the topics of mediums. After his death, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (the creator of Sherlock Holmes) who was, himself, a dedicated proponent of spiritualism related in an interview September, 1927, that he had spoken with Dickens’ spirit at a seance. He had used something similar to a Ouija Board. He asked him how he intended to end his unfinished story…
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Since I’d read about the asylum and then actually visited the site the previous 4th of July, I’d been curious about it and had had visions of long ago when horrible punishments were inflicted upon the misunderstood mentally ill. I was very curious about Dickens’ concern for the Asylum and just how he may have picked up on some very deep inspiration there. So I asked my mother to go to the island with me and pray over the great stone edifice, to perform an exorcism of its demons.
Upon arrival, we crossed the main street on Roosevelt Island and walked around the outside of the structure where we stood scanning the grounds trying to elucidate our impressions, picking up on some of the vibrations that lingered. “I’m seeing a woman hanged,” was the only thing she said before the prayer and exorcism:
“In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – Father, we ask you to bless this place and to take all the spirits that are troubled and send them into the Light and into your arms. We ask you to clear this [place] of any people or spirits that have been here that have not been able to go into the Light. Clean the whole ground and the whole hospital… and this whole island, as a matter of fact, of negative spirits and help each one of those people and lead them into your Light. Catherine [of Siena], I ask you to send your friends – the saints and angels – and yourself to this place and bring all these people into the arms of God and help them to go in peace. We ask you to clean this whole area out of all negativity or torment or pain. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, we pray. Amen.”
After the prayer, she said, “These people were piled in there – like maybe twenty beds in one room. They had no privacy whatsoever and had no dignity. All their dignity was taken away. So how could they get well when they had no dignity? There were people hanged by their necks in there, who got out and tried to run away; but didn’t have anybody looking out for them – a family that they had to go to.” Then she said she saw the spirit of a little old woman with long, thinning, straight hair running out of the building down the front stairs wearing a night gown. I saw her, too – in my mind’s eye. I picked up on each of the woman’s characteristics right before she described her. But she vanished… and so did the haunting. It is cleansed now for others to move in so no poltergeist or terrors from beyond may harm or hinder.
We later discovered that the big dome circular building called Octagon Tower, which served as the administrative center and main entrance hall of the New York City Lunatic Asylum (one of the first institutions of its kind established in this country, opened in 1839), is slowly being stabilized through State grants before rain, wind and sun take their toll, and may one day be renovated to become a gallery or museum. Doctorow, the novelist, “is campaigning to ensure that a ruin remains ruined” to preserve the mythology of its original purpose. “The Lunatic Asylum was erected in response to the desperate need for proper accommodation of the insane. Previously, these cases had been assigned to a few overcrowded and poorly maintained wards in Bellevue Hospital. In the middle years of the 19th century, the attitude towards the treatment and care of the insane underwent significant and progressive change. Recognition that they required medical assistance, not merely custodial restraint, led to the founding of such institutions… [Appalling as it may seem] in the early years of the Lunatic Asylum, patients were supervised by inmates from the penitentiary under the direction of a small medical staff!”
Yet I wondered what Dickens was doing there and what he actually saw. I think Dickens, as a mystic, knew something he wasn’t telling us. Just as my mother had told me, it was reported that the asylum was “plagued with difficulties, primarily due to overcrowding.” The patients’ diets were inadequate; diseases were running rampant…
“Charles Dickens was rowed across the East River in an open boat manned by convicts who, as he wrote, ‘dressed in striped uniforms of black and buff’ and ‘looked like faded tigers.’” He was taken on a tour of the Asylum where he admired the architecture, [the interior of the rotunda with its spiral staircase] calling the building ‘handsome’ and the Octagon an especially ‘elegant’ feature. But he further noticed some appalling conditions. “I cannot say I derived much comfort from the inspection of this charity,” wrote Dickens in American Notes. “The different wards might have been cleaner and better ordered; I saw nothing of the salutary system which had impressed me so favorably elsewhere; and everything had a lounging, listless, madhouse air which was very painful.” Dickens found the Almshouse, with its thousand inhabitants, “badly ventilated, badly lighted, not too clean and… very uncomfortable.”
I found it interesting to read about Nellie Bly. Goaded to action by continuous reports of abuse in the Asylum, Nellie…
“feigned insanity and had herself committed in 1887. In Ten Days in the Madhouse, her article published in theNew York World, she detailed her harrowing experiences. She found it hard to believe that so much cruelty and mismanagement could exist under one roof… Reports of criminal activity, overcrowding and favoritism in the institutions were continuous sources of scandal.”
“The Octagon needs an angel,” stated the president of the New York City Historic Districts Council. Many envision converting it and its surroundings to a meditative park in honour of those who suffered there. Others propose to build pagodas and dedicate parts of the island across from the United Nations “to remind diplomats from around the world of the need for world peace.”
Roosevelt Island, itself, is a curious place. Since its discovery in 1637, it has been sold and renamed many times and now is a “residential community surrounded by overgrown and deserted parcels of land where four majestic structures, now in ruin, built by eminent nineteenth century architects” remain. The hospitals and “other institutions for the sick, the insane and the destitute were all built with stone quarried on the island by prisoners from the penitentiary” (which has since been demolished to be replaced by the prison on nearby Riker’s Island).
The islands of the East River appeared “to have been divinely arranged as a home for the unfortunate and the suffering, and a place of quiet reformatory mediation for the vicious.” Now the desolate site looks like “a door into another time, one left slightly ajar… What remains has become a powerful reminder of an earlier time when substantial public funds were used to benefit the city’s needy.” As Le Corbusier wrote, “There are living pasts and dead pasts. Some pasts are the liveliest investigators of the present and the best springboards into the future.”