Family Lore

I’m reading a book about Roosevelt’s Island in New York. It was named Roosevelt’s Island in 1973. Before that, it was Welfare Island. And before that, it was Blackwell’s Island. Although it has a sad and appalling history as a place to house the unwanted — criminals, sick people, mentally ill folks, people who were lost and didn’t speak enough English to explain where they wanted to go — I have a personal interest because a woman who might be my great-grandmother was once incarcerated there.

According to family lore, our family comes by its insanity naturally — we inherited it. My great-grandfather was a scientist and inventor. He worked with Edison and other renowned scientists of the day, perhaps even Tesla. He invented the postmarking machine and foolishly sold the patent to get funds to invent a subway sweeper that never caught on. The people who supposedly did him a favor by buying the patent, became very rich because that postmarking machine was used continuously until the digital age made it obsolete. This otherwise intelligent man — my grandfather — had been married twice. One wife he threw down the stairs. The other he consigned to the Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island.

The asylum was supposed to be a state-of-the-art facility, with patients classified as to their illness, rather than all thrown in together, the violent and harmless alike. The Asylum was also supposed to be moral, treating the patients like humans rather than like depraved animals. This humane mental institution never materialized. Instead, the asylum was a dreadful place that journalist Nellie Bly described as a “human rat trap.” Even worse, since convicts from the nearby penitentiary were used as guards and attendants, the patients were “abandoned to the tender mercies of thieves and prostitutes.”

No one knows which of my great-grandfather’s wives is my great-grandmother, but even if she weren’t the one committed (especially since there’s a chance he had her committed for his own reasons rather than her mental state), the insanity could come from dear old great-grandfather himself because there seems to be a portion of insanity in incarcerating one woman and tossing another down the stairs

His son, an embezzler who never quite measured up to his father, went to prison for a while and died an alcoholic at 96.

My father kept himself on a tight rein to keep from turning into his father, which was an imbalance of a different sort, and caused all sorts of problems, especially with his oldest children.

My older brother seemed to have inherited all the family craziness — he was a brilliant inventor and electronic genius at the age of twelve, and then he succumbed to the same devils that had tormented his progenitors.

For all I know, I might have inherited some of these problems, but I have more of the Polish placidity of my mother’s family than the German genius and volatility of my father’s family. And besides, it seems to be a sort of insanity that is passed down from father to son.

Not that any of this makes any difference. All those people are gone now, and nothing can change anything that happened, but I do sometimes think of my great-grandfather and his wives and wonder what happened to the poor woman who was sent to Blackwell’s Island.


What if God decided S/He didn’t like how the world turned out, and turned it over to a development company from the planet Xerxes for re-creation? Would you survive? Could you survive?

A fun book for not-so-fun times.

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