Stacy Horn defies death by ceaselessly writing books about it.
Although her first book, a memoir titled Cyberville: Clicks, Culture, and the Creation of an Online Town, was about her creating the New York City-centered social network Echo (a network she still administers), nearly all of Stacy Horn’s subsequent nonfiction has centered on death in some way. In a second memoir, Waiting for My Cats to Die, she mused on both feline and human mortality, polled members of Echo about middle age and what they wanted to accomplish before they died, and joined a cemetery’s board of directors. A third book, The Restless Sleep: Inside New York City’s Cold Case Squad, married true crime and journalistic writing: four unsolved cases provided the narrative, but detailed descriptions of the Cold Case Squad detectives and the NYPD’s history still rival anything found in David Simon’s similar classic Homicide: A Year On the Killing Streets.
The Restless Sleep was the first book of Horn’s that I read, and it was part of a wave of nonfiction titles I devoured after an epic reading slump in my 20s that I now recognize was the result of reading a lot of modern fiction that I wasn’t enjoying. Books like Horn’s helped me realize that nonfiction, for better or worse, was going to be my reading home. She subsequently obliged my nonfiction habit by producing two more investigative works: Unbelievable: Investigations into Ghosts, Poltergeists, Telepathy, and Other Unseen Phenomena, a history of the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory and a pseudo-biography of its longtime director Dr. J.B. Rhine, and the other, a deep dive into the history and science of choral singing titled Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing with Others.
Her new book is a history of New York City’s Blackwell Island (renamed Roosevelt Island in 1971), the site of several 19th-century institutions in which death was no stranger but rather a frequent visitor. In Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad & Criminal in 19th-Century New York, Horn resurrects the stories of many who have been forgotten, including the missionary who walked a route between all the island’s facilities (including the Lunatic Asylum, the Workhouse, the Almshouse, the Penitentiary, and several hospitals) and talked with their inmates daily; the “lunatic nun” who fought to get herself released from the asylum; and a young girl who received her first prison sentence at 15.
Recently I got to have what turned out to be a surprisingly cheerful email conversation with Horn about death, resurrection, community, and, oh yes, fact-checking.
The Millions: Stacy, I loved your new book. But it’s full of unhappy stories that mostly end unhappily. Can you tell me what drew you to Blackwell Island? What made you think, “I want to investigate this history of the ‘poor, sick, mad, and criminal’ and spend years writing about it”?
Stacy Horn: I desperately wanted to find happy endings. I’m always drawn to sad stories, but sad stories that are mostly forgotten precisely because I hope that by resurrecting these people and what happened, I will bring a sense of peace to their histories, and to the reader.
Blackwell’s Island drew me in because I already had a general sense of what had gone on there. I knew I would have thousands and thousands of opportunities to recover what was forgotten, and to use their stories to enlighten the present.
What I didn’t get was happy endings. Instead, I’m now a passionate advocate for criminal justice and mental health care and welfare reform.
TM: In the book, you follow several personal stories, including those of the Reverend French, who was a missionary to Blackwell Island, and multiple inmates and staff members of the various institutions there. How did you find those stories, and how did you decide on the people whose stories you told in detail?
SH: It’s a good thing that research, and the chase, is my favorite part of writing because this book was my biggest challenge to date. Not surprisingly, most of the records for each of the institutions on Blackwell’s Island (the Lunatic Asylum, the prisons, the Almshouse, etc.) were not saved.
I was able to tell the stories I did through a combination of luck and perseverance. For example, at the New York Historical Society, I came across a letter from a young woman imprisoned in Sing Sing to a society lady who had visited her once. Something about that letter drew me to the inmate, Adelaide Irving, who I ended up featuring in the Penitentiary section of my book. But there were no official Penitentiary records of Adelaide because none were saved. I had to kind of reverse-engineer her story from a number of other sources, and here I was lucky that any existed at all.
Sister Mary, the “lunatic nun” who was committed to the asylum, was an even bigger challenge because there are still fewer extant records for the asylum. Here again I lucked out because I happened to find an archivist nun in Canada who was willing to help me, and the Sisters of Charity of the Immaculate Conception turned out to be better record keepers than the city of New York.
Reverend French wrote annual reports, thank God, and a wonderful Workhouse warden wrote an autobiography, as did a survivor of the attack on the Colored Orphan Asylum during the draft riots in 1863.
All these little miracles helped me to recreate what life was like on Blackwell’s Island during the 19th century.
Oh, and remembering researching Adelaide Irving just reminded me of a very proud find I made. After being told that there were no prison records for the Penitentiary at all anywhere, from every librarian, archivist, and corrections history expert I consulted, I found the records for 1883 to 1908 on, of all places, Ancestry.com.
I was searching on a generic Irish name, because most of the inmates were Irish, and a number of Blackwell’s Island Penitentiary inmates popped up. I’m sure I screamed. The actual records are at the State Library in Albany, where I’d already looked, but they were indexed in such a way that no one knew they were there. I went back and let everyone who’d told me that they didn’t exist know, but they weren’t as excited as me. No one screamed. Come on! Nineteenth-century prison records, people!!
TM: I am blown away by the scope and sources of this book. How long did it take to research it? Was there a point when you knew had to stop researching, and start writing?
SH: I never stop researching. When I start writing that only leads to more research. Even when a book is finished and published, I will still keep looking into whatever subject I’ve written about. I still research cold cases and unsolved murders after writing about the NYPD’s Cold Case Squad, and I keep up with parapsychological research after writing about the former Parapsychology Laboratory of Duke University.
I never let go. I must have attachment issues. But I started researching Blackwell’s towards the end of 2014. I started writing in probably around the summer of 2015, and I was still working on it this year, right up until the moment my editor insisted I “step away from the computer, Stacy.”
TM: I want to talk about how that theme of never letting go appears in your other work, and talk about your other books, but I also want to ask about something as workaday as fact-checking. I know you are very dedicated to doing that for all of your nonfiction. Do you literally go through your manuscripts line for line and make sure everything has a source, a citation? How long must that have taken for this one?
SH: With every book I get better and better at fact-checking. I’ve learned over time that yes, you really do have to check almost every line. It’s insane how, no matter how careful you are, mistakes creep in.
It also takes such a ridiculously long time that knowing how much work I have ahead of me I’m always a little nauseous before I begin. I may even cry a little. It’s hard. It’s daunting.
But then, once I start, it almost becomes a different sort of treasure hunt. Every mistake I find and correct is like a victory against some possible person in the future pouncing on me and calling my work sloppy.
I’d like to add one thing I do that might help other people writing nonfiction. Maybe everyone already does this and I’m the last to figure this out, but I keep a separate timeline for every section in my book. In it I list every fact and where I got it. I started doing this when I wrote the cold case book because I was writing about so many different cases, with so many different “characters,” detectives and other law enforcement personnel, and the cases I picked spanned a half century of time. So I had a hard time keeping track of what happened when, who did what, who said what, etc. These timelines helped me later when I had to go back and fact-check, but it wasn’t the reason I started doing them.
Now I am pretty meticulous about these timelines. I can’t depend on them, the timelines are as vulnerable to error as anything else, but I at least know where to go back and check.
TM: Your first two books, Cyberville and Waiting for My Cats to Die, were definitely memoir. You followed those with The Restless Sleep, which is considered true crime, and your later books (Unbelievable, Imperfect Harmony, Damnation Island) seem to be more investigative and historical in nature.
Can you talk about the arc of your nonfiction writing career, what made you turn from memoir to these other subjects? How is the writing process different for you in these very disparate nonfiction genres?
SH: With the exception of Cyberville, all my books are different versions of the same quest or interests, but a quick back story. I decided at nine years old that I wanted to be a writer, and originally I wanted to write novels. Fast forward to the 1990s, when I started Echo, one of the early social networks, although we didn’t call them that at the time. The New York Times did a brief profile of me, where I mentioned I wanted to be a writer and had an unpublished novel in my drawer.
The next day I got a call from Warner Books who said they’d publish my novel! Turns out, they didn’t think it was publishable, but they liked my writing and they asked me if I wanted to write about the Internet. My agent said do it. Once you have one book published it’s easier to get another, and then you can try again to write a novel. That led to my first book, Cyberville, and the discovery that by writing nonfiction I could follow my interests and obsessions more directly than with fiction, and with much more satisfying results. And my biggest interests have to do with death and impermanence, and how many stories are forgotten. Every book circles back to this, at least to some extent, even if I begin by thinking they won’t.
Like my book about the history and joys of singing. Who knew that would be about death as well?
I pitched Waiting for My Cats to Die as a memoir, but it was always going to be about my first serious research into death and the fact that we and everyone and everything we love must die. The Restless Sleep was about people who not only had to die, they had their brief time on Earth criminally cut short, and no one was answering for that. My book about the Parapsychology Laboratory of Duke University [Unbelievable] was supposed to be a fun break from death, but it turns out the lab was established in order to see if they could find evidence for life after death. My book about singing was also supposed to be a break, but our mortality is one of the driving inspirations for composers, musicians, and our audiences. We sing to deal with loss and to reaffirm life. Requiems are among the most moving and profound things I sing.
My books are my attempt to defy death and the fact that most of us will eventually be forgotten, and tragically quickly. It’s a mission that will ultimately fail, but it’s like singing requiems while I still can.
TM: I know this about your books, and about you, that often the theme (seems to be, anyway) is death. I’d like to draw your attention to some of your own quotes. From Cyberville: “As cyberspace grows, it will only become more and more like the rest of the world. Not an even bigger global village, but a bigger collection of villages.” From The Restless Sleep: “I want to resurrect the city’s forgotten dead.” From Imperfect Harmony: “the magic current of potential that comes to life whenever people are drawn together by the astonishing and irresistible power of a song.”
Can I put it to you that your themes are actually community and resurrection and so much joy in life that even the hunt for its existence after it is gone is worthwhile?
SH: Yes. Definitely. Community and resurrection. I’m not religious, so there is no hereafter for me (as far as I know). I think people who are religious think that makes life pointless and empty, and without the promise of heaven or the threat of hell there is no reason to be a good and decent person. But for me, the opposite is true. It makes life the only point, and therefore it’s much more important to use it well, and to be as good a person as you can and not add misery and pain to anyone else’s life. It’s the only one they get.
Spending my time resurrecting forgotten lives, acknowledging past wrongs, feels meaningful to me. It does give me joy, and purpose to the now, and I hope it does the same for my readers. Knowing we’re going to die, how do we want to live? What do we want to leave behind for the people who will replace us to use? What do we want to tell them? I want to tell them: “There was once this girl named Adelaide Irving. She was a lot like you.”