In the mid-19th century, Thomas Maxey, a patient at the New York Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island, built Fort Maxey, a strange structure complete with cannons, a garden of tall flowers, and mysterious carvings.

The infamous New York Lunatic Asylum has its share of chilling stories. But one odd, forgotten story is the tale of a mysterious man who took it upon himself to build a bizarre, hobbit-hole like “fort,” which included a bridge, a bizarre stone gateway, and a toll for curious visitors.

Thomas Maxey, the “lunatic” who built the structure single-handedly, believed that the government would one day realize how valuable the fort was and purchase it from him. But in the meantime, he lived in the fort himself, surrounding himself with hollyhocks and broken weapons, donning pretty hats, and regaling his guests with stories about mythology and the ancients.

 

Highlights include:
• An infamous lunatic asylum
• An “insane” man who seems smarter than most sane people
• People being committed to the asylum for no reason
• Nellie Bly’s gutsy investigative reporting
• Some follow-up on the Luxor, and magical triangles

 

“At the farthest extremity of the Island the ground on which [Fort Maxey] stands has been rescued from the grasp of Neptune by the . . . endeavors only of its proprietor, whose name is given to the structure—Thomas Maxey, Esq., architect, mason, carpenter, civil engineer, philosopher, and philanthropist.”
-from an article in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, from February 1866

 

Pictures of Fort Maxey

Fort Maxey Blackwell's Island

Within Fort Maxey-Harper’s New Monthly Magazine Volume 126 December 1865 to May 1866

Fort Maxey Blackwell's Island

Grand Entrance to Fort Maxey, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. March 24, 1866

Fort Maxey Blackwell's Island

Gateway To Fort Maxey, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine Volume 126 December 1865 to May 1866

Fort Maxey

Unwanted Visitors-Fort Maxey. Frank Leslie’s llustrated_Newspaper. March 24, 1866

Episode Script for A Victorian Lunatic’s Fort: Fort Maxey, Blackwell’s Island, NYC

DISCLAIMER: I’m providing this version of the script for accessibility purposes. It hasn’t been proofread, so please excuse typos. There are also some things that may differ between the final episode and this draft script. Please treat the episode audio as the final product. 

“At the farthest extremity of the Island the ground on which [Fort Maxey] stands has been rescued from the grasp of Neptune by the . . . endeavors only of its proprietor, whose name is given to the structure—Thomas Maxey, Esq., architect, mason, carpenter, civil engineer, philosopher, and philanthropist.”

-from an article in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, from February 1866

 

First, some follow up RE: the Luxor and pyramid shapes. I talked last week about how I didn’t understand why people might consider a pyramid cursed or powerful aside from sort of sensationalist ideas about Ancient Egypt and the “mummy’s curse,” etc.

  • But I was reading a book called Aleister Crowley and the Ouija Board by J. Edward Cornelius, which I’ve mentioned before. I’d read bits and pieces of it but I’m actually reading it in order now. It has a lot to say about ceremonial magic and that kind of more structured occultism (which contrasts with the extremely loosy goosey, heresay type urban legends that I was looking at RE: the Luxor)
  • There’s a really interesting passage in the book about the planchette, which is the heart-or-triangle shaped pointer that moves around the Ouija board, and it talks about why triangle shapes are meaningful. I wanted to read a bit of that, because I think it could speak a bit to why a pyramid shape might have some occult resonance.
    • “The triangle is one side of a pyramid whose shape was used by the ancients as a tomb. The structure of a pyramid, with its apex pointing upward, projects the spirit of the deceased into the nether world. . . .  The triangle as an image has an almost archetypal effect on our mind and especially on invisible entities like the elementáis, which abound in the lower astral plane. Magicians have known for centuries that the magickal image of a triangle acts as a “between state” which is neither an entity’s world or ours. In some respect it is a doorway that swings both ways. You’ll find images of a triangle in the pages of almost every ancient magickal grimoire. It is within a triangle that a magician will summon a disincarnated entity in order to communicate, bind them and control them at the same time.”
  • The book then goes on to talk about details of summoning spirits and the use of a magical triangle. It then continues:
    • “Use of the magical triangle for summoning entities has been around for centuries. The danger is not in the simplicity of the symbol itself, but rather in its misuse in effecting a gateway into the invisible world without the knowledge and ability to control that which is being summoned.”
  • And then there was an interesting bit about a black mirror, which stood out to me, because the Luxor is, in effect, a black mirror in the shape of a pyramid:
    • “In some of the old grimoires the triangle is pictured as being laid out on a table with either a black mirror or a crystal ball on a stand in the very center.”
  • So I’m not sure that the urban legend websites that talk about the Luxor’s shape had this specific occult information in mind, but I wonder if it may be a case of accidentally stumbling across some kind of truth.

 

  • This week, I want to look at a strange, almost entirely forgotten structure that supposedly stood at the northernmost point of Blackwell’s Island, now known as Roosevelt Island. And I also want to talk about the patient who built this odd fort.
  • First, some background on the location and the Lunatic asylum where this supposedly insane architect lived:
    • The island is in the middle of the East River in NYC, between Manhattan and Queens, and if you want to know more about the island in general, check out the Renwick Smallpox Hospital episodes that we did. And if you want to read even more, there’s an excellent book about the island called Damnation Island by Stacy Horn. That book is a big source of background info for this episode, but like many things written about the island, it contains no mention of the patient and story we’ll be looking at today.
  • On the island, there were a number of grim institutions: hospitals, a prison, a workhouse, and a lunatic asylum. Today, only the octaganal atrium of the lunatic asylum still stands, though nowaways it’s the entryway into a fancy apartment building.
  • In its time, though, the Lunatic Asylum was famous for being a truly awful place to be.
    • The Asylum is most famous because the famous reporter Nellie Bly did an investigative report about it. This is a story that most Americans learn in school, but basically she pretended to be insane so she could see what conditions were really like in the Lunatic Asylum.
    • In her book about the experience, Ten Days in a Mad-House, she said that once she got herself committed, she stopped pretending to be insane and instead acted completely normal.
    • But the more normally she behaved, the more insane people thought she was.
    • After leaving, she said that she believed that perfectly sane women were locked up in the asylum.
      • And this is backed up by other sources. For example, in the 1870s, a doctor testified that they’d found at least 60 patients with no commitment papers or admission documents
    • She said that it would be better to be condemned as a criminal than thrown in the asylum. To read from her book:
      • Compare this with a criminal, who is given every chance to prove his innocence. Who would not rather be a murderer and take the chance for life than be declared insane, without hope of escape?
    • And the conditions she described were truly horrific. I’ll link to the full text of her book in the shownotes if anyone is curious and wants to read it.
  • The Asylum was the first in NYC, and it opened in 1839, and the idea was for it to house the city’s “lunatic poor,” who previously had often been put into prisons. Many of the patients were immigrants, particularly from Ireland and Germany.
  • It was located on the northern end of the Island–there was a main building in addition to other, smaller buildings.
    • There was a building called “The Lodge” for very violent and disturbed cases
    • A structure called “The Retreat” was for chronic cases, especially people who were suicidal and deemed too noisy for the main asylum, but not violent like those sent to the lodge
    • When things got dire, small pavilions would be added along the northern shore of the Island–they were basically just wooden shacks. They were meant to hold 50 “quieter” patients, but often housed 75-90, or more, patients
  • In addition to the octagonal tower, the wings of the hospital were crenellated, so it looked very castle-like.
  • The asylum, like many other buildings on the island, was built from stone quarried on the island, a grim gray stone called Fordham gneiss
  • When they first started drawing up the plans for the asylum, the idea was that no more than 200 patients would live there at once.
    • On the first day the hospital opened, June 10, 1839, 197 people were transferred from Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan to the Lunatic Asylum. So they were at capacity on day 1.
    • In 1840, the asylum housed 278 patients
    • by 1870, it housed 1,300 people, even though there hadn’t been any major expansion or infrastructure improvements
    • It turns out they had seriously underestimated how many people needed mental health care
      • In Damnation Island, Stacy Horn points out that in 1858, people believed that .002% of people needed mental health care
      • But today, 28% of the population has some kind of anxiety disorder, which back in the 19th century, could get you committed
    • Another problem was that the commissioners of the asylum were political appointees, and weren’t experts, so the people actually doing the work on the island had to go to them and beg for anything they needed
    • Also, convicts from the prison were often put to work at the asylum, which saved money but caused rampant abuse
    • They spent 18 cents per day on each patient ($4.88 in today’s money), so of course patients weren’t well fed or cared for in any way
    • Things were really, really bad. Sanitary conditions were awful, people died from all sorts of disease. When Dickens toured the island in 1842, I believe, he had this to say about the asylum, which he wrote in his book American Notes for General Circulation (the full text of which is linked in the shownotes):
      • “The building is handsome; and is remarkable for a spacious and elegant staircase.  The whole structure is not yet finished, but it is already one of considerable size and extent, and is capable of accommodating a very large number of patients.
      • I cannot say that I derived much comfort from the inspection of this charity.  . . . everything had a lounging, listless, madhouse air, which was very painful.  The moping idiot, cowering down with long dishevelled hair; the gibbering maniac, with his hideous laugh and pointed finger; the vacant eye, the fierce wild face, the gloomy picking of the hands and lips, and munching of the nails: there they were all, without disguise, in naked ugliness and horror.  In the dining-room, a bare, dull, dreary place, with nothing for the eye to rest on but the empty walls, a woman was locked up alone.  She was bent, they told me, on committing suicide.  If anything could have strengthened her in her resolution, it would certainly have been the insupportable monotony of such an existence.
      • The terrible crowd with which these halls and galleries were filled, so shocked me, that I abridged my stay within the shortest limits, and declined to see that portion of the building in which the refractory and violent were under closer restraint. “
  • I don’t really want to go further into how bad conditions were in the asylum, just because I find it really disturbing and upsetting.
  • But suffice to say, things were bad, and there was very little for the patients to do. It was even hard to come by reading material. Maybe once a week, there might be some kind of small entertainment planned, like occasional lectures by doctors or concerts.
  • And there were a few really special occasions:
    • A big event was the widely-publicized Lunatic’s Ball, where they’d set up a pavilion for dancing and patients, attendants,  and doctors would all dance. That was a popular event for the newspapers.
    • A couple times a year, the patients might get to see the magic lantern, which is basically a slide projector. Sometimes patients would get to sit in a dark room and see pictures of Arctic explorations, or fantastical things like dancing goblins and ghosts
  • So, despite all of this grimness, there was of course a public fascination with the asylum and its odd inmates, so a number of sensational articles profiled the patients. But there’s one patient whose story is so interesting, and so elliptical, that I’ve found myself really fascinated.
  • That man is Thomas Maxey, an allegedly insane patient who built a strange stone fort with an arched entry gate and a beautiful garden, constructed on land that he’d reclaimed from the east river through his own engineering skill.
    • When I first heard of Fort Maxey, I had a lot of questions–not just about what it was, what it looked like, why it was built, and what happened to it, but also about why on earth a supposed lunatic was given free reign to do a major construction project all on his own.
    • I’ve had a lot of trouble finding the answers to that last question, but my guess is that Thomas Maxey may have been housed in one of the pavilions on the north edge of the island. They were hastily constructed buildings, and I could imagine him wandering out and deciding he wanted to build a fort to live in, and it sounds like once the administrators of the hospital and island saw that he was doing something useful–namely, literally expanding the island through his engineering, they let him keep doing it.
  • There’s a great article from Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, from February 1866, that’s written by a former patient of the Lunatic Asylum.
  • The article is pretty positive, which I think means it should be taken with a grain of salt.
  • But I want to read a bit from that article. This passage is pretty long, but I think it really helps paint a picture of what the island was like, and also it gives some hints to why and how a asylum patient would be given enough free reign to literally build a fort.
    • The Asylum grounds contain some fifteen or twenty acres (the island containing one hundred), and produce . . . the vegetables . . . used by the Institution. . . The tilling of the land, like most of the work about the Asylum, is done by patients under the guidance of a paid official. A  considerable portion of the grounds is devoted to yards for the benefit of the insane, and an extensive garden blooms with many colored flowers. Rarities are not infrequent.
    • An ornamental summer-house adds to the charm of the spectacle, while grand old willows, horse chestnuts, and button-woods, with other trees, make the scene immediately contiguous to the main Asylum exceedingly picturesque by their diversified and luxuriant foliage. The carriage road to the principal entrance runs through a densely-shaded avenue, and a fine vista presents itself—at the end of which the blue water gleaming in the sun, dotted here and there with a white sail, delights the eye. The aspect of nature can not be too highly estimated in its effects upon the better class of patients ; it is the most prominent alleviation of the sufferings they feel in being separated from friends, and for no sin confined in durance vile. It affords them that on which they can build many a pleasant thought, and helps them to relieve their minds of the fancies which oppress them.
  • So that also helps answer the question of why a patient would be allowed to build a weird fort.
  • Though I do want to offer this passage from Nellie Bly’s book as a counterpoint, because it’s clear that not all patients were given such freedom:
    • I looked at the pretty lawn, which I had once thought was such a comfort to the poor creatures confined on the island, and laughed at my own notions. What enjoyment is it to them? They are not allowed on the grass—it is only to look at. I saw some patients eagerly and caressingly lift a nut or a colored leaf that had fallen on the path. But they were not allowed to keep them. The nurses would always compel them to throw their little bit of God’s comfort away.
  • So I’m not sure what made medical professionals deprive some inmates of a leaf while allowing others to manage construction projects.
  • The article has a great description of the fort:
    • The fort is a circular mound of earth, on which stands a wall some four feet high, built of blocks of clay and grass dug from the marsh behind it. Through the wall project the mouths of several large wooden cannon, which, when presented to him by the Commissioners during the past war, Thomas accepted with many thanks, declaring they would be a great protection to the Island and city in frightening off rebel privateers. He has erected a house of novel appearance within this parapet containing two sleeping apartments, a kitchen, and sitting-room, together comjjrising a space less than twelve feet by eight. His garden shows a taste for the sublime, none but the tallest flowers being therein rdmitted. The hollyhock and sunflowers sadly interfere with a view of his interesting domicile. He is now building a stone magazine back of this to contain his ammunition, which exists in vast quantities—in his imagination. The whole structure, together with the long embanked road leading to it, is the work of his own hands, and has occupied more than three years of what he deems his valuable time. Nor is the work without value to the Commissioners, for in the process of construction he has, in order to render it accessible, dug several ditches through the marsh, and thus drained and rendered useful a great part of it. The extent of his labors and of the work may be understood when it is said that at least sixteen square rods have been raised from eight to ten feet, and that a great part of the material was carried a considerable distance.
  • He has also ornamented the causeway leading to the fort by a stone gate, the erection of which would seem to mark an era in architecture, as it is not built according to the rules of any ancient or modern school.
  • I think it’s so fascinating that he basically invented his own architecture style–I’ll include pictures of the house and gate in the shownotes at buriedsecretspodcast.com if you want to take a look.
  • But apparently the gate was covered in ornate carvings and had two openings near the top, which Maxey said was to accommodate wild geese who might want to make their nests there.
  • Having spent a bunch of time on Roosevelt Island, especially since coronavirus started, I can confirm that there are tons and tons of wild geese there, who nest all over the island in the spring.
  • After the gate, there’s a bridge that leads up to the fort.
  • When they reach the fort, the journalist says that they’re greeted by an excited man wearing a woman’s bonnet.
  • Then they go inside the fort, which is tiny and can only hold 3 people at a time. The interior is crowded with wood carvings and a large stone oven. It’s furnished with discarded items from the asylum.
  • There’s a great description of this strange structure, or fort, in an article in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. The story’s called “A Singular Lunatic,” and it was published March 24, 1866:
    • “Travellers on the East River and Sound steamboats, as the enter Hurl Gate on their passage from the metropolis, invariably have their attention drawn to a strange structure on the extremity of Blackwell’s Island. A fort there stands, such as the pupils of a military school might be imagined to have erected for amusement. Toy-like as it seems, it is rendered imposing by the mouths of several terrrific-looking cannon which project from its sides. A nearer approach, and alarm departs; they are discovered to be merely wooden dummies; while an oddly-built shanty, submerged in foliage, attracted the gaze, and assures one of the peaceful nature of the proprietor.”
  • The article then compares it to something from Robinson Crusoe, describing drawbridges, a moat, and a “ponderous mass of masonry supporting the back of the cottage”
  • Apparently the structure had detailed and extensive engravings that the inhabitant, Thomas Maxey, did himself.
    • “Unaided he has drained the marsh, dug turf for the embankment of his fort and the long avenue leading to it. Alone he has conveyed large blocks of stone to the interior of his edifice, and built of them a magazine or cellar. The masonry of the grand entrance is, as well as its design, solely of Tom’s construction; so, too, are the queer architectural adornments in wood-work with which the establishment is filled.”
  • Apparently Maxey had been working on his project continuously for three years, and hadn’t stopped yet.
  • Beside his fort, to the left, there was a fisherman’s hunt with an oven, where it sounds like someone lived. Apparently Maxey thought of the fisherman as his tenant.
  • Maxey claimed that the goal of his project was to make a fortune. He believed that the city government would eventually acknowledge his accomplishment and purchase the fort at a large sum for the city’s protection.
  • He mentioned that plan to everyone who visited him. And since he saw his property as so valuable, he charged visitors, who often paid in ten-cent stamps, and sometimes in dollars. The journalist guessed that Maxey probably had $30 cash.
  • The journalist avoided paying the entry fee by saying that he was a civil engineer sent from Washington to inspect and report on the fort.
  • But  most people who refused to pay were met with attack: Maxey would throw dirt and rocks at them, trapping them in the marsh and forcing asylum employees to rescue them.
  • Occasionally, small boats would drop by the fort in the summer, curious to see what it is. For those trespassers, Maxey claimed there was a $50 fine.
  • Articles about Maxey tend to have long passages of conversation with him which seem calculated to goad Maxey into giving an interesting answer.
    • So from this article, the reporter asks Maxey, “The work goes bravely on, eh?”
    • And Maxey replies very earnestly:
      • Yes, I’m finishing this addition to the house. Strong stone-work, you see. If I’m attacked, you know, I can retreat into my wooden house there; and if then the enemy follow, I can retire into this fortification and keep them all at bay. They’d have to come one by one, and I’d shoot each one as he appeared.
    • The reporter then asks him about his rifle, which Maxey claims just needs a bit of a cleaning, but which the reporter describes as “a rusty fire-lock of antediluvian date, of which the trigger is gone, and the stock is splintered.”
    • Then he starts arguing with Maxey about how his gun is worthless, etc. It sounds like it was an old Revolutionary war gun that someone gave to him.
  • And the reporter then compares him to Don Quixote and Rip Van Winkle, and says he’s like a child making a fake fort. I think the writer is very cruel and condescending in his description of Maxey, who sound like he legitimately is intelligent, since he built a seawall to reclaim land plus a fort with a cool archway and a beautiful garden. Maybe he’s weird, but someone who isn’t smart couldn’t design and construct a fort and arch and engineer a way to reclaim marshy land.
  • I guess Maxey talked a lot, and it sounds like some of his favorite topics were science, mythology, and history.
  • The reporter, seeking to prove that Maxey was a lunatic, asked him some questions that made literally no sense to me. Then when he gets nonsensical, confused answers, he uses that as a way to underscore Maxey’s apparently lunacy.
    • The Harper’s article I was reading from earlier has a moment where that reporter also starts asking Maxey weird questions, like “Can a Chimera, ruminating in vacuum, disseminate second intentions?” Which of course Maxey responds to strangely.
  • I don’t feel like I have enough information to say how sane or insane Thomas Maxey was, but he kind of just sounds like an eccentric inventor to me, more than anything else.
    • The author of the Harper’s article, who’d been a patient himself, closed the article with this really disturbing sentiment:
      • There are within the walls, it is true, a few no more crazy than many outsiders; but they are destitute of friends, and a passage to the world at large would intensify their idiosyncrasies and finally compel their return to the Asylum. Any person able and willing to take them out and try them in their respective professions would be gladly “welcomed by the resident physician. They excite pity which to a certain extent can not be shown them.
  • So, as you can tell, I’m pretty skeptical of the contention that this apparent genius, Thomas Maxey, was a lunatic, based on the data I have. But I find his story fascinating, and almost charming–or at least as charming as any story like this one can be.
    • It at least feels charming compared to the awful, dark history of the rest of Blackwell’s Island. Amid all of the death, and disease, and abuses, it’s refreshing to see engravings of Maxey’s beautiful and strange fort. I stumbled across Fort Maxey six months ago while researching the Renwick Smallpox Hospital episodes and have been fascinated by it ever since.
  • So, what happened to Maxey? I’ve searched findagrave.com, but haven’t been able to find any Thomas Maxeys buried in New York. I also haven’t been able to find anything saying who he was before he was committed, or what he was committed for. That remains a mystery.
  • But what we do know is that the fort was destroyed, and Maxey’s masterpiece was forgotten.
  • And this is where we’ll pick back up next week, where we’ll look at the mysterious lighthouse that now stands on the ground where Fort Maxey once was, and which to this day, casts a weak glow over the waters of the Hell Gate.

Sources consulted RE: Fort Maxey Blackwell’s Island

Books consulted RE: Fort Maxey Blackwell’s Island

Websites RE: Fort Maxey Blackwell’s Island

  • Great pics of the asylum: https://www.theruin.org/blog/2016/10/12/the-new-york-city-lunatic-asylum-a-history
  • https://quiverquotes.com/2017/05/03/to-be-sane-amongst-the-insane/
  • http://www.asylumprojects.org/index.php?title=Blackwell%27s_Island_Asylum
  • https://rihs.us/2020/03/30/charles-dickens-visit-%E2%80%A2-an-island-in-the-mist-%E2%80%A2-artworks-for-sale/
  • https://lisawallerrogers.com/2009/01/03/charles-dickens-visit-to-blackwells-island-asylum-1842/
  • https://www.melinadruga.com/blackwellsislandasylum/
  • https://forgotten-ny.com/2005/10/roosevelt-island-2005/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blackwell_Island_Light
  • https://ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com/2018/06/25/dancing-at-the-lunatics-ball-on-blackwells-island/
  • http://www.hauntingdarkness.com/2012/01/ghosts-of-roosevelt-island.html
  • “BLACKWELL’S ISLAND LUNATIC ASYLUM.” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. Feb1866, Vol. 32 Issue 189, preceding p274-294. 22p. 20 Illustrations:
    Harper’s New Monthly Magazine Volume 126 December 1865 to May 1866: https://archive.org/details/harpersnew32various/page/290/mode/2up?q=fort+maxey
  • Article page 184: https://archive.org/details/harpersweekly00bonn/page/184/mode/2up?q=blackwell%27s
  • Article page 91: https://archive.org/details/harpersweeklyv13bonn/page/91/mode/2up?q=blackwell%27s
  • https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/roosevelt-island-lighthouse
  • http://www.correctionhistory.org/rooseveltisland/html/rooseveltislandtour_lighthouse.html
  • https://rihs.us/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/2018-August-Blackwells-Almanac.pdf
  • https://www.loc.gov/item/ny0949/
  • https://www.loc.gov/item/ny0953/
  • https://www.boweryboyshistory.com/2007/10/mysteries-of-roosevelt-island-madmans.html
  • https://forgotten-ny.com/2005/10/roosevelt-island-2005/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blackwell_Island_Light
  • https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/islands-of-the
  • undesirables-roosevelt-island-blackwell-s-island
  • https://lighthousefriends.com/light.asp?ID=753
  • https://www.gothamcenter.org/blog/an-afternoon-at-blackwells-light
  • Harper’s Weekly Archives: https://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbin/serial?id=harpersweekly
  • HARPER’S WEEKLY. A JOURNAL OF CIVILIZATION. / Volume IX, Issue 466:
    https://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/h/harpersweekly/harpersweekly-idx?coll=harpersweekly;type=HTML;rgn=DIV1;id=;byte=10925913

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