ON the 22d of September I was asked by the World if I could have myself committed to one of the asylums for the insane in New York, with a view to writing a plain and unvarnished narrative of the treatment of the patients therein and the methods of management, etc. Did I think I had the courage to go through such an ordeal as the mission would demand? Could I assume the characteristics of insanity to such a degree that I could pass the doctors, live for a week among the insane without the authorities there finding out that I was only a "chiel amang 'em takin' notes?" I said I believed I could. I had some faith in my own ability as an actress and thought I could assume insanity long enough to accomplish any mission intrusted to me. Could I pass a week in the insane ward at Blackwell's Island? I said I could and I would. And I did.
My instructions were simply to go on with my work as soon as I felt that I was ready. I was to chronicle faithfully the experiences I underwent, and when once within the walls of the asylum to find out and describe its inside workings, which are always, so effectually hidden by white-capped nurses, as well as by bolts and bars, from the knowledge of the public. "We do not ask you to go there for the purpose of making sensational revelations. Write up things as you find them, good or bad; give praise or blame as you think best, and the truth all the time. But I am afraid of that chronic smile of yours," said the editor. "I will smile no more," I said, and I went away to execute my delicate and, as I found out, difficult mission.
If I did get into the asylum, which I hardly hoped to do, I had no idea that my experiences would contain aught else than a simple tale of life in an asylum. That such an institution could be mismanaged, and that cruelties could exist 'neath its roof, I did not deem possible. I always had a desire to know asylum life more thoroughly–a desire to be convinced that the most helpless of God's creatures, the insane, were cared for kindly and properly. The many stories I had read of abuses in such institutions I had regarded as wildly exaggerated or else romances, yet there was a latent desire to know positively.
I shuddered to think how completely the insane were in the power of their keepers, and how one could weep and plead for release, and all of no avail, if the keepers were so minded. Eagerly I accepted the mission to learn the inside workings of the Blackwell Island Insane Asylum.
"How will you get me out," I asked my editor, "after I once get in?"
"I do not know," he replied, "but we will get you out if we have to tell who you are, and for what purpose you feigned insanity–only get in."
I had little belief in my ability to deceive the insanity experts, and I think my editor had less.
All the preliminary preparations for my ordeal were left to be planned by myself. Only one thing was decided upon, namely, that I should pass under the pseudonym of Nellie Brown, the initials of which would agree with my own name and my linen, so that there would be no difficulty in keeping track of my movements and assisting me out of any difficulties or dangers I might get into. There were ways of getting into the insane ward, but I did not know them. I might adopt one of two courses. Either I could feign insanity at the house of friends, and get myself committed on the decision of two competent physicians, or I could go to my goal by way of the police courts.
I'm working on a larger piece about the Chamberlain-Kahn Act of 1918, but in doing so, I ran across the story of Nellie Bly. I'm only vaguely familiar with Bly's work as a journalist - a woman doing that job, and doing it well - in an age where such a thing was scoffed at, at best. I also knew she had done a pretty damning piece on an asylum, and that she had done a trip around the world, but other than that, the greater details were unknown. So it feels only appropriate to tell her story here and now, while I keep digging on the much larger topic of locking up women simply because a man suspected she had an STI (and we all know the STI thing was an excuse to jail and torture "loose women".) More on that horrifying story in a later episode.
Nellie Bly was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran on May 5, 1864 in Armstrong County in Pennsylvania. Her father was a mill worker who later bought the mill and the land around it and became a merchant, postmaster, and associate justice in the town eventually named for him, Cochran's Mills. He was married twice, and had 10 children with his first wife and 5 more with his second. Her father, Michael, died when Nellie was 6 years old.
I find it utterly charming that when she was young, she was known as "Pink" because it was her favorite color and she wore it any chance she got. When Nellie got older, she wanted to be seen as more sophisticated, so she stopped wearing pink and dropped the nickname, then changed her surname to "Cochrane". She only attended one semester at the Indiana Normal School (now the Indiana University of Pennsylvania) before money troubles forced her to drop out. She never had any formal university or college education, but that never stopped Nellie Bly.
First up - correcting a column titled "What Girls Are Good For" in an 1885 edition of the Pittsburgh Dispatch. (I have seen this kind of mansplaining referred to as "correctile dysfunction" and I will now forever call it that.) In the column, if we're being generous enough to call such misogynistic bullshit a "column", the author states that "girls were principally for birthing children and keeping house". As Nellie was wont to do, she sought to correct men when they stepped out of line, so she wrote a response under the pseudonym "Lonely Orphan Girl". The editor, George Madden, was impressed by Bly's passion and command of language, and ran an ad seeking the author's true identity. When Bly stepped forward, Madden gave her a column of her own, under that same pseudonym. That first article for the Pittsburgh Dispatch was titled "The Girl Puzzle" and argued that "not all women would marry and that what was needed were better jobs for women". Pretty groundbreaking stuff for the late 19th century, but she was riding on the coattails of early suffragettes at this time.
Her second article, "Mad Marriages" was about divorce's effect on women; she argued for divorce law reform. This article was published under the byline "Nellie Bly", even though Nellie intended her byline to be "Nelly Bly", and the error stuck. Madden hired her full-time after the second article.
You can read Nellie's first articles here: https://nellieblyonline.net/
Nellie's early career as a journalist focused on the lives of working women, and it's here that she got her first taste of investigative reporting. She wrote an expose on women factory workers, but the newspaper received complaints from the factory owners about her writing, so of course Nellie was relegated to the women's pages to cover – you guessed it – "womanly" things, like fashion and gardening. Dissatisfied with this extra BS, she was determined to "do something no girl has done before", so she went to Mexico to become a foreign correspondent. She spent six months there reporting on the lives and customs of the Mexican people, which were later published into the book Six Months in Mexico. Unfortunately, she had to flee the country when she protested the imprisonment of a local journalist who was criticizing the Mexican government. At the time, Mexico's president was Porfirio Diaz, who ran a dictatorship. Mexican authorities, under Diaz's orders, threatened Bly with arrest; but even once safely home, she accused Diaz of being a "tyrannical czar suppressing the Mexican people and controlling the press".
But none of this stopped Bly. What came next was the investigative report that would put her name on the map, and in the annals of journalistic history.
Blackwell Island and the New York City Mental Health Hospital expose
After getting stuck on the society pages at the Pittsburgh Dispatch, Nellie left the paper and the city for New York. Bly left the following note to her former employer:
"I am off for New York. Look out for me. BLY."
She was roundly rejected many times, since news editors wouldn't hire a woman. She spent months without any income, but used her wit and smarts to eventually talk her way into the offices of Joseph Pulitzer's newspaper, the New York World.
Yes, that Joseph Pulitzer, after whom the literature award is named.
Her very first assignment there was the one that would make her famous. "...to feign insanity in order to be admitted to the Women's Lunatic Asylum, a mental institution on Blackwell's Island (now known as Roosevelt Island) in New York City. The World's managing editor at the time, Colonel John A. Cockerill, along with Pulitzer, promised to secure her release."
Bly used the alias "Nellie Brown" and was able to get past the asylum's Matron, Mrs. Irene Stenard, duping her and the residents of The Temporary Home for Females; but she was also quick and clever enough to convince a police officer, a Justice of the Peace, and medical experts at Bellevue Hospital. Those medical experts then sent her to Blackwell's and even there, she followed fellow newspaper reporters who came to see the mysterious new resident.
A little explanation on this: at this time, women could be locked away for almost anything that was considered disagreeable. Didn't want to have sex with your husband? Off to the asylum you go. Poor and living on the streets, begging for food? You could easily be picked up by the police and thrown into a cell - not in jail, but at a lunatic asylum. Considered a "loose woman" and seen on the arm of an enlisted soldier? Well, clearly you were a danger to society and impressionable men who couldn't help but get boners at the sight of a pretty lady. It was also widely thought that poverty and mental illness went hand-in-hand; if you were mentally ill, you were so because you deserved it for being poor, and many people preached that "the poor were largely violent, dirty, and morally contagious, responsible for their own poverty and liable to spread moral decay". And furthermore that "the poor needed to 'learn to enjoy work'".
Blackwell Island and the Women's Lunatic Asylum were particularly well-known at this time. From "A Portrait of the New York City Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island" by Austin C. LaBau at Utah State University:
"[New York City] (l)egislators were eager to apply the ideals of organization and efficiency that were flourishing in the rapidly industrializing city to the public sector. They hoped that by doing so they could battle the city's rampant corruption, lift its poor out of poverty, combat crime, care for its sick, and morally elevate its citizens ((Burrows and Wallace 2000:Part IV) . This was the era of Tammany Hall and Boss Tweed , and New York City's political leaders were loath to cede control of anything to the state, including its insane asylums. City officials pushed back . Part of this strategy was the insane asylum.
The first iteration of the asylum on Blackwell Island was the New York City Lunatic Asylum, which opened in 1839. By 1890, "it was home to a prison, a charity hospital, men's and women's almshouses, a workhouse, a smallpox hospital, a chapel, and the second largest insane asylum in the country."
In 1870, Blackwell Island Asylum became "an all-women's asylum…and the men were transferred to a branch asylum on nearby Ward's Island…by 1880 the two asylums on Blackwell's and Ward's Islands had grown to be the second and third largest asylums in the country, with nearly 1 in every 13 asylum patients in the country living on four small islands in the Hudson River."
And even worse: "In 1885, 400 patients on Blackwell's Island had to sleep on the floor each night, and 300 had to stand while they ate."
Now clearly at this time, mental illness could mean an array of things, and women in particular were locked away for no reason whatsoever…the only reason given that a man in her life thought her to be troublesome, and so off she went to a place where getting in was easy, but getting out was incredibly difficult. And the asylums on Blackwell Island were notoriously understaffed and under-resourced, with patients contracting scurvy and other illnesses, while violent patients often got away with beating other patients. Those working at the asylums were underpaid, or sometimes not paid at all, and suffered in the same conditions as the patients.
Nellie Bly, or Nellie Brown, arrived on Blackwell's Island in 1887.
"On reflection I thought it wiser not to inflict myself upon my friends or to get any good-natured doctors to assist me in my purpose. Besides, to get to Blackwell's Island my friends would have had to feign poverty, and, unfortunately for the end I had in view, my acquaintance with the struggling poor, except my own self, was only very superficial. So I determined upon the plan which led me to the successful accomplishment of my mission. I succeeded in getting committed to the insane ward at Blackwell's Island, where I spent ten days and nights and had an experience which I shall never forget. I took upon myself to enact the part of a poor, unfortunate crazy girl, and felt it my duty not to shirk any of the disagreeable results that should follow. I became one of the city's insane wards for that length of time, experienced much, and saw and heard more of the treatment accorded to this helpless class of our population, and when I had seen and heard enough, my release was promptly secured. I left the insane ward with pleasure and regret–pleasure that I was once more able to enjoy the free breath of heaven; regret that I could not have brought with me some of the unfortunate women who lived and suffered with me, and who, I am convinced, are just as sane as I was and am now myself.
But here let me say one thing: From the moment I entered the insane ward on the Island, I made no attempt to keep up the assumed role of insanity. I talked and acted just as I do in ordinary life. Yet strange to say, the more sanely I talked and acted the crazier I was thought to be by all except one physician, whose kindness and gentle ways I shall not soon forget."
Bly spent 10 days in the asylum for women on Blackwell's Island, and her report titled Ten Days in a Madhouse, from which I read chapter 1 at the very beginning, made national headlines and rocked the entire country.
Bly's report "recounted nearly every abuse and deficit found by the state committee earlier that year in graphic detail. The food that had been so greatly improved ten years earlier had again deteriorated to the point of being barely edible…the beautiful grounds often boasted of by asylum officials proved little comfort…women were not permitted to bathe themselves, instead being scrubbed mercilessly by other patients, one after another in the same cold water…attendants were lazy, cruel, and vindictive, and all the work was done by the patients…[a]ttendants enjoyed beating and tormenting patients."
Bly made a point of talking to as many women as she could. Among the sane ones, she found that many were immigrants who didn't understand English and seemed to have been mistakenly committed to the island. Others were just poor and thought they were going to a poorhouse, not an insane asylum, she wrote. All related horrible stories of neglect and heartless cruelty.
Mrs. Cotter, "a pretty, delicate woman," told Bly that, "for crying, the nurses beat me with a broom-handle and jumped on me, injuring me internally, so that I shall never get over it." She said the nurse then tied her hands and feet, threw a sheet over her head to muffle her screams and put her in a bathtub of cold water. "They held me under until I gave up every hope and became senseless."
"The beatings I got there were something dreadful," Bridget McGuinness told Bly. "I was pulled around by the hair, held under the water until I strangled, and I was choked and kicked. ... It was hopeless to complain to the doctors, for they always said it was the imagination of our diseased brains, and besides we would get another beating for telling."
Nurses drugged inmates with "so much morphine and chloral that the patients are made crazy," Bly reported. "The attendants seemed to find amusement and pleasure in exciting the violent patients to do their worst," she wrote.
Exhausted and starving, Bly was relieved when, 10 days after her entry into the asylum, lawyers from the New York World arranged for her release. Though sorry to leave the suffering women, Bly was eager to write about what she had seen.
Bly's subsequent expose originally appeared in the World as a two-part illustrated series–the first on October 10, 1887 entitled 'Behind Asylum Bars.' Her exposure of the abuses on Blackwell's Island was one of New York's most extraordinary sensations of the time and readers rushed to read the next installment of the "interesting story" published in the October 16, 1887 issue entitled 'Inside the Madhouse.'
Her reporting and daring made her a permanent staff member at the paper, and her series was published as a book titled Ten Days in a Mad-House.
"Bly's fearless investigation brought about much-needed reforms for inpatient treatment at the asylum and her work forever changed the field of journalism. The budget appropriation for the Department of Public Charities and Corrections was increased from $1.5 million to $2.34 million and $50,000 was specifically designated for Blackwell's asylum. Seven years after the expose was published, the asylum closed."
You can read the full report from Nellie Bly here: https://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/bly/madhouse/madhouse.html
Bly's career skyrocketed after the expose. In 1888, she suggested to her editor that, like Jules Verne, she should take a trip around the world. She circumnavigated the globe in just over 72 days, and traveled alone for almost the entire journey. By doing this, she set a world record, but it only stood for a few months before a man named George Francis Train completed the same journey in 67 days.
After her world trip, Bly quit reporting to take a job writing "serial novels for publisher Norman Munro's weekly New York Family Story Paper." Between 1889 and 1895, she wrote 11 novels. Many of them were thought lost until 2021, when author David Blixt announced he had found some copies.
After that, Bly faded from view for a while. In 1895, she married millionaire manufacturer Robert Seaman - he was 73 years old and in failing health, she was 31 and in her prime. With that, she eventually succeeded her husband as the head of the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company. Seaman died in 1904. But despite all this, Bly's desire to treat workers fairly and ensure they had a living wage helped those under her employ.
"She ran her company as a model of social welfare, replete with health benefits and recreational facilities. But Bly was hopeless at understanding the financial aspects of her business and ultimately lost everything. Unscrupulous employees bilked the firm of hundreds of thousands of dollars, troubles compounded by protracted and costly bankruptcy litigation."
After her husband's death, Bly went back to reporting, writing inflammatory articles like "Suffragists Are Men's Superiors" and accurately predicting that 1920 would be the year women would get the right to vote in the U.S.
Bly died on January 27, 1922 of pneumonia at St. Mark's Hospital in New York City. She was 57 years old.
To this day, places where the severely mentally ill are held are cold, cruel buildings with ill treatment and unsafe, unsanitary conditions. Now called psychiatric hospitals, they have been likened to prisons rather than places of care.
"Psychiatrist Thomas Szasz in Hungary has argued that psychiatric hospitals are like prisons unlike other kinds of hospitals, and that psychiatrists who coerce people (into treatment or involuntary commitment) function as judges and jailers, not physicians."
If you want to learn more about the mental health crisis, particularly in the US, I highly recommend Bedlam: An Intimate Journey Into America's Mental Health Crisis by Kenneth Paul Rosenberg.
"Dr. Rosenberg gives readers an inside look at the historical, political, and economic forces that have resulted in the greatest social crisis of the twenty-first century. The culmination of a seven-year inquiry, Bedlam is not only a rallying cry for change, but also a guidebook for how we move forward with care and compassion, with resources that have never before been compiled, including legal advice, practical solutions for parents and loved ones, help finding community support, and information on therapeutic options."
Full Source List