In 1887 a young newspaper reporter went undercover to expose the horrors of Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum in New York. The resulting expose she wrote rivals American Horror Story.
Nellie Bly was one of the most renowned journalists of her day. She spent time as a correspondent in Mexico and broke the record for round the world travel by making the journey in only 72 days. However, the piece the catapulted her to fame was an expose of New York’s mental heath system written for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World in 1887 when Nellie Bly was only 23-years-old.
Ms. Bly faked her insanity by checking in to a boarding house for single women, refusing to pay her bill, claiming to be afraid of the tenants and pretending to have no memory of anything other than the lost baggage she was waiting for. Several doctors examined her, each found her to be insane and passed her along to the next stage in the system. She was taken to court, sent to Bellvue Hospital’s insane pavilion and ultimately committed to Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum. She intended to get into the violent ward at Blackwell’s but backed out of this once she experience the conditions non-violent patients lived with every day.
That so many doctors were all convinced by her feigned insanity led Ms. Bly to conclude that many of the other inmates were just as sane as she was. One woman, Bly believed, was simply there because none of the medical professionals who examined her could understand the German she spoke.
I was struck by three things while reading Ten Days in a Mad House. First was how genuinely charitable and understanding so many people were in the initial part of the story. Ms. Bly meets one woman at the boarding house who stays with her, comforting her, all through the night and the next day even going with her to the first police station. The boardinghouse land lady is also an understanding person when she had every right not to be. The first judge is friendly, sympathetic, recognizes Nellie Bly as a young woman not much different from his own daughter. Bly chose to go among the lower classes as a way to get herself committed against her will, but the lower classes almost subverted her attempt; they are so helpful.
Blackwell’s Island can’t help but strike a modern reader. I consider the television show American Horror Story to be a guilty pleasure. For those of you who have not seen it, season two is set in an insane asylum and features a woman reporter who has gone undercover to expose the ill-treatment of the inmates. Frankly, I excused what I found unbelievable for the sake of enjoying the show, but after reading Nellie Bly I’m not so sure I needed to. While American Horror Story was set in the 1960’s during the Mad Men era the asylum it depicts is straight out of Nellie Bly’s story; minus the demons, aliens and creepy nuns.
From Ms. Bly’s first day there we can see how horrible conditions on Blackwell’s Island are going to be:
I saw the other patients hurrying past in the hall, so I decided not to lose anything that might be going on. We numbered forty-five patients in Hall 6, and were sent to the bathroom, where there were two coarse towels. I watched crazy patients who had the most dangerous eruptions all over their faces dry on the towels and then saw women with clean skins turn to use them. I went to the bathtub and washed my face at the running faucet and my underskirt did duty for a towel.
When we got into the dining-room at last we found a bowl of cold tea, a slice of buttered bread and a saucer of oatmeal, with molasses on it, for each patient. I was hungry, but the food would not down. I asked for unbuttered bread and was given it. I cannot tell you anything which is the same dirty, black color. It was hard, and in places nothing more than dried dough. I found a spider in my slice, so I did not eat it.
I will not go into the cruel treatment the patients received at the hands of the nurses and orderlies except to say that Bly’s description of how kind and generous everyone at the boardinghouse was made Blackwell’s all the more horrible.
The final thing that struck me was just how much reading Bly’s book felt like reading a blog. There has been some concern in journalistic circles these days that the influence of blogs is spilling over into what should be more objective journalism. Nellie Bly’s writing would fit perfectly into today’s long-form blog-like journalism. She is always personal, always subjective. She never shys from describing events as happening to her in a specific way. While she is presenting evidence to support her story, she is not trying to be objective in the fashion we’ve come to see as a mark of “good journalism.” I think you can see this from the passages I quoted above. Though it’s well over 100 years old, Nellie Bly’s writing is easy reading.
I’ve got three more pieces in my Complete Works of Nellie Bly including Around the World in 72 Days. She’s available in e-book format now. She’s well worth a read and would make an excellent subject for a television series, too.