The Inside Scoop on Nellie Bly

How She Entered an Asylum and Fought for Mental Health Reform

On September 22, 1887, Nellie Bly accepted a dangerous undercover journalistic assignment for The New York World.  She was to commit herself to one of the lunatic asylums and write “a plain and unvarnished narrative of the treatment of the patients therein.”  Less than a month later, The New York World published Bly’s account of her ten days spent in the mad-house. Her shocking exposé revealed atrocious conditions and appalling treatment of the women being kept at Blackwell Island’s Lunatic Asylum. Readers were outraged at the relative ease of Bly’s admission and questioned the process for determining mental instability. Nellie Bly’s scandalous story led to mental health reform.

At only twenty-three years of age, Bly had already ditched her given name – Elizabeth Jane Cochran – for the catchier byline, Nellie Bly, and she was desperate for a job. Four months earlier, she had moved to New York City from Philadelphia hoping to find employment as a serious news reporter, but after many rounds of rejections, her impatience ran out.

She asked her landlady for cab fare, rode down to The New York World offices and lied to the guard on duty about a made up meeting with the managing editor, Mr. Joseph Pulitzer. Amazingly, her plucky approach worked and Pulitzer granted her an interview. When she pitched him a story idea about sending her to Europe so she could board a ship back to Ellis Island and write about the abuses of the steerage class patrons, Pulitzer declined. He had another, more brazen idea.

Around the World in Seventy-Two Days and Other Writings (Penguin Classics) by Nellie Bly (Author), Jean Marie Lutes (Editor, Introduction), Maureen Corrigan (Foreword).

Bly accepted his offer without hesitation and began plotting her impersonation of an insane person. She wondered, “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?” Bly trusted her acting abilities and set to work.

Dressed raggedly and assuming a dreamy expression, Nellie Bly rented a room under a false name at a women’s boarding house. On her first night, she upset the other guests and house matron to such a degree with her crying about a lost trunk that the matron called for the police, and she was removed from the house. A judge decided that her condition was due to drugs, because the pupils of her eyes were enlarged, and she was sent to Bellevue Hospital for further evaluation.

At Bellevue Hospital, an undercover Bly met Miss Neville, also being held for psychiatric evaluation. Bly writes, “Miss Neville was a sane as I myself.” Nevertheless, both women were declared positively demented and shipped by wagon and boat to the notorious Blackwell Island Lunatic Asylum.

Blackwell Island. Picture reprinted by UPenn University Library.

Blackwell Island. Picture reprinted by UPenn University Library.

This asylum was the first mental hospital in the city of New York. One year after it opened in 1840, it housed just under 300 people. In 1868, although the asylum could only accommodate 640 patients, over a 1000 were crammed into the building. The majority of patients locked up were poor immigrants who were not able to speak English.

Bly’s impersonation took this into account. With the cover name Nellie Brown, Bly spoke with a Spanish accent and told the admission staff she hailed from Cuba. Bly writes, “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….”

Once trapped, Bly writes about rancid food, extreme boredom, freezing baths, drafty rooms and cramped quarters. Also, she shares many deeply disturbing stories about the treatment of some of the women incarcerated.

A Frenchwoman explains to Bly that she was admitted because when she was ill, she spoke deliriously in her native tongue, and she was sent to the Island because no one could understand her. She tells Bly that she no longer cries or tries to plead her case with the nurses and doctors because no one listens. Once to stop her from crying, one of the attendants choked her and her throat has been sore ever since.

Nellie Bly before Judge Duffy. Picture reprinted by UPenn University Library.

Nellie Bly before Judge Duffy. Picture reprinted by UPenn University Library.

Bly also tells about another woman who was treated just as deplorably. Urena Little-Page, a women approaching middle age, believed she was eighteen. The nurses teased and mocked her until the woman became hysterical. Then the nurses dragged in into a closet and when she came out later, the woman’s neck was red and bruised.

Perhaps the most harrowing details are Bly’s descriptions of the Rope Gang:  “a long rope onto which fifty-two women are strung together via wide leather belts locked around their waists; all are sobbing, crying, or screaming, each inhabiting her private delusion in public.”

Several of Bly’s stories focus on Miss Tillie Mayard who arrived on the Island with Bly. She tells Bly that she is sane and Bly believes her, but as the days wear on, Bly watches with consternation as her condition worsens. “She was continually cold and unable to eat of the food provided. Day after day, she sang in order to try to maintain her memory, but at last the nurse made her stop it. I talked with her daily and I grieved to find her grow worse so rapidly. At last she got a delusion.”

Ten-days after being falsely admitted into Blackwell Island, Joseph Pulitzer was able to secure the release of his journalist. In the closing paragraphs of her account, Bly writes, “The Insane Asylum on Blackwell’s Island is a human rat trap. It is easy to get in, but once there it is impossible to get out.”

With Ten Days in the Mad-House, Nellie Bly definitely made a name for herself as one of the first undercover journalists. She followed up with another covert assignment where she impersonated a maid looking for a job to reveal shady employment practices and then as an unwed mother looking to sell her baby to expose a black market for newborns. She then went undercover as a factory worker to highlight the wretched working conditions for female garment workers.

Nellie Bly, Historical and Public Figures Collection - New York Public Library Archives

Nellie Bly, Historical and Public Figures Collection – New York Public Library Archives.

Bly also wrote a number of articles showing her strong support for women’s rights. She interviewed Belva Lockwood who ran for President of the United States in 1884 and 1888. Bly’s article strongly advocated for this female presidential candidate. She also interviewed and published an article about Susan B. Anthony and another that argued for women to propose marriage instead of waiting around for a man to do so.

By 1890, Bly was a household name, and that is the year of her most memorable journalistic stunt. Inspired by Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, she undertook to accomplish Verne’s fictional feat. She began her journey by steamer on November 14, 1889, and traveled by steamers and trains for the next seventy-two consecutive days becoming (for a short time) the world record holder for circumnavigating the globe.

Nellie Bly’s successful undercover assignment at Blackwell Island Lunatic Asylum, however, is what put her on the front page and into the hearts of her readers. Her detailed and emotional observations poignantly shined a light on the injustices of the vulnerable and marginalized. She writes, “It is only after one is in trouble that one realizes how little sympathy and kindness there are in the world.”  After publishing her story, the public clamored for mental health reform.  With Bly’s help, an investigation was launched, and a grand jury ordered a $100,000 increase to the budget for the New York City Department of Public Charities and Correction. They also called for significant changes to the admission evaluation process. Bly’s undercover investigation and the grand jury’s findings ultimately led to the closing of this asylum. Her impassioned story, Ten Days in the Madhouse, showed that compassion can thrive even in the harshest of circumstances.

About Kristen LePine
KRISTEN LEPINE is the co-founder and Executive Director of Historic Heroines. An accomplished writer, educator and mother, Kristen is often inspired by history and current events. She wrote about Nellie Bly and mental health care in CRACKED POTS, a play commissioned by Theatre J in Washington DC. Currently she is working on a historical novel set in ancient Sparta. Visit her at www.kristenlepine.com.
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