The Woman Who Exposed The Horrors of an Asylum

Ryan Fan

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“It is only after one is in trouble that one realizes how little sympathy and kindness there are in the world.” — Nellie Bly, Ten Days in a Mad-House

I previously wrote about how a woman traveled around the world in 72 days — Elizabeth Jane Cochran, also known as Nellie Bly, her pen name. She would later take on the name of her husband, Robert Seaman, and be named Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman. But not only did Nellie Bly have a record-breaking feat of traveling around the world, but she also spent 10 days in an asylum to reveal the brutality and neglect with which patients were treated.

As someone who really respects good and novel reporting, Nellie Bly is an inspiration, and as a woman, Nellie Bly provided a model for other women going into journalism to achieve the highest level of reporting, according to her biographer, Brooke Kroeger:

“Her two-part series in October 1887 was a sensation, effectively launching the decade of ‘stunt’ or ‘detective’ reporting, a clear precursor to investigative journalism.”

Background

The story behind how Nellie Bly was assigned the asylum story was that she left her old newspaper, the Pittsburgh Dispatch. Bly went to New York to do freelance work. Before she left the Dispatch, a columnist named Erasmus Wilson published a piece in the Pittsburgh Dispatch “decrying the appearance of women in the workforce,” according to Kroeger in the American National Biography. Wilson would sign off with a name as “The Quiet Observer,” or Q.O. for short.

Cochran would sign herself off as “Lonely Orphan Girl” and demanded a wider definition for the “women’s sphere”. Apparently, editor George Madden of the Dispatch was so impressed by the letter that he asked the “Lonely Orphan Girl” to come forward, and sign herself off as “Nellie Bly,” and she wrote on the women’s page before quitting after her first year.

She wrote “Dear Q.O… I’m off to New York. Look out for me. BLY,” and left the note on Wilson’s desk.

When Bly was in New York, she wrote a freelance piece about how difficult it was for a woman reporter to find work in the city. That piece gave her access to interview the great editors of the city, which got her an assignment from the New York World. Her first assignment was to fake being insane and get committed to an asylum on Blackwell’s Island: the Woman’s Lunatic Asylum.

Ten Days in a Mad-House

Ten Days in a Mad-House, Public Domain
“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.” — Nellie Bly

Time Magazine would label the expose on the Woman’s Lunatic Asylum one of the “Top 10 Literary Stunts” in history. To practice getting into the asylum, Bly wrote that she “read snatches of improbable and impossible ghost stories.” That day, she skipped breakfast, and even wrote that she feared the emotional toll of the mission on herself:

“I mused, for who could tell but that the strain of playing crazy, and being shut up with a crowd of mad people, might turn my own brain, and I would never get back.”

Bly would check into a boardinghouse, and while there, she refused to go to bed. She said that she was afraid to look at all the boarders because they looked “crazy,” and the next morning, they called the police on her. She was taken to a courtroom, where she said she had amnesia, and then the judge said she had been drugged. A doctor labeled her “positively demented” and called her a “hopeless case.”

Bellevue Hospital’s head of the insane pavilion called her “undoubtedly insane.” However, a front-page New York Times headline would say that she claimed to be called “Nellie Mareno” because it was the Spanish equivalent of Brown, but the Times would say that she had no Spanish accent whatsoever.

“Her appearance is pre-eminently that of an American. Nothing could be gained from her as to her history,” the September 26, 1887 story said.

Once she went into the asylum, however, she acted like she normally would, and the staff of the hospital would report her ordinary symptoms as symptoms of her illness, unaware that she was undercover. Bly’s pleas to be released would be ignored by asylum officials. At Bellevue, her roommate was a woman named Mrs. Caine who was convinced that Bly was trying to kill her.

“Yet strange to say, the more sanely I talked and acted the crazier I was thought to be,” Bly said.

She titled the ninth chapter of her book as “An Expert(?) At Work,” questioning the professionalism of an official. But as to people that she was convinced weren’t actually mentally ill, she talked about a young Hebrew woman who didn’t know any English. Nurses would tell her that the woman’s name was Sarah Fishbaum, and that her husband committed her to the asylum because she was attracted to other men.

Bly also knew an Irishwoman at Bellevue named Anne Neville who was kind, good-hearted and was put in the asylum for allegedly being sick from overwork. When Neville’s health deteriorated, her family was unable to pay for her expenses and she was committed to Bellevue. Neville would tell Bly that the doctors wouldn’t listen to her and it was useless to talk to the nurses. Bly was convinced that Neville was just as sane as she was.

“What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment?” she asked.

She spoke not only of poor treatment by nurses, comparing them to jailers, who were not kind to patients in the slightest, going as far as to choke and beat patients. Food-wise, the patients received spoiled beef that they could barely chew and cold potatoes, with no utensils. The bread was dried dough that people could barely eat, and the water dirty and undrinkable. She would say that some patients were tied with ropes and made to sit on hard, cold benches.

In the baths, the bathwater was extremely cold. Ice was poured on their heads, and after one patient used the water, it was usually never replaced. Each patient would bathe in the same filthy water, and when the water wasn’t replaced, the tub was not cleaned, despite being stained and dirty. Patients would share towels.

Her release would be secured after about ten days by the World and its lawyers and she felt a “free breath of heaven” and a sense of regret that she could not do the same for women still in the asylum, being she was “convinced, are just as sane as I was and am now myself.”

“Unless there is a change there will someday be a tale of horror never equaled,” she said.

Impact

“Take a perfectly sane and healthy woman, shut her up and make her sit from 6 a.m. until 8 p.m. on straight-back benches, do not allow her to talk or move during these hours, give her no reading and let her know nothing of the world or its doings, give her bad food and harsh treatment, and see how long it will take to make her insane. Two months would make her a mental and physical wreck,” — Nellie Bly

Soon after Bly left Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum, she was summoned to go before the Grand Jury based on a report of her experience and the conditions. She did so graciously because even though she wasn’t able to directly able to help and secure the release of the women in the asylum, she “hoped at least to influence others to make life more bearable for them.”

The jurors eventually requested that she accompany them to Blackwell’s Island, to which she did. However, the asylum had been notified that she and the jury and behaved accordingly. This time, they went into a clean new boat onto the island. The nurses and doctors would emphasize that the problem was underfunding and didn’t have access to good medical equipment. In response to her story on the Grand Jury, a nurse who mistreated patients was fired at Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum.

She would encounter Anne Neville again, who said that the doctors and nurses drastically improved their treatment since Nellie Bly left. Bly was known as Miss Brown during her time at Blackwell’s Island.

“Strange to say, ever since Miss [Nellie] Brown has been taken away everything is different. The nurses are very kind and we are given plenty to wear. The doctors come to see us often and the food is greatly improved.”

The asylum also denied knowledge of many of the women who were present that Bly had encountered, and while the asylum put on a great appearance, the Grand Jury was not convinced by the act. It commissioned a nearly $1,000,000 increase ($850,000) in the budget of the Department of Public Charities and Corrections and made changes that Bly had proposed, including a condition that only the seriously ill would be committed to the asylum.

Nellie Bly’s investigative journalism would be published in the World in a series of articles, but the exposé would be composed into a book titled Ten Days in a Mad-House. By calling attention to injustice and giving a voice to the mistreated members of the asylum, she was able to effect serious change and improvement to mental health treatment in 1887, making her a pioneer in mental health reform.

Photo of Nellie Bly — From H.J. Myers on the Public Domain

Originally published on August 17, 2020 on Invisible Illness.

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Believer, Baltimore City special ed teacher, and 2:40 marathon runner. Diehard fan of "The Wire," God's gift to the Earth. Support me: https://ko-fi.com/ryanfan

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