New York City, NY

Nellie Bly goes undercover at Blackwell Island to expose the truth, America's first woman investigative journalist.

Sara B

Roosevelt Island, New York, was once known as Blackwell's Island, a home for the mentally insane, the poor, and incarcerated, once nicknamed Welfare Island, located in New York on the East River between Manhattan and Queens. It got the name Blackwell from its previous owners, the Blackwells, who owned the island in the 1700s, and in 1828 they sold the island to the City of New York.

New York then decided to use the island for physical and mental rehabilitation, including a penitentiary, lunatic asylum, a home for the poor, and a charity hospital. It was designed to be a state-of-the-art institution based on theories of moral treatment.

During this time in 1887, a journalist named Nellie Bly wanted to break into journalism. Nellie Bly is her pen name; she was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran and started her journalism career by responding to an article in the Pittsburgh Dispatch that criticized women in the workplace.

Nellie wrote an anonymous letter criticizing the piece, and her criticism was so good the newspaper put an ad in the paper asking the anonymous writer to come forward; George Madden wanted to hire her. Nellie Bly stepped forward, adopted her pen name, and was offered a job.

However, the job was different from what she expected; she was limited in her articles and wanted more of a journalism role vs. writing about women's fashion; she eventually quit and looked for a new opportunity. She then set out for a bigger and better story and moved to New York City.

She found it difficult to break into the male-dominated field and decided to take matters into her own hands. She went to the New York World office and pitched a story to Joseph Pulitzer, but he declined her story. He, however, pitched a new article for her to write to investigate the mental asylum on Blackwell Island.

It would be an exposé and a dangerous assignment, as she would have to be a patient inside Blackwell. Nevertheless, Nellie saw it as an opportunity, and she accepted and chose to go undercover to get the full story of how the women on Blackwell Island were treated.

Before she left Pulitzers' office, they had a plan, how she would get admitted to the insane asylum and how she would act while inside. First, Nellie planned to check herself into a boarding house- The Temporary Homes for Females and make them think she was insane.

In the 1800s, making people believe you were insane was an easy challenge; some of the reasons included mania, dementia, melancholy, hysteria, epilepsy, and idiocy. Also, husbands could commit their wives for basically anything, as it was a time in history when the wife was seen as property to a man, and he could use any excuse to have her committed.

"Compulsive epilepsy, metabolic disorders, syphilis, personality due to epidemic encephalitis, moral adverse conditions such as: loss of friends, business troubles, mental strain, religious excitement, sunstroke, and overheat," log from California's Patton State Hospital archive.

Nellie began to act ¨crazy¨ she refused to sleep, ranted and yelled incoherently, and even perfected a crazed look by practicing in the mirror. It was not long before the boarding house owner called the police and had her committed.

The plan was, once she was admitted to the asylum, she would resume her usual demeanor, that of an intelligent woman who was not insane. While there, she would talk to the girls and get a sense of what was happening inside the facility. As well as everyone admitted to the asylum, crazy or insane, she would report on the living conditions and the treatment of the patients.

She, too, would be treated as a patient, and no one would know that she was an undercover reporter looking to expose the truth; however, there was a risk since neither she nor the newspaper had a clear plan on how she would get out, as it seemed no one ever left Blackwell, except for in a box. So Nellie was in for a challenge.

After the boarding house called the police, she was brought before a judge who ordered her to be examined at Bellevue hospital. The judge thought she might have been drugged, and a few days at Bellevue would help her; it is at Bellevue where Bly was examined to see if she was ¨crazy¨.

Although according to Nellie, the examination to determine if she was insane included the doctor feeling her pulse, sticking out her tongue, and shining a light in her eyes, he decided that her pupils did look big, and it was assumed she had taken belladonna, which she had not. Then, he ordered her to be committed to Blackwell, with a diagnosis of ¨dementia and other psychological illness¨.

Once Nellie arrived at Blackwell, she did not feign insanity, and while waiting to be admitted, she met a woman, Miss Anne Neville; she had become sick from being overworked. She worked as a chambermaid when she became ill and was sent to the Sister's Home to be treated; however, her family could not pay for the facility, and they transferred her to Bellevue, who moved her to Blackwell.

When Nellie asked if there was anything wrong with her mentally, Neville replied no. Still, she stated:

¨The doctor has been asking me many curious questions and confusing me as much as possible, but I have nothing wrong with my brain¨.

She also stated that the doctors refused to listen to the patients, and if you had no money, you were automatically sent to Blackwell.

While Nellie was being admitted, the doctor was more concerned with flirting with the nurse than assessing her mental health of Nellie, and he also declared her to be insane, even though she had reverted to her usual self.

While in the asylum Nellie and her fellow patients were forced to deal with physical and psychological abuse, take ice-cold baths, and wear cold, wet clothes for hours. One night Nellie asked for a nightgown, and the nurse told her ¨we do not have such things in this institution¨ and informed her that ¨this is a charity, and you should be thankful for what you get¨.

Nellie stated ¨, but the city pays to keep these places up and pays people to be kind to the unfortunate brought here¨. The nurse did not appreciate this statement and stated, ¨Well, you don't need to expect any kindness here, for you won't get it.¨

Throughout the night, Nellie was woken up frequently and forced to take medications before bed. During the day, they were forced to sit on hard benches and could not speak, read or move for up to 12 hours a day. Even women were tied together and forced to pull carts like animals.

The food was even worse, rotten meat, moldy, stale bread, and dirty dishes. If you complained, you would be beaten or abused. Nellie observed a patient getting a cold bath one day; the patient stated she was sick and could not tolerate the cold water and to not be so rough with her; the nurse responded:

¨There isn't much fear of hurting you. So shut up, or you'll get it worse¨.

It was standard treatment of those inside the asylum, as well as Nellie was concerned for the safety of the patients if there was a fire, as each patient was locked inside their rooms, and the only way out was a nurse opening the door, one by one.

In the ten days that Nellie was inside the asylum, she witnessed an assault on basic human dignity, stating:

¨What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment? Here is a class of women sent to be cured. I would like the expert physicians who are condemning me for my action, which has proven their ability, to 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, 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¨.

For Nellie to be released from the asylum, lawyers from New York World had to intervene to arrange her release. Once Bly was released, she published her article titled ¨Behind Asylum Bars¨, an overnight hit.

The psychologists apologized, and even the New York City government became involved and vowed to allocate more money to care for the mentally ill on Blackwell Island. In addition, a grand jury was called upon to investigate the abuse of the patients and the abusive nurses and doctors fired.

Nellie then wrote a book titled ¨Ten Days in a Madhouse¨. Due to the work of Nellie Bly, the treatment of the mentally ill was improved. In 1894 the New York City Lunatic Asylum was closed.

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I share legends, myths, and bizarre history, sometimes news. Living nomadically since 2018, currently in Colombia.

Pasadena, CA

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