On this day in 1922, Nellie Bly passes away. The plucky journalist had been much loved for her pioneering work as an investigative reporter.
Her daring adventures would shock the world, but it was a stunt in 1887 that made her a household name: The then-23-year-old Nellie got herself committed to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island (modern-day Roosevelt Island) in New York.
There had been rumors of abuses at the facility, and she’d agreed to take on the undercover assignment for the New York World.
Naturally, this meant she had to convince people that she was crazy. She checked herself into a temporary home for working women under an assumed name. She acted sad and distracted. She refused to sleep. She accused the other women of being crazy, and she began ranting about her “missing trunks.”
The police were called, and she was brought before a judge. She was committed with disconcerting speed.
Once in the asylum, Nellie quit pretending to be crazy. She acted normally, but the doctors and nurses saw only the crazy person they expected to see.
Nellie was shocked at the conditions. The inmates were given spoiled, moldy, or rotten food. Women were forcibly stripped and shoved into freezing baths. The water wasn’t always clean—nor were the towels.
“My teeth chattered and my limbs were goose-fleshed and blue with cold,” Nellie wrote. “Suddenly I got, one after the other, three buckets of water over my head—ice-cold water, too—into my eyes, my ears, my nose and my mouth. I think I experienced some of the sensations of a drowning person as they dragged me, gasping, shivering and quaking, from the tub. For once I did look insane.”
On other occasions, the inmates were forced to sit very still, without speaking or moving, for hours. Complaints were met with beatings and abuse. Women were held under water, as punishment, until they nearly drowned.
To top it all off, Nellie found that many of the women were not mentally ill. Some were immigrants who didn’t speak English and couldn’t defend themselves in court. Others were poor and had thought they were being taken to a poorhouse.
Many women were sane when they entered, but less so after they’d been there for a while.
“[The expert physicians have] proven their ability,” Nellie later wrote, “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, 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.”
Fortunately, the New York World got Nellie released after 10 days. She wrote a two-part series detailing everything she’d seen. It was an immediate sensation and was even re-published as a book.
People were, quite simply, horrified.
A grand jury was convened. People were fired. $1 million was added to the asylum’s budget—an enormous amount in 1887. Translators were hired to help immigrants in future court proceedings.
Nellie’s audacious stunt had drastically improved life for many women, but it changed her own life, too.
“To succeed at feigning insanity and live to write about it was an extraordinary feat,” her biographer concludes. “As the achievement of a woman journalist in this period, its brilliance was blinding. The acclaim Bly won was as much of a sensation as the achievement itself.”
But Nellie wasn’t through. She’d soon race around the world, completing her trip in a (then stunningly fast) 72 days.
Naturally, that is a story for another day.
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heroines can be found on my website, HERE.
Diane Bernard, She went undercover to expose an insane asylum’s horrors. Now Nellie Bly is getting her due (Washington Post; July 28, 2019)
Brooke Kroeger, Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist (1994)
Matthew Goodman, Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World (2013)
Nellie Bly, Ten Days in a Mad-House (1887) (modern reprint HERE)