In the 1800s, female reporters were far and few between, let alone investigative journalists. Even with the odds stacked against her, 23-year-old Nellie Bly broke ground in her revolutionary 10-day mission. After arriving in New York City, she spent 10 days undercover in a notorious insane asylum. And she lived to tell her story.
In 1887, Nellie Bly pulled off one of the most courageous acts in the history of investigative reporting. She boarded a ferry bound for Blackwell’s Island (also called Roosevelt Island), equipped with not much more than determination. Her daring experiment uncovered a scandal that would shake the country to its core. She posed as clinically insane, immersing herself in the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on the island. Why? Because she wanted everyone to know how brutal patients were being treated.
Nellie Bly was born in 1864 under the name Elizabeth Cochran in Cochran’s Mills, Pennsylvania. Her parents had actually founded the town. Bly grew up in a busy household of 14 siblings. When she was a teenager, she saw an article in The Pittsburgh Dispatch titled “What Girls Are Good For.” Writer Erasmus Wilson ridiculed the concept of gender equality, insisting that women weren’t fit to work and should be limited to domestic tasks.
For the budding feminist, this was a step too far. She penned a fiery response and sent it to The Pittsburgh Dispatch. The paper’s editor, George Madden, was so impressed by her words that he offered her a job.
And so, in 1885, she started her career as a journalist, earning five dollars a week reporting on various topics of the day. That’s when she started using the pen name Nellie Bly, which was taken from a song by the musician Stephen Foster. Working for The Pittsburgh Dispatch, she went undercover in a factory to expose the low pay and terrible working conditions.
But instead of being appreciated for her investigative reporting, she was banished to the women’s pages. Disgusted, she left her position and took a job as a foreign correspondent. In 1886, she traveled to Mexico, where she spent six months reporting on Mexican culture and the poor conditions and corruption its people endured.
In retaliation for being publicly criticized by an American journalist, the Mexican government threatened to put Bly in jail. Upon returning to the United States, she decided to start fresh in New York City. She found a position at The New York World under famed publisher Joseph Pulitzer. At the time, his paper was known for what was called “yellow journalism” – a sensationalist style that focused on attention-grabbing stories.
As one of a few female journalists in the entire city, Bly’s first assignment was one that would make her famous. Pulitzer gave her an undercover assignment: she was to infiltrate the lunatic asylum on Blackwell’s Island. Rumors about its terrible conditions had circulated for a while. Pulitzer hoped to be the one to break the scandal.
A narrow island in the middle of the East River, Blackwell’s Island, remained in private hands until 1828. Then, the city of New York acquired it for $32,000 (about $750,000 today). Four years later, a penitentiary was built there. The goal was apparently to keep dangerous prisoners away from the city (similar to Alcatraz).
In 1839, another institution opened its doors on the island, The New York City Lunatic Asylum. Nellie Bly arrived almost 50 years later after the institution had developed a dirty reputation. So were the allegations about the facility’s abuse and malpractice true? Pulitzer tasked his eager, new reporter with finding out the truth.
Despite the challenging assignment, reports show that Pulitzer gave Bly no guidance on how to infiltrate the asylum. Nevertheless, the courageous Bly threw herself into the challenge. Her story not only established her in a male-dominated media landscape as a fearless journalist, but it also led to a grand jury investigation and massive social changes.
That investigation resulted in a $1 million increase (and we’re talking about the late 1800s here) in New York City’s budget for the treatment of the mentally ill. Although difficult, Bly’s strategy was simple. She would just “assume the characteristics of insanity to such a degree as to fool the doctors.” So simple, right?
She planned to study the treatment of the patients and the methods of management. She knew it would be both a delicate and difficult task. What she witnessed there – the general atmosphere – could be seen as more similar to a concentration camp than a healthcare establishment. She witnessed cold baths, beatings, forced starvation, and the lingering threat of sexual assault.
It was tragic for her to see and experience what happens when mostly arbitrary circumstances make one group of people helpless and another group powerful. But despite the brutality in the asylum, Bly remained a true believer in the human spirit.
Bly made sure to note that in the cruel system, there were a few kind individuals who chose to rise above the toxic atmosphere. Those few “good apples” were noticeable from the very beginning of her stay. She wrote, “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 except one physician, whose kindness and gentle ways I shall not soon forget.” She started her mission by assuming the look of the insane…
Bly practiced looking insane, making “far-away expressions” in the mirror. She wrote, “They must have staring eyes,” and so she opened her eyes as wide as possible and “stared unblinkingly.” She explained how she assumed this look when she presented herself at a temporary women’s shelter in New York at 84 Second Avenue. She planned to fake a mental breakdown there.
Since she would assume an identity without friends or family, she would then be committed to the mental ward at the hospital. There, she would convince the doctors that she belonged in a permanent asylum. Bly had barely begun her venture into the daring mission, and she was already experiencing the shameful dismissal and disrespect that such less-privileged citizens routinely received.
Bly arrived at the women’s shelter, pulled the bell (which was loud enough for a church chime), and nervously waited for the door to open. The door was suddenly thrown back and a “short, yellow-haired girl of some thirteen summers” stood before her. Bly asked, “Is the matron in?” The girl answered loudly, “Yes, she’s in; she’s busy. Go to the back parlor.”
Bly followed these instructions and found herself in a dark and uncomfortable back parlor. There, she awaited the hostess. She waited at least 20 minutes until this slender woman, in a plain dark dress, stopped before her and asked Bly impatiently, “Well?”
Despite the general unfriendliness of the staff, Bly encountered a kind woman named Mrs. Caine, “who was as courageous as she was good-hearted.” Still, Bly continued with her plan. Whenever she was probed about her circumstances and how she wound up at the shelter, she acted according to her plan.
She would say, “Everything is so sad,” intending to reflect craziness. Mrs. Caine replied, “But you must not allow that to worry you. We all have our troubles, but we get over them in good time.” When she asked Bly what work she does, Bly put her handkerchief up to her face to hide a smile and replied in a muted voice, “I never worked. I don’t know how.”
Bly told her examiners that she had been having terrible headaches, which made her forget everything. To play the part of a “poor loon,” as the other women quickly came to call her, she refused to sleep during her first night at the shelter, forcing herself to stay awake. Bly, a professional observer, recounted how she occupied herself during that sleepless night.
She stayed awake with both curiosity and humor, seeing things that would make most people jump right out of their beds. She watched as cockroaches scampered up and down the pillow. She wrote how she was able to pass the long minutes by giving her attention to cockroaches, “whose size and agility were something of a surprise to me.”
Bly stayed amused at these initial discomforts, but she soon found herself in far less comical circumstances. The next morning, for instance, the matron called the police, and the “poor loon” was taken to the courthouse by two forceful policemen. She was being sent to “the home of the insane.”
She was shocked when she was faced with an officer whom she had interviewed just 10 days earlier in her day job as a reporter. It’s a small world, after all. She instantly feared that he would remember her and expose her. But it was at that moment that Bly realized that she had become invisible in the way that society’s least privileged members come to be. The officer didn’t recognize her. Instead, he saw a faceless insane woman.
As Bly was beginning to grasp the deep-seated neglect that the “poor unfortunates” were subjected to by the legal system and society at large, she made a point to notice the kindness she encountered along the way. Like the judge presiding over her case. Judge Duffy sat behind his high desk. He was such a kind man that she feared she wouldn’t get the fate she was hoping for (to carry out her mission).
In the end, the kindness of such a judge is folded into the machine, and Bly was ordered to be taken away by an ambulance. Still, she wrote how grateful she was for the dignity the judge gave her even as he handed her off to the ambulance driver.
The judge told the driver to be kind to her and to tell the people at the hospital to do the same. Bly wrote, “If we only had more such men as Judge Duffy, the poor unfortunates would not find life all darkness.” Bly successfully fooled the authorities into declaring her insane. And now she was tumbling down the rabbit hole of mental healthcare.
And the further she went, the more she became aware of the darkness that surrounded these “poor unfortunates” who entered the system against their will. After arriving at Bellevue Hospital, her third stop on the path to the final destination of the New York City Lunatic Asylum, she was assigned to her next position. She was being sent to the “insane pavilion” — the hospital’s mental ward. In fact, she was dragged there.
In her relocation to the mental ward, a muscular man caught her so tightly by the arm that it made her angry, and, for a moment, she forgot her role. She turned to him and said: “How dare you touch me?” He then loosened his grip a bit, and she shook him off with more strength than she ever thought she had.
“I will go with no one but this man,” she said, pointing to the ambulance surgeon. “The Judge said that he was to take care of me, and I will go with no one else.” The surgeon then said he would take her, and they went arm in arm, following the muscular man who was too rough with her.
Once inside, Bly entered a picture more similar to a prison than to a facility for “healing.” The long hall was the kind of white that you only see in public institutions. There were the large iron doors fastened with a padlock, and stiff-looking benches and willow chairs were the only pieces of furniture around. On both sides of the hall were doors leading to the bedrooms.
Near the entrance was a small sitting room for the nurses and the cafeteria on the opposite side. A nurse in a black dress, white cap, and apron and a bunch of keys was in charge of the hall. An eternal optimist, Bly was able to find goodness even in such a grim environment as this.
She saw the nurse with the keys simply as an “old Irishwoman doing maid work at the ward.” In regards to this nurse, Bly experienced “only kindness and the utmost consideration from her.” In the ward, there were only three other patients, including a young chambermaid who had a breakdown from overwork but appeared perfectly sane to Bly.
It was Bly’s first hint that the line between sane and insane in these institutions is blurry. It is arbitrarily and artificially drawn by doctors who treat their patients as invisible – doctors who refuse to listen to the patients’ rational declarations. Once you’re labeled insane, it’s practically impossible to come back around.
Before long, Bly had her first brush with not just the physical discomforts but outright pain inflicted by the negligent and even deliberately malicious staff. During her first night there, all the windows were open, and it got so cold that it was almost unbearable. She complained to the nurses, but they rudely told her that she was in “a charity place” and couldn’t expect much else.
Everyone was suffering from the cold, even the nurses themselves who wore heavy garments to keep warm. Bly asked if she could go to bed, to which they yelled, “No!” A nurse named Miss Scott found an old gray shawl, shook off some of the moths, and told her to put it on.
“It’s rather a bad looking shawl,” Bly said. “Well, some people would get along better if they were not so proud,” Miss Scott snapped. “People on charity should not expect anything and should not complain.” Bly put the moth-eaten wrap on, sat down on a wicker chair, and wondered what would happen next. Would she freeze to death or survive?
But just as she sat reluctantly with this shabby shawl, a nurse jerked it away from her. A doctor then examined Bly. He insinuated that she must be a prostitute and pronounced her “positively demented.” She had yet another sleepless night, this time, however, against her will. The nurses read aloud to each other all night with absolutely no regard for the patients.
The next morning, she was finally taken to the Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell Island. At this point, her two nights in separate facilities were a light sample taste of what was to come. Despite knowing that she was sane and that she would be released in a few days, her “heart gave a sharp twinge.”
After all, she had been pronounced insane by four expert doctors and locked behind the “unmerciful bolts and bars of a madhouse!” She was about to be a companion, day and night, to “chattering lunatics.” She was going to sleep with them, eat with them, and be considered one of them. It was no doubt an uncomfortable position.
Still, it was all part of the plan, and she was going to carry through with it. Once she arrived at Blackwell’s Island, her reality became a living nightmare — a nightmare the system’s real patients can’t be awakened from at the end of an undercover assignment. The moment she got to the island, she stopped pretending to be insane and behaved as her usual sane self.
Interestingly, she noticed that the doctors made no distinction of it. It made her wonder why the other “insane” women were there in the first place. The brutalities that laid in store for her came almost immediately. Bly was dragged to her first meal at the institution.
After she was forced to stand and wait for 45 minutes in the hallway, she and the other women were taken to the dining hall. There, they sat on backless benches facing a long table, running from one end of the room to the other. Each woman was served thick slices of bread with sour butter and five prunes.
They were also given bowls filled with “pinkish-looking stuff which the patients called tea,” but it tasted like it was made with copper. Bly’s food was flung onto the plate by a hostile nurse. But the meal was so disgusting and inedible that, despite having been starved for two days, she couldn’t even swallow it.
The women were also offered spoiled beef that was served without utensils, meaning they were forced to gnaw the tough meat like savages — one of the countless methods at the asylum that is inflicted upon even the sane women. Practices like these would systematically chip away at even the sane women’s psycho-emotional resilience, turning false diagnoses into self-fulfilling prophecies.
What came next made the dinner look like a picnic. Bly described the horror of routine cold baths. She wrote how they were taken into a cold, wet bathroom and ordered to undress. Did she protest? She did, but they told her that if she didn’t, they would use force.
Bly shivered as they began to pull off her clothes – all while the next group of patients gathered at the door, watching the entire scene. The water was ice-cold, but her protests were useless. She even begged – at least – for the patients who were watching to go away, but Bly was ordered to shut up.
The nurse scrubbed her, from head to toe, as she babbled to herself. Bly’s teeth chattered, and her skin was blue with goosebumps. She then got, one after the other, three buckets of ice-cold water poured over her head. She described it as what she assumed were the sensations of a drowning person. “For once I did look insane, as they put me, dripping wet, into a short Canton flannel slip, labeled across the [back] end in large black letters, Lunatic Asylum, B. I. H. 6.”
After such a terrible experience, Bly found herself unable to sleep yet again. She kept herself occupied by imagining the devastating consequences of the asylum being caught on fire. Bly wrote about such a hypothetical scenario, but I’ll spare you the chilling account she gave.
Aside from the trauma of the cold baths and the thought of fiery death, Bly both observed and experienced the institution’s baffling failures of hygiene – something the nurses would go to great lengths to hide from both visitors and public officials. For instance, all the women were dried with the same towel — those with healthy skin and those with extreme rashes and infections. Their hair was also combed with a “public comb.”
On bathing day, the tub was filled with water, and one after the other, the patients were bathed without a change of water. It was done until the water was thick. Only then was the water drained and refilled. The healthy patients fought for a change of water, but they were obviously ignored by the lazy, cruel nurses.
Their dresses were seldom changed – no more than once a month. If the patient had a visitor, Bly saw the nurses hurry her out and change her dress right before the visitor came in. It kept up the appearance of careful and good management, which was nothing but a total lie. And by that point, Bly had only experienced a fraction of the institutional horrors.
In the courtyard, Bly witnessed something she claimed she would never forget: the “rope gang.” There was a long rope onto which 52 women were strung together by leather belts locked around their waists. They were either crying or screaming. The other less delusional or violent patients had to sit on benches from morning until night.
They were either scolded or beaten for moving or speaking and were generally treated as mindless beings unworthy of dignity or compassion. It was all helplessness and hopelessness. The women knew that if they tried telling the doctors of the brutalities, it would only bring more beatings from the inhumane staff.
It was at this stage in her account that Bly made her most important point…
She wrote, “What, except torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment? Here is a class of women sent to be cured?” Bly made a proposition, in which she would like the “expert physicians” to take a perfectly sane and healthy woman, lock her up and make her sit from 6 am until 8 pm on straight-back benches.
To not allow her to talk or move, give her nothing to read and let her know nothing of the world, give her bad food and brutal treatment, and see how long it takes to make her go insane. She noted that most people in the world could never imagine “the length of days to those in asylums.” They were never-ending, and they welcomed any event that might serve as a distraction.
Bly illustrated how the nurses would amuse themselves, in one case tormenting a young woman by not just scolding but physically choking her. Some of the patients Bly met at the asylum were foreigners who were completely sane. Sadly, they were confined there for the sole reason that they didn’t speak enough English to explain their situation to the policemen, doctors, judges, and other officials they encountered on the hellish path from normal life to Blackwell’s Island.
One young foreigner had been sent there by her jealous husband. Some of the most gruesome abuses took place in a part of the asylum misleadingly called the “Retreat.” One woman, Mrs. Cotter, was sent there for speaking to a man. She told Bly about her traumatic experience, of which, again, I feel the need to spare you.
Of course, the physical abuse in the institution was combined with chemical manipulation. Bly wrote how the nurses injected enough morphine and chloral into patients to make even the sane insane. It all leads to the core of Bly’s exposé: As grotesque as the insane asylum was, it paralleled other institutions and was symbolic of society’s broader treatment of its most vulnerable members.
Every sign of weakness is seen as something to exploit; every failure of privilege as a way to exert cruel power; every symptom of humanity as the freedom to perpetuate inhumanity.
As her 10-day stay in the hellhole came to an end, Bly left with the unsettling awareness of the fate of all those “poor unfortunates” who were confined to the asylum for good.
In her words, the Insane Asylum on Blackwell’s Island is a “human rat-trap.” She said it’s easy to get in, but, once there, it’s impossible to get out. She was looking forward to leaving the horrible place, yet when her release came, and she knew that “God’s sunlight was to be free for me again,” she felt a certain pain in leaving.
For 10 days, she was one of them, and she admitted feeling intensely selfish to just leave them to their sufferings. She felt an unrealistic “desire to help them by sympathy and presence. But only for a moment.” In the end, once the bars were down, “freedom was sweeter.”
After the agreed-upon 10 days, Pulitzer arranged for Bly to be released and brought back to the city. On October 9, 1887, The New York World printed the first of two articles by Nellie Bly. Her hard work paid off. Soon, the scandal was one of the most talked-about topics in the state. And, before long, a grand jury was sent to investigate her reports of abuse at the asylum.
But before that, a clean-up operation began. Many of Bly’s fellow inmates were transferred to other institutions. Everything from catering to the building itself got a last-minute makeover. A staggering $1 million was then added to the facility’s budget, which proved to transform mental health care in the city for the coming decades.
Two months later, Bly published her book entitled Ten Days in a Mad-House. For the next two years, she kept working for Pulitzer, reporting on issues like corruption, the prison system, and workers’ conditions. Two years after the asylum, Bly took on another nearly-impossible challenge. She wanted to beat the time set in Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days.
She set out to journey the globe in record time, and, after 72 days, she returned to New York to massive fanfare and celebration. But, Pulitzer didn’t give her the credit she deserved. She decided to leave her position at The New York World. Later in life, she went back to journalism, covering World War I, before she died from pneumonia at 57. It is said that a memorial for Bly will be unveiled on what’s now called Roosevelt Island.