No. 550
Crime, Eccentricity, and the Sporting Life in 19th Century America.
December 6, 2021

Undercover Lunatic.

May 26, 2013
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Undercover Lunatic.

Insanity Expert

In September 1887 a young woman named Nellie Brown was declared insane and sent to the New York City lunatic asylum on Blackwell’s Island. Unbeknownst to the authorities the woman was feigning insanity; she was in fact a reporter named Nellie Bly on her first assignment for the New York World.

Nellie BlyNellie Bly

Nellie Bly had come to New York for a career in journalism. She had already made a name for herself as a reporter for the Pittsburgh Dispatch where she had worked her way up from women's stories to serious assignments such as foreign correspondent in Mexico. She was born Elizabeth Jane Cochrane but when she started writing serious pieces her editor suggested a snappier byline—“Nellie Bly,” from a popular song by Stephen Foster.

Finding work as a reporter in New York was not easy; the men there were not ready to see women in their newsrooms. After being rejected by every paper in town she finally convinced an editor at the New York World to give her a chance. She agreed to the plan of getting herself committed to Blackwell’s Island to experience conditions in the insane asylum first hand. The paper assured her that they would have her released after ten days.

Nellie Bly assumed the name Nellie Brown and checked into a temporary home for working woman where she convinced the other tenants that she was insane. A policeman took her Bellevue hospital where she was examined by a doctor. Nellie would later say that the doctors were easy to fool, she was more worried about the reporters who had taken an interest in the case. After being declared insane, Nellie was taken by boat to the asylum on Blackwell’s Island.

Insane Hall

Here she would meet women who were truly insane—who would shriek in the night and hold conversations with people only they could see. Just as distressing were the women whom Nellie could tell were as sane as she was, but through unfortunate circumstances found themselves in a situation they could not escape. “The insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island is a human rat-trap” she would later write, “It is easy to get in, but once there it is impossible to get out."

The conditions she experienced on Blackwell’s Island were appalling. The meals were barely edible, with rancid butter and spoiled meat. Inmates were given cold baths and made to wear garments too thin to keep out the September chill in the unheated building. There was very little entertainment beyond occasional walks outside. Most days the inmates were forced to sit quietly on wooden benches and do nothing for endless hours. Protests were met with violence by the nurses who would beat or choke unruly inmates. Even the doctors used violent methods to subdue their patients. Complaints were ignored or considered symptoms of madness.

Nellie Bly

At the end of ten days Nellie Bly was rescued by her employer. On October 7, 1887 The World published the first installment of a two part story on Nellie’s stay on Blackwell’s Island. Though bylines were rare at the time, the story included the byline “Nellie Bly.” The story was such a sensation that in the second installment, a week later, her name became part of the headline. As a result of Nellie Bly’s reporting, a grand jury was convened to investigate conditions on Blackwell’s Island and after their report an extra $1,000,000 was appropriated for the insane.

Nellie Bly’s career progressed with this type of “stunt reporting.” In 1889 she set out to best Phileas Fogg, Jules Verne’s fictional globetrotter, and travel around the world in fewer than eighty days. She did it in seventy-two. The trip made her famous and by the turn of the twentieth century “Nellie Bly” was a household name.

 

 

 


Sources:

  • Bly, Nellie. Ten Days in a Mad-House. New York: Ian L. Munro, 1887.
  • Kroeger, Brooke. Nellie Bly: daredevil, reporter, feminist. New York: Times Books, 1994.