She was beautiful and only twenty-three years old when Elizabeth Cochran Seaman (1864-1922) better known by her pen name of Nellie Bly pretended to be insane in order to be committed to a notorious asylum, and write a piece of investigative journalism which produced sweeping reforms at the institution as well as embarrassing the administration running it.
To put into context the exploits of this young journalist, this was a time when women even didn’t even have the right to vote, and the role expected of most women was to be a wife and mother. Elizabeth was less than twenty years old when she started working with the Pittsburgh Dispatch which is where she received her pen name of Nellie Bly. During her early days there she wrote investigative articles on women factory workers but the editors wanted her to cover fashion and society instead. These duties did not suit her and she signed up as a foreign correspondent and went to Mexico. Only twenty-one years old she spent six months there reporting on the culture of the Mexican people, and in one of her dispatches she reported on the imprisonment of a journalist, prompting Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz to threaten her with arrest. Wisely she returned to the United States.
Upon returning her editors wanted her to report on the arts and she quit her job at the Pittsburgh Dispatch and left for New York City in 1887. Four months later, and with no money left to sustain her she was able to gain an interview with Joseph Pulitzer who ran the New York World. Penniless and intrepid she agreed to take a risky assignment which was to go undercover in the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell Island. Her description of the experience made her famous as an investigative journalist.
Nelly Bly had one night to prepare, in which she practiced “deranged expressions” in front of a mirror. She then checked herself into a boarding house using the name Nellie Moreno, and later in the evening refused to go to bed, claiming she was afraid of the other boarders and caused a scene. Police were called, and they took her to court at which time she said she couldn’t remember the night’s events. Several doctors examined her and pronounced her insane, one of them commenting she was a “hopeless case”. Just in case you think this was a just a doctor who didn’t know what he was doing, the head of the insane pavilion at Bellevue Hospital said that she was “undoubtedly insane”.
This is how Nellie Bly gained access to Blackwell’s Island where she was committed and spent ten days as a patient. Nelly regained her freedom when an attorney who worked for the newspaper got her released. Two days later she wrote a scathing expose about the asylum originally titled Behind Asylum Bars which was released in installments by the New York World. The entire expose became known as Ten Days in a Mad-House.
In her piece, Bly described orderlies who “choked, beat and harassed patients” and “oblivious doctors” who dismissed her as insane even though she had stopped acting crazy and was acting and speaking normally. This only made things worse, and she was thought to be crazier. She was forced to take ice-cold baths and eat rancid food.
Bly wrote where many of the women there were sane but had problems making themselves understood since they were immigrants and didn’t speak or understand English. This coincided with the hospital population records of the times which indicated that over 75% of the patients at the asylum were foreigners.
In her condemnation of the conditions at Blackwells, Bly wrote,
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, 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
The expose produced sweeping reforms at the facility brought about by a grand jury investigation who questioned how so many doctors or so called “professionals” could have been fooled. The Department of Public Charities and Corrections increased the budget by $1,000,000 and changes were proposed based on Nellie’s writing. Eventually the report brought about the end of the Asylum at Blackwell’s Island.
At the time, some journalists dismissed Bly’s stint at the asylum “stunt reporting.” However, her bravery and determination in exposing the truth forever changed the face of mental health practices, as well as investigative journalism.
Expert in traditional and alternative areas of hypnosis, subconscious behaviorist