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.
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
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.