What Nellie Bly Exposed at Blackwell’s Asylum, and Why It’s Still Important

by Beth Winchester: For More Go Here

Nellie Bly, born Elizabeth Cochran in 1864, is possibly the most well-known female name in journalism. She was known for “stunt journalism,” frequently going undercover or travelling to far parts of the world. Her major claim to fame, however— and her first major investigation — is her exposé of New York’s Blackwell’s Island Asylum.

Her willingness and her fearlessness in all areas of her life led her to volunteer as an undercover investigator of the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island during her first year reporting for the New York World. She would be released after 10 days, but what she experienced and saw in that time would shock the nation’s readers and lead to a new-found pressure to inspect the conditions and practices of asylums across the nation.

Bly begins her exposé— published in a series just about 10 days after her release — by conveying her initial thoughts about asylums. She writes that she had always wanted to learn about these places, to know for sure that “the most helpless of God’s creatures” were truly being taken care of. She had heard some stories of abuse and mistreatment, but she dismissed them as “exaggerated or else romances” imagined by a gossipy public (Ch. 1).

She is daunted by the task of convincing others she is crazy enough to be admitted, but she soon learns that it is really not that hard. In a slightly humorous scene, Bly practices making “crazy faces” in her mirror the night before her mission begins and scares herself with ghost stories so she loses sleep.

First, they take Bly to Bellevue Hospital for further “examinations.” These prove to be nothing more than some questions a doctor asks her, questions which seem to mean nothing as the doctor and the nurses are already treating Brown like a lost cause. While there, Bly meets another woman who is to be examined, a Miss Anne Neville. One of the most moving, and disturbing, parts of Bly’s exposé are the frequent recounts of the stories of the other women- the women who were not in there for an exposé, but were there because any number of events had aligned horribly.

After one terrible night at Bellevue — with inedible food and a hard mattress to sleep on — Bly is transferred into Blackwell’s Island. Once there, she stops “acting insane” and simply acts as herself. Somehow, in this world of twisted “logic” and treatment, the “more sanely [she] talked and acted the crazier [she] was thought to be” (Ch. 1).

Bly’s passage about this specifically inane treatment highlights the most basic problem with these institutions, that they create the insanity which they supposedly treat:

I was never so tired as I grew sitting on those benches. Several of the patients would sit on one foot or sideways to make a change, but they were always reproved and told to sit up straight. If they talked they were scolded and told to shut up; if they wanted to walk around in order to take the stiffness out of them, they were told to sit down and be still. What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment? … I would like the expert physicians who are condemning me for my action… 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. (Ch. 12)

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