Original Publication Date: 1887
Genre: Investigative journalism
Topics: Asylums, abuse, mental illness, women
Review by : Chrisbookarama
Journalist Nellie Bly, pen name of Elizabeth Cochrane, was tired of reporting for the “woman’s pages” of Dispatch. She turned to The New York World whose editor gave her an assignment, one he didn’t think she had much hope of accomplishing.
Nellie would pretend to be insane and have herself admitted to Blackwell’s Island Women’s Asylum, while there she would record all that went on inside. Her editor doubted she would get in and didn’t have a plan to get her out! Nellie was determined to get her story. From the beginning, she believed that the reports of abuse inside the hospital were exaggerated. She was about to find out how wrong she was.
First, she thought it would be easier to get to the asylum by way of a women’s temporary home, a kind of homeless shelter for working women. She felt the landlady would have experience with these cases. The first night, Nellie began acting erratically, calling the other women crazy, refusing to sleep, and claiming to have lost her luggage. After the police are called, Nellie was placed before a judge who for some reason believed she’s from Cuba. “How did you know?!” she says. She isn’t, actually, she’s from Pennsylvania, but she plays along and it’s kind of hilarious.
The judge sends her to be examined at Bellevue Hospital and she fears she will be found out. She needn't have worried. The doctors declare her a “hopeless case.” One asks her if she is a prostitute and she takes umbrage! She and a few other women, including a German woman with no English, are shipped off to Blackwell’s Island. And just like that, she’s in.
At the asylum, she meets several patients, some who have obvious problems and others who were put there and either recovered or were never sick to begin with. Many of these women were foreigners who could not speak for themselves, or women placed there by family. There was no hope of leaving for these women. No matter what their mental issues were the doctors didn’t listen to them.
The doctors were the least of their worries. Nellie complains of the cold and of the poor food. Worse still was the treatment of the nurses who were cruel, torturing and abusing the women. Taunting them and teasing them. They were even expected to clean the rooms of the patients and nurses. Nellie was told more than once by the nurses that charity cases should be grateful for what they were given and “don’t expect kindness, you won’t get it.” This is how these sick women were treated.
Nellie gave up the pretence of insanity once she got to Blackwell’s Island and many times asked the doctors to test her. She called out the behaviour of the nurses and the alarming conditions of some of the patients but it helped little. Nellie was only released once a lawyer from the paper came to claim her.
The stories she hears from the patients are horrific. These women were poor and overwhelmed by their home lives. Some just had a bad day which was enough to send them to an asylum for a lifetime. The “treatment,” or lack of, did more harm than good. The foreign women must have been scared out of their minds! They wouldn’t have understood what was happening.
Once her story Ten Days in a Madhouse was published, a grand jury was called and with Nellie’s assistance, the hospital investigated. Changes to the system were made.
When I think about this story, this true story, I’m struck by so many things. Nellie was in her early twenties. She was a woman in the Victorian era. She had no idea what she was getting into and no idea how she’d get out of it. She just jumped in with both feet. Talk about nerve!
Nellie’s reporting is clear headed and factual. She tells events as she experiences them. Although her writing is full of sympathy and frustration for the patients, it’s never overwrought. It never veers into the melodramatic. It’s a serious topic, but Nellie’s reporting is warm and at times even humourous.
I knew of Nellie Bly’s journalism, but this was the first time hearing her words. What an experience!
This was a Librivox recording read by Alys AtteWater. Alys has a pleasant, perky voice, just the voice for a plucky, twenty-something journalist.