Elizabeth Cochran Seaman, more commonly known as Nellie Bly, was fearless in her attempts to get to the bottom of a story. She pioneered investigative journalism, and her reporting and discoveries are still relevant today. Born in 1864, one of her biggest achievements was when she participated in an undercover mission through Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper to find out what really went on behind closed doors in an insane asylum. She chronicled her findings in her 1887 book, “Ten Days in a Mad-House.”
Without an established way to get out, she was purposely committed to a women-only mental asylum called Blackwell’s Island in New York in September 1887. It was the first insane asylum for New York City, and the first municipal mental hospital in the country. Under the guise of being, well, insane, she hoped to expose the workings within.
“I always had a desire to know asylum life more thoroughly — a desire to be convinced that the most helpless of God’s creatures, the insane, were cared for kindly and properly,” she wrote.
Her initial fear was actually getting into the asylum. She wondered if she could fool doctors and a judge properly. As she made her way through New York with the mindset of getting committed under the name Nellie Brown, she decided to room at a boarding house for working women. As this was a common practice in the late 1800s, it wasn’t unheard of for a woman to knock on a door and request a room. She’d originally thought about getting friends and a personal doctor to commit her, but she didn’t want to cause any personal issues or give herself away.
Inside the boarding home, notebook in hand, she documented her experience. From “far away” expressions to saying “I do not know, it’s all so sad” and calling every other woman “crazy,” she created a persona for herself. Apparently, this could cause chaos around strangers, because after a night of refusing to sleep, the assistant matron took her to the police station accompanied by two policemen. A judge deemed her unwell, yet also appeared to feel bad for her, claiming perhaps she had been drugged. He called upon some reporters, but Bly knew these “bright specimens of her craft” would see through her masquerade, and declined to speak with them. She was sent to Bellevue Hospital, the stop before Blackwell’s Island Women’s Lunatic Asylum.
First, there were doctors and nurses to see. She realized only one or two patients, if any, actually deserved to be there. One woman was feverish and sick, while another was from Germany and spoke no English. Most of the nurses seemed harsh and uncaring. One showed mercy and offered Bly a blanket and crackers. Their food mostly consisted of unsalted beef broth and bread. Eventually, after being found insane for no apparent reason other than being there, all women including Bly were taken to Blackwell’s asylum.
Bly noted many instances when the patients were mistreated. Inadequate clothing, lack of sleep, unhygienic practices, inedible food and constant beratements were only the beginning. The “most violent” were tortured by the nurses. This included beatings and submersion into ice cold water. As Bly would hear it from another patient, one girl died from the mistreatments of the nurses. They reveled in their actions, tormenting and making fun of the supposed ill.
Every time the doctors would come by, Bly would express concern over the nurses’ actions, the harsh cold and lack of food and clothing. Her requests were mostly shunted and excused as “delusions.” She began to feel horrible for the women trapped inside, for many would never see the outside world again.
“Crippled, blind, old, young, homely and pretty; one senseless mass of humanity. No fate could be worse,” she wrote.
A threatening air of hopelessness surrounded the island. The place was also a fire hazard waiting to happen. As history would have it, insane asylums seemed to be prone to flames. In 1903, for instance, a London asylum caught fire and 52 women perished since they were unable to escape the locked doors and barred windows. Bly informed the doctors of the fire concern, but only one seemed to care, and he admitted he didn’t have much command over such changes.
After 10 days, Bly was released with assistance of a lawyer and her editor. She went to a judge and jury soon after to request changes for these asylums. The jurors and Bly returned to Blackwell’s to inspect its conditions. Unfortunately, the nurses had been notified, and they made swift corrections where needed. Thankfully, Bly’s well-detailed account, along with another patient’s testimonials, convinced the jury that things did indeed need to be modified.
Based on her recommendations, certain corrections were made, and a budget increase of $1 million was put toward assisting public charities such as Blackwell’s. Ultimately, her reporting assisted in bringing about the end of Blackwell’s and eventually all insane asylums.
Today, Blackwell’s Island is known as Roosevelt Island and apartments stand where the asylum once was. Bly’s investigation shone a light on malpractices and the treatment of the mentally ill. While psychology and the practice of diagnosing patients have come so far, we still have so much further to go. Hopefully, we haven’t seen the end of pioneers such as Nellie Bly.
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