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

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.


Could I pass a week in the insane ward at Blackwell’s Island? I said I could and I would. And I did. (Bly, Ch.1)

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.

(Bly)

She admits herself to a woman’s boarding house under a false name, Nellie Brown. She acts distant, nervous and agitated until she disturbs the other women enough that they call for the doctors to take her away. Bly then meets with several doctors, and a kindly judge, who attempt to classify her mental health. She goes into these meetings fearing that she cannot trick these men who “could not be deceived” after so much experience with the insane (Ch. 2–5). She actually finds next-to-no trouble in convincing the doctors she is incurable. The fear of the insane instilled in nearly every person she meets acts to amplify her situation. Mrs. Stanard, the matron of the boardinghouse, claims that Brown’s pupils “have been enlarged ever since she came to the home…they have not changed once,” to which Nellie thinks “I wondered how she knew whether they had or not, but I kept quiet” (Ch. 5). Once determined to admit her, the doctors and women were not going to be convinced otherwise.

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.

Anne Neville explains that she had been a poor chambermaid, but had gotten sick, and was sent to a Sister’s Home to be treated. Her nephew lost his job and couldn’t pay her Home expenses, so she had been transferred to Bellevue. She knows she is not insane, and says “the doctors have been asking me may curious questions and confusing me as much as possible, but I have nothing wrong with my brain” (Ch. 6). Nearly all of the women Bly meets are not wealthy, or are from immigrant families, and we can understand how their life in New York had left them with so few options outside of the asylum. Furthermore, in a “snake eating its own tail” type of situation, because these women were sent to an asylum — regardless of the context or reasons — the doctors assumed they were insane and so used their questions and examinations only to confirm this belief, rather than to possibly correct it.

(Bly)

Another instance of this is in seen in the poor case of Tillie Mayard, a young women recently recovered from a fever and suffering a “nervous debility.” Her “friends” sent her to Bellevue, and upon learning she’s being locked away she claims her sanity to the doctor and argues “If you know anything at all…you should be able to tell that I am perfectly sane. Why don’t you test me?” To which the doctor responds, “We know all we want on that score.” (Ch. 7)

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).

The middle chunk of the exposé then takes care to detail every part of Bly’s first day in the asylum, which all nine days afterward echoed. Again, the women are given barely edible food — slightly spoiled and cold meat, thin and flavorless broth and tea, and bread that was “black and dirty…hard, and in places nothing more than dried dough,” and which Bly finds a spider in (Ch. 10–11). Bly can’t make herself eat it, but the other residents are hungry enough that they nearly leap over each other to reach as much food as they can, and eat it quickly without complaint.

Bly is then given an ice cold bath and scrubbed ferociously all over by a nurse. She is rinsed with more cold water, and then put in a sort of flannel dress without being properly dried off. Her wet hair and skin then make her bed sheets and pillow as wet and cold as she is, and the single wool blanket she is provided is too short to cover her feet and shoulders at the same time (Ch. 11).

Amazingly, in two separate instances — once at Bellevue and again at Blackwell’s — when asking why there aren’t more blankets, or clothes, or why people aren’t treated better, Bly is told “This is charity, and you should be thankful for what you get” and she “shouldn’t complain” (Ch. 6–11). A nurse at Blackwell’s tells Bly that she doesn’t “need to expect any kindness here, for you won’t get it,” plain as day (Ch. 11).

The next morning the patients and their still-damp hair are brutally combed, as forty-five women share two nurses and six combs (Ch. 11). After a thin breakfast, the patients — to Bly’s surprise — are sent to do all the cleaning and upkeep of the institution, even cleaning the nurse’s bedrooms and clothing (Ch. 11). For several hours of the day the patients are made to sit still on benches, as apparently thinking up actual therapeutic or enjoyable activities is too challenging for the doctors.

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)

On top of everything else, the behavior of the nurses on watch come off as completely unprofessional and cruel in every way. When they aren’t taunting the inmates, or brutally abusing them — there are several stories mentioned where a woman is choked, or given a black eye, or has her hair pulled out for no reason whatsoever by nurses. They flirt with the doctors, they gossip about each other and they swear and deride one another and the patients at every opportunity (Ch. 13–14). The acts of cruelty that are described as coming from the nurses in Bly’s exposé are shocking and disgusting. How could these people — who almost seem eager to hurt these women — be allowed to be in a position to care for their well-being?

A simple answer is probably that the people assigning staff to, and setting up living situations for, these institutions simply didn’t care. The insane, who frequently happened to also be poor and female — two other powerless sects of society — were carrying a stigma no one could forget. They weren’t thought of as human, or worth considerate treatment at all. These institutions were just a convenient place to send people who could no longer be cared for by their family or by the boardinghouses and hospitals of the city. They were locked away so as not to disturb the happiness or conscience of the “sane.”


After Bly’s publication hit the stands — and shocked and enthralled her readers — a grand jury launched an investigation into conditions of the asylum, even asking Bly to accompany them on a visit to the premises.

Blackwell’s Island Asylum (Credit: Corbis) (“An Illustrated History”)

When they arrived, the asylum had been given some notice of their approach even though they shouldn’t have, and they were definitely prepared for the visit. This time the boat taking them to the island was clean and new. The stories of the nurses and doctors contradicted Nelly’s story, but also each other. Everyone avoided responsibility for the conditions, saying they didn’t know how the treatment, the food, the clothing came to be as Bly had written it. The kitchen suddenly had salt and clean white bread. Most suspiciously, all the women who Bly had quoted — and who she had written as being as sane as her — had been discharged, transferred or moved to another quarter where she could not see them. The asylum had taken many steps to cover up its egregious abuse.

The grand jury’s report recommended the changes Bly had proposed, and called for a sum of nearly $850,000 to be added to the budget of the Department of Public Charities and Corrections; the jury also attempted to make future examinations more thorough so that only the seriously ill were admitted into the asylums (“Nellie Bly”).


While Bly’s article remains an important and vital piece of journalism, it wasn’t a catch-all fix for asylums or the treatment of the insane. It would be lovely if it was, but we all know by now that change, specifically in the treatment of marginalized citizens, takes a very long time.

Electroconvulsive therapy (Credit: Corbis) (“An Illustrated History”)

Since Bly’s time at Blackwell’s, psychological illnesses and treatments have gone through an interesting journey. The 1940s and 50s saw an increase in institutionalization, such as in the strange case of Rosemary Kennedy who was eventually lobotomized (“Rose Marie Kennedy”). The brutal practices of lobotomies and electroconvulsive therapy were developed and made popular particularly during the “psychological revolution” of the 50s and 60s (“An Illustrated History”). After the 60s asylums — as we know them from Bly’s exposé, as well as famous pop culture representations like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Girl, Interrupted — began to go out of style and were deemed unnecessary. Patients were no longer treated as inmates who were simply held in asylums so as not be roaming the streets, but were beginning to be treated as patients, who needed medical care.

Although we no longer have asylums, and the treatments available to the mentally ill have improved (many disorders that would have warranted institutionalization are now managed by medicine), we still have the problem of the woefully subjective way in which people label others as “insane.” That’s evident in Rosemary Kennedy’s case, as well as in the classification of homosexuality, or “sexual orientation disturbance” as mental disorder until 1987 (Burton).

Today, while the idea of an asylum is outdated, the prison system has started to boom and people with mental illness and a lack of available treatment — or lack of a helpful place in society — often find themselves there instead, out of the same lack of understanding of their condition and how to treat it. In 2009, Heather Mac Donald wrote in City Journal that “jails have become society’s primary mental institutions…though few have the funding or expertise to carry out the role properly.” We need to be careful that the mistreatment Bly discovered upon her admittance to Blackwell’s is not repeated today in a new location.

Bly’s piece is important to remember because it opens the conversation about the actual treatment of people deemed “insane,” and the irresponsible manner in which so-called professionals diagnose and treat them. We need to constantly second-guess ourselves on what we deem “insane” and “proper treatment.” We cannot allow ourselves to forget about these people, and to keep them on that island. Out of sight, out of mind is an all-too appropriate idiom to apply to the plight of the mentally ill, so we need vivid works such as Nellie Bly’s to remind us of what is happening while we look away.


Sources

Bly, Nellie. “Ten Days in a Mad-House.” Ten Days in a Mad-House. New York: Ian L. Munro, 1887. N. pag. U Penn Digital Library. Web. 5 Apr. 2016.

Burton, Neel. “When Homosexuality Stopped Being a Mental Disorder.” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, 18 Sept. 2015. Web. 24 Apr. 2016.

“An Illustrated History of the Mental Asylum : DNews.” DNews. Discovery Communications, LLC, 12 Dec. 2012. Web. 24 Apr. 2016.

Mac Donald, Heather. “The Jail Inferno.” City Journal. Manhattan Institute, 23 Dec. 2015. Web. 24 Apr. 2016.

“Nellie Bly.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 05 Apr. 2016.

“Rose Marie “Rosemary” Kennedy.” Daily JFK. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Apr. 2016.

The author also recommends Ten Days a Madwoman, by Deborah Noyes (February 2016) for biographical information on Bly, as well as a summary of her asylum piece and her trip around the world.


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