Nellie Bly: the heroine who took on a mad-house.

“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.”

Nellie Bly, ‘Ten Days in a Mad House’ (1887).


In 1885 an ‘anxious father’ of 5 unmarried daughters wrote a letter to the Pittsburgh Dispatch desperate for advice, and worried about how his girls would cope out in the big, bad world without men to look after them. The paper replied in an editorial piece from their columnist Erasmus Wilson entitled ‘What girls are good for’. So, according to Wilson what are girls good for? Not a lot. In his diatribe Wilson decried working women as “A monstrosity”, stating the only place for a woman was in the home. He lambasted parents of working women for allowing them to enter the workforce, and suggested perhaps America should follow China’s 2 millennia long practice of some parents drowning female babies. If you imagine that even in 1885 such an exhibit of he-man woman hating misogyny would get some heat, you would be correct. A mountain of letters of complaint to the editor came flooding in. One in particular, an anonymous piece signed “lonely orphan girl” stood out for it’s remarkably direct and persuasive use of language, even if, allegedly, the riposte broke many grammatical conventions. The letter never got published, but so impressed managing editor George Madden that he wrote an open letter inviting the writer to come see him, all the same. The next day a 20 year old woman named Elizabeth Cochran, a former trainee teacher at Indiana Teacher’s college who had to drop out to help her mother run a boarding house, arrived at the office. Madden offered her a job as a reporter, which she took unhesitatingly. Cochran took on the nom de plume Nellie Bly, a name she borrowed from a minstrel song written by “Father of American Music” Stephen Foster.


Bly wrote for the Pittsburgh Dispatch for a few years, covering the lives of working women, the poor of Pittsburgh, and for some time official corruption and wealth inequality in Mexico; but looking for bigger opportunities, she moved to New York in 1887. That year she approached Joseph Pulitzer’s ‘The New York World’ (yes, that Pulitzer, of the prize… if you recall the mountebank Ignaz Trebitsch Lincoln also wrote for them on occasion) wanting to report on the lives of poor immigrants in the Big Apple. While the New York World was not at all interested in that story they did have a challenging job for Nellie Bly, if she felt she was up to the task- infiltrate the remote, secretive Blackwell Island insane asylum. As she would a to a number of big challenges in her life, Bly took up the challenge.

Joseph Pulitzer.

On 22nd September 1887 Nellie Bly came up with a plan to get herself committed with the least amount of collateral damage. Under the guise of a young out of towner looking for work, she booked herself into a boarding house for working women, then began to act one part paranoid, one part clinically depressed, one part retrograde amnesiac. She, in turns, acted ‘mad’ till the boarding house owners called for two police officers to come over and take Nellie away. The police arrived and took her, first, back to the station, then second before the kindly Judge Duffy, who took some convincing to send Nellie to Bellevue hospital for examination. At Bellevue, Nellie easily convinced the doctors she was “positively demented” and beyond help, after a short examination by a couple of what passed for expert doctors at the time. While at Bellevue you get the first sense of a few things she would find at Blackwell Island later – but more of that in a second.
She was soon sent off to the asylum.

In her ten days in the asylum, Nellie Bly uncovered a litany of horrors and mistreatment. First there was the ubiquitous chill – Although the asylum was freezing cold (she references this several times including talk on seeing others skin going blue with the cold) the staff refused to turn on the heat or provide sufficient clothing to keep inmates warm. Second, the long hours of sitting around in a main room; unadorned and overcrowded, on backless benches (six people crammed onto five spaces) – where one dare not speak, or move around for fear of abuse from the staff. Third the food sounded absolutely Dickensian. Bly describes on their arrival to the island the sickening stench coming from one particular building,

“We passed one low building, and the stench was so horrible that I was compelled to hold my breath….” This turned out to be the kitchen. Bly goes on stating she
“…smiled at the signboard at the end of the walk: “Visitors are not allowed on this road”. I don’t think the sign would be necessary if they once tried the road, especially on a warm day”. She goes on to describe inedible food, soups which were little more than water, blackened (possibly moldy?) bread, rancid butter.

It was clear from Bly’s description of bathing conditions the inmates were not bathed enough, and when they were, they bathed in ice cold water, were scrubbed by the same few flannels and were dried off with the same few towels – this included inmates with untreated sores. The inmates were also dressed in the same clothes for up to a month at a time. Adding to the horrors, sleep for any decent length of time was out of the question – the noise of the nurses moving up and down the hallways at night reverberated like they were in an echo chamber. If that didn’t wake you, then he nurses opening the door to look in – having to turn a heavy, noisy lock each time to do so, was bound to wake you up. Speaking of those doors, they were death traps, should a fire break out. All individually locked, with no safety to unlock all the rooms at once should an emergency occur, there would be no chance of getting anyone out alive if the worst happened.


That Bly comments that, in her opinion, many of the women incarcerated are as sane as herself one might choose to accept, or dismiss as they see fit. Certainly in some of her conversations it seems clear some of the inmates were suffering from, at most, depression or anxiety. Some you do question if they are suffering from anything besides being trapped in an asylum. Bly mentions of a French inmate, Josephine Despreau, who appeared to have been locked up over a misunderstanding, and who did not have enough English to defend herself. A Sarah Fishbaum, who was locked away on the word of her husband, after she either flirted with or had an affair with a man other than her husband. She mentions a German maid by the name of Margaret, who was locked up after getting into a fight with co-workers who had deliberately messed up a floor she had spent hours scrubbing. What does seem pretty obvious is both the unprofessionalism of the doctors (one gossiping with the nurse in front of Bly, asking if she had read the newspaper articles on her case, in front of Bly), and of their great disinterest in helping, or even properly assessing their inmates.
The nurses are disturbing in other ways, Bly reporting of their propensity to act violently towards the inmates. She mentions one case where “an insane woman” was dropped off to the island, and the nurses greeted her with a beating. When a doctor noticed the inmate’s black eye the nurses claimed the beating must have happened before the inmate arrived. Then there was the case of Mrs Cotter, to quote Bly

“One of the patients, Mrs Cotter, a pretty, delicate woman, one day thought she saw her husband coming up the walk. She left the line in which she was marching and ran to meet him. For this act she was sent to the Retreat. She afterward said:
“The remembrance of that is enough to make me mad. For crying the nurses beat me with a broom- handle and jumped on me, injuring me internally, so that I shall never get over it. Then they tied my hands and feet, and, throwing a sheet over my head, twisted it tightly around my throat, so I could not scream, and thus put me in a bath tub filled with cold water. They held me under until I gave up every hope and became senseless.”

After ten days she was rescued by her colleagues at the New York World. She would record her experiences of Blackwell Island in a six part expose, which would later be compiled into a book, ‘Ten Days in a Mad House’. The uproar over the treatment of the inmates would lead to a grand jury investigation, which led to an overhaul of the asylum.

Bly would go on to write several similar exposes in her career, taking down sweatshops, corruption in jails, and bribery from lobbyists; though perhaps today is best known for having taken on the challenge of following in the footsteps of Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg (Around the World in Eighty Days, 1873), documenting her circumnavigation of the globe in just 72 days. Nellie Bly would retire from journalism in 1895, after marrying the wealthy industrialist Robert Seaman. When Seaman died in 1903 she took the reigns of his factory, but would return to journalism in 1920. Elizabeth Cochran, known to the world as Nellie Bly, star investigative reporter, would herself pass on, from pneumonia, January 27th 1922.

1 thought on “Nellie Bly: the heroine who took on a mad-house.

  1. Pingback: The Strange Death of Dorothy Kilgallen (Part One) | Tales of History and Imagination

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