Archive for the ‘Nellie Bly at the Madhouse’ Category

victorian-silhouetteIn Nellie Bly’s book, Ten Days in a Mad-House (see category, “Nellie Bly,” for related posts), Nellie Bly described various women she met in the Blackwell Island Women’s Lunatic Asylum. She was confined to Hall 6 with 45 of the least dangerous women in the institution. While some of them were certifiably “crazy,” (her words), many, she felt, had been wrongly locked up. A Frenchwoman, for example, named Josephine Despreau, fell sick in a boarding house and the woman of the house called in the police. They arrested her and took her to the station-house. She didn’t understand the proceedings because of the language barrier and the judge paid no attention to her protests. She was locked up in the insane asylum in no time.

Well into the twentieth century, it was easy to get a woman locked up in a mental institution. It was not unheard of for a man to tire of his wife in favor of another woman and get his wife declared insane and committed to an insane asylum. I was remarking upon this horror the other day and my mother told me that my great uncle Sam P did this very thing to his wife Helen. He had her committed to an asylum in San Antonio. Helen found a way out, though, and slipped away to Corpus Christi to live with her sister.

Do any of you have any asylum stories to share?

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Nellie Bly (1864-1922)

Nellie Bly (1864-1922)

I’ve been thinking about the very different lives of reporter Nellie Bly and Rosemary Kennedy. Although over fifty years separated these women, both found themselves at the age of 23 at the mercy of mental health “professionals.” Nellie Bly placed herself in a dangerous lunatic asylum as an investigative journalist because she was desperate to land a job in a world that didn’t welcome female professionals. How else was an uneducated woman to earn a living in 1887?

Bly was the thirteenth of her wealthy father’s fifteen children, her mother being her father’s second wife. When Bly was six, her father died, failing to make specific provisions for Nellie, her mother, and her two brothers. Like many other great women, Nellie Bly (like Annie Oakley) took it upon herself to find a way to take care of her family. She ran a boarding house with her mother and marveled that her uneducated brothers were able to find jobs as clerks and drummers yet, because she was an uneducated woman, she could only aspire to be a chambermaid or washer-woman. Thus it was Nellie’s poverty and the absence of a father that lead her to have herself committed, at the age of 23, to an insane asylum.

But the converse was true of Rosemary Kennedy. Rosemary landed in a mental institution because she was rich and had a father. She had the misfortune to be born “mildly mentally retarded, into a family dominated by her driven and ruthlessly ambitious father,” Joseph P. Kennedy. Rosemary had been living in a convent to keep her out of the public eye, but, as she developed as a young woman, she had begun sneaking out to see boys, and Kennedy was worried that she might damage his famous family’s reputation.

Rosemary Kennedy (back) (1918-2005), with sister Jean and brother Robert

Rosemary Kennedy (back) (1918-2005), with sister Jean and brother Robert

In an attempt to settle her down, her father, without telling his wife, used his money and powerful connections to arrange for his 23-year-old learning-disabled daughter Rosemary to undergo experimental brain surgery, one of the first prefrontal lobotomies ever performed. The operation took place in 1941, but, according to the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, “something went terribly wrong.” Rosemary emerged from surgery not better, but far worse. She regressed to a state of helpless infancy and was confined to a mental asylum for the rest of her life until her death in 2005. Nellie Bly’s story, though, has a happy ending. She walked out of the asylum a free woman and an international celebrity.

To read more on the Kennedys on this site, scroll down the right sidebar to “Categories – People – Kennedys.”

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victorian-letters-dover-clip-art-freeellie Bly was put on the island boat and sent to Blackwell’s Island. For ten days, she experienced firsthand the horrors of being locked up in cruel and inhumane conditions.  Upon her arrival, she was fed a disgusting meal of pink watery tea, prunes, and bread that was dirty and black and mostly dried dough. She found a spider in the slice given her. She didn’t eat it. Later she learned that the nurses didn’t like it when you didn’t eat your food. They might beat you for that.

After sitting in that long, freezing dining hall on bare yellow benches for what seemed an eternity, Bly and the other women in her ward were marched in two lines into a freezing cold, wet bathroom. As everyone looked on, the nurses stripped Bly of every bit of her clothing. They took away her dress, her skirts, her shoes, her stockings, and her hat. She then was forced to bathe in an ice-cold tub and be scrubbed by one of the craziest women in the ward.

“My teeth chattered and my limbs were goose-fleshed and blue with cold,” Nellie wrote later of the experience. “Suddenly I got, one after the other, three buckets of water over my head –  ice-cold water, too, into my eyes, my ears, my nose and my mouth.”

The nurses then put her, dripping wet, into a short flannel slip and locked her in an individual cell for the night. She couldn’t sleep. She kept picturing what would happen should a fire break out in the asylum. Every door was locked individually and bars covered the high windows. Should the building burn, there was no way the nurses or doctors could possibly unlock each door before the flames would engulf the building. She and the others would roast to death.

The asylum was spotlessly clean but it wasn’t the nurses who kept it so. The patients did all the work. There was little to distract the patients’ mind from the terrible cold and gnawing hunger. There were no books. The inmates did enjoy their short walks around the beautiful grounds. It was on one of those walks that Nellie Bly passed the kitchen and got a glimpse at the sort of food being prepared for the nurses and doctors: melons and grapes and all sorts of fruits, beautiful white bread and nice meats.

Bly complained to the doctors about the thin clothing issued to the patients, the intolerable cold, and the inedible food, but nothing came of it. It was only after her release ten days later that Nellie Bly would be able to draw attention to the neglect and abuse of people with mental disorders and others unfortunate enough to be sentenced to the asylum. Her expose of the conditions within the Lunatic Asylum, published in the World and later in book form,  Ten Days in a Mad-House , caused a sensation. Nellie Bly became an instant celebrity. madhouse-cvr 

The public demanded to know how Nellie Bly had managed to hoodwink four physicians into believing she was insane. A grand jury launched an investigation into the claims made in Bly’s report and recommended the changes she had proposed, prompting an $850,000 increase in the budget of the Department of Public Charities and Corrections for the treatment of the insane.


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charles-dickens2One day, during my stay in New York, I paid a visit to the different public institutions on Long Island, or Rhode Island: I forget which. One of them is a Lunatic Asylum. The building is handsome; and is remarkable for a spacious and elegant staircase. The whole structure is not yet finished, but it is already one of considerable size and extent, and is capable of accommodating a very large number of patients.

I cannot say that I derived much comfort from the inspection of this charity.The different wards might have been cleaner and better ordered; I saw nothing of that salutary system which had impressed me so favourably elsewhere; and everything had a lounging, listless, madhouse air, which was very painful. The moping idiot, cowering down with long dishevelled hair; the gibbering maniac, with his hideous laugh and pointed finger; the vacant eye, the fierce wild face, the gloomy picking of the hands and lips, and munching of the nails: there they were all, without disguise, in naked ugliness and horror. In the dining room, a bare, dull, dreary place, with nothing for the eye to rest on but the empty walls, a woman was locked up alone. She was bent, they told me, on committing suicide. If anything could have strengthened her in her resolution, it would certainly have been the insupportable monotony of such an existence. The terrible crowd with which these halls and galleries were filled, so shocked me, that I abridged my stay within the shortest limits, and declined to see that portion of the building in which the refractory and violent were under closer restraint.

 I have no doubt that the gentleman who presided over this establishment at the time I write of, was competent to manage it, and had done all in his power to promote its usefulness: but will lit be believed that the miserable strife of Party feeling is carried even into this sad refuge of afflicted and degraded humanity? Will it be believed that the eyes which are to watch over and control the wanderings of minds on which the most dreadful visitation to which our nature is exposed has fallen, must wear the glasses of some wretched side in Politics? Will it be believed that the governor of such a house as this, is appointed, and deposed, and changed perpetually, as Parties fluctuate and vary, and as their despicable weathercocks are blown this way or that? A hundred times in every week, some new most paltry exhibition of that narrow-minded and injurious Party Spirit, which is the Simoom of America, sickening and blighting everything of wholesome life within its reach, was forced upon my notice; but I never turned my back upon it with feelings of such deep disgust and measureless contempt, as when I crossed the threshold of this madhouse.


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Nellie Bly could have won an Academy Award for her impersonation of a lunatic. On the morning of Saturday, September 24, 1887, within twenty-four hours of checking into the Temporary Home for Females at No. 84 Second Avenue, the police were called to escort “Nellie Brown” to the Essex police station. The assistant matron of the boardinghouse told the police that “Nellie Brown” had so terrified her female boarders with her crazy rantings that they feared being murdered in her beds. Bly claimed that all the women in the house were crazy. She had forgotten who she was, she said, and lost her trunks. She acted confused, vague, but not dangerous.

The police took Bly before Judge Duffy who ordered her sent to Bellevue Hospital for examination, where Dr. William C. Braisted, head of the insane pavilion there, said Bly was “undoubtedly insane.” (1) There she passed two freezing cold nights, remembering that “all night long we were kept awake by the talk of the nurses and their heavy walking through the uncarpeted halls.” Nellie, being Nellie, complained to the nurses and the doctors about the lack of heat in the institution and the poor conditions. She was told that she could expect no kindness in the place as it was a charitable institution!

The stay at Bellevue was temporary though. The next day – Monday – a boat was expected. It would take Nellie Bly away permanently to Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum for Women.

Just think. The speed of the thing was dizzying. On Thursday Nellie Bly had been sitting in the offices of the New York World contemplating the assignment of posing as an insane woman to gain admittance into an institution. It seemed an impossible hurdle – to be declared insane and committed for life to an insane asylum. Yet it was a mere three days later and Nellie Bly – a completely normal person – was being committed for life to an insane asylum – on the notorious Blackwell’s Island. How many other unfortunates had also suffered this fate?

(1) Kroeger, Brooke. Nelly Bly. (New York: Random House, 1994)

Next: Nellie being Nellie

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Nellie Bly accepted the assignment. The task was frightening – to get herself committed to an asylum, to live among the lunatics for a week or so, then to write an expose on the conditions there – and she was nervous. But not about her skills as a writer. Her knack for including the telling detail made her articles compelling reading. No, she was nervous because she did not think she could pull off convincing the doctors that she was insane.

Bly had never known a crazy person. Just how did a crazy person look, she wondered.

nellie-practices-insanity4“So I flew to the mirror and examined my face,” she wrote later. “I remembered all I had read of the doings of crazy people, how first of all they have staring eyes, and so I opened mine as wide as possible and stared unblinkingly at my own reflection.” She began to sweat nervously, which unfortunately took the curl out of her Victorian bangs. Over and over again, she practiced her crazy face in the mirror. She ended up staying up all night, rehearsing her new role, thinking about her new mission, and reading scores of ghost stories to put her in a lunatic frame of mind.

When morning came, she bathed, bid her soap and toothbrush a fond farewell, and put on nondescript clothing. Then she went out into the street in search of a boarding house where she could begin her charade as the little lost and nutty Nellie Brown from Cuba.

Next: Inside the Madhouse

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nellie-blyIt had been four months since she’d left Pittsburgh for New York yet Elizabeth Jane Cochran, or “Nellie Bly,” as her byline read, still hadn’t landed a job as a newspaper reporter. She had left the Pittsburgh Dispatch because she was tired of being assigned to the ladies’ pages – writing the society column, reviewing operas, and reporting on the latest women’s fashions.

It was now September of 1887. Bly was running out of money – and then she lost her purse, losing the little bit of money she had left. “I was penniless,” she wrote later, yet she still was not willing to return her former position in Pittsburgh, an industrial city so ugly, said a writer for the Atlantic Monthly, that it was “like looking into hell with the lid off.” New York was the center of the publishing world, a world dominated by men, a fact not lost on Bly. She had to be clever, very clever, to convince a newspaper why they should hire her, a woman, and not a man.

So Bly made up a list of clever story ideas, sure to boost any newspaper’s circulation. Then she borrowed cabfare from her landlady and headed to Park Row, home to the city’s newspaper offices. She managed to talk her way into the office of the managing editor of the New York World Colonel John Cockerill. She took out her list of ideas. She offered to sail steerage class from Europe to America so she could report firsthand the experiences of an immigrant.

Cockerill didn’t like her idea, but he must have recognized Bly’s potential, because he proposed an even wilder assignment. Why didn’t Bly fake insanity, he asked, and get herself committed to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum? As an undercover agent, Bly could witness for herself and later report on the rumored abuses suffered by the inmates at the hands of a sadistic staff.

The notorious Women’s Lunatic Asylum was set on the 120-acre sliver of land called Blackwell’s Island in the East River. It was surrounded by prisons and charity institutions. If Bly accepted the assignment, she would be asking for trouble. It could be dangerous. Bly had never been around crazy people before. Could she pull it off? What if she got sent to Blackwell’s Island, got locked up in the asylum with a bunch of lunatics and couldn’t get out?


Kroeger, Brooke. Nellie Bly. (New York: Random House, 1994)


Next: Nellie decides.

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