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Andrea Harner
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February 28, 2007

Nellie Bly

When you do the NYT crossword puzzle, you learn about such fascinating figures such as Nellie Bly! The clue was 'Adventurer Nellie'.



Burdened again with theater and arts reporting, Bly left the Pittsburgh Dispatch in 1887 for New York City. Penniless after four months, she talked her way into the offices of Joseph Pulitzer's newspaper, the New York World, and took an undercover assignment for which she agreed to feign insanity to investigate reports of brutality and neglect at the Women's Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island.

After a night of practicing deranged expressions in front of a mirror, she checked into a working-class boardinghouse. She refused to go to bed, telling the boarders that she was afraid of them and that they looked crazy. They soon decided that she was crazy, and the next morning summoned the police. Taken to a courtroom, she pretended to have amnesia. The judge concluded she had been drugged.

She was then examined by several doctors, who all declared her to be insane. "Positively demented," said one, "I consider it a hopeless case. She needs to be put where some one will take care of her." The head of the insane pavilion at Bellevue Hospital pronounced her "undoubtedly insane". The case of the "pretty crazy girl" attracted media attention: "Who Is This Insane Girl?" asked the New York Sun. The New York Times wrote of the "mysterious waif" with the "wild, hunted look in her eyes", and her desperate cry: "I can't remember. I can't remember."

Committed to the Blackwell's Island Insane Asylum, Bly experienced its conditions firsthand. The food—gruel broth, spoiled meat, bread that was little more than dried dough—she found inedible. The inmates were made to sit for much of each day on hard benches with scant protection from the cold. The nurses were rude and abusive, telling the patients to shut up and beating them if they did not. Speaking with her fellow residents, Bly was convinced that some were as sane as she was. On the effect of her experiences, she wrote:

What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment? Here is a class of women sent to be cured. 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.

After ten days, Bly was released from the asylum at The World's behest. Her report, later published in book form as Ten Days in a Mad-House, caused a sensation and brought her lasting fame. While embarrassed physicians and staff fumbled to explain how so many professionals had been fooled, a grand jury launched its own investigation into conditions at the asylum, inviting Bly to assist. The jury's report recommended the changes she had proposed, and its call for increased funds for care of the insane prompted an $850,000 increase in the budget of the Department of Public Charities and Corrections.


I LOVE reading about things like this. There are so many interesting little stories and people in history that just seem to get forgotten over time.

Posted by: Monkee at February 28, 2007 9:50 AM

That was just one of Nellie's many adventures. She also circumnavigated the globe in 72 days, bettering (the fictional) Phileas Fogg during the same time in history. Next time you are on the Belt Parkway approaching Coney Island, be on the lookout for Nellie Bly amusement park.

Posted by: Mike from Jersey at February 28, 2007 1:16 PM

nellie bly is in fact is one of the most influential women in America whose audacity, self-will, and veracity made her a woman who acheived her goals through persistant willpower for the empwerment of women. she helped pave the way for women of her time to ameliorate their lives.

Posted by: ksaenz at March 11, 2007 5:15 PM
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