Everyone remembers Nellie Bly, right? The woman who independently travelled the world in only 72 days after the famous Jules Verne book “Around the World in 80 Days”. Well if you don’t in 1889 Nellie Bly, real name Elizabeth Jane Cochrane, was a newspaper journalist who wanted to prove that it could be done and women could travel without men in this new society created by the second industrial revolution (it was also a spectacular demonstration of how the world of the 1880’s had industrialized and become extremely interconnected through the steamboat and railroads, but that’s a story for a different time).
This week we are going to talk about how Bly exposed the mental health industry of the late 19th century. Two years before her legendary trip around the world, Nellie pretended she was mentally ill in order to be committed to a mental asylum and to help eventually improve the conditions of New York City mental hospitals.
Bly was determined to show her seriousness about her work and ability to become a respected writer, she spent 10 days in the mental asylum and wrote about the abuse used towards patients (it’s kind of insane she had to go to such great lengths to prove she was intellectually equal to her male counterparts, but that’s American society of the 19th century).
To get committed to the mental institution, Bly stopped bathing and brushing her teeth, dressed in tattered clothing and practiced a dazed expression, then checked into a temporary boarding house for women. While in the boarding house Bly set off on seemingly uncontrollable rants that terrified the other residents.
She was taken away by the police and sent to Bellevue Hospital (the oldest public hospital in the United States) and was diagnosed as “delusional and undoubtedly insane” by the chief doctor, she had local newspapers talking about how crazy she was.
Then she was shipped to Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island) Municipal Mental Hospital, the first of its kind in America. It was supposed to be a progressive hospital, meaning it would use humane methods to help heal the mentally ill, but once funding was cut the hospital was staffed by inmates of a nearby penitentiary.
Bly found the doctors to be completely incompetent and the hospital staff abusive and aggressive. There were even immigrants who were institutionalized solely because they did not know English and could not communicate with anyone, kind of exactly like American Horror Story: Asylum. Along with this, the patients were given horrible food, no warm clothing, and freezing baths then left in isolation for the majority of the day. Bly wrote:
“What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment? . . . Take a perfectly sane and healthy woman, shut her up and make her sit from 6 a.m. to 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.”
Bly demonstrated her heroism time and time again, and in doing so made tremendous strides for women in the journalism industry as well as the workplace. She fought gender boundaries and exposed conditions of those who were being confined and mistreated. She will forever be a hero as she fought for the better treatment of the mentally ill as well as women in the workplace.