A courageous female journalist’s classic exposé of the horrific treatment of the mentally ill in nineteenth-century America
In 1887, Nellie Bly accepted an assignment from publisher Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World and went undercover at the lunatic asylum on Blackwell Island, America’s first municipal mental hospital. Calling herself “Nellie Brown,” she was able to convince policemen, a judge, and a series of doctors of her madness with a few well-practiced facial expressions of derangement.
At the institution, Bly discovered the stuff of nightmares. Mentally ill patients were fed rotten, inedible food; violently abused by a brutal, uncaring staff; and misdiagnosed, mistreated, or generally ignored by the doctors and so-called mental health experts entrusted with their care. To her horror, Bly encountered sane patients who had been committed on the barest of pretenses and came to the shocking realization that, while the Blackwell Island asylum was remarkably easy to get into, it was nearly impossible to leave.
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Nellie Bly (1864–1922) was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran in a suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A writer, inventor, and lifelong advocate for a variety of feminist causes, she came to national fame with a series of articles about abuses at the mental asylum on Blackwell Island, America’s first municipal mental hospital. Ten Days in a Mad-House (1887), a collection of articles originally published in Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, helped to change official mental health policies and pioneered a new form of investigative journalism. Bly also wrote a book about her record-breaking seventy-two-day journey around the world. After marrying successful manufacturer Robert Seaman, she became one of the country’s leading female industrialists and earned several patents for her inventions. She eventually returned to journalism, covering the Women’s Suffrage Parade of 1913 and reporting from Europe’s Eastern Front during World War I.