Category Archives: Reform

Nellie Bly: My New Hero

Until yesterday I had never heard of Nellie Bly. She is now my latest hero.

Nellie, born Elizabeth Jane Cochrane (1864-1922) was an American female journalist, at a time when this was extremely unusual. She was recruited by Joseph Pulitzer (you know, as in the Pulitzer Prizes), and wrote for a number of high-profile newspapers. In 1888, as an investigative piece of journalism, she deliberately got herself committed to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island) in New York City. She stayed there for 10 days, gathering information on the treatment of the patients there. A story she wrote about the mistreatment of the patients there was shown on the front page of the New York World, and the asylum was eventually closed.

She wrote a book about her time in the asylum. It’s an amazing account, and I stumbled across it quite by accident on the internet. Here’s a couple of selections:

“I believe she has been using belladonna,” said the doctor, and for the first time I was thankful that I was a little near-sighted, which of course answers for the enlargement of the pupils. I thought I might as well be truthful when I could without injuring my case, so I told him I was near-sighted, that I was not in the least ill, had never been sick, and that no one had a right to detain me when I wanted to find my trunks. I wanted to go home. He wrote a lot of things in a long, slender book, and then said he was going to take me home. The judge told him to take me and to be kind to me, and to tell the people at the hospital to be kind to me, and to do all they could for me. If we only had more such men as Judge Duffy, the poor unfortunates would not find life all darkness.

Thus was Mrs. Louise Schanz consigned to the asylum without a chance of making herself understood. Can such carelessness be excused, I wonder, when it is so easy to get an interpreter? If the confinement was but for a few days one might question the necessity. But here was a woman taken without her own consent from the free world to an asylum and there given no chance to prove her sanity. Confined most probably for life behind asylum bars, without even being told in her language the why and wherefore. Compare this with a criminal, who is given every chance to prove his innocence. Who would not rather be a murderer and take the chance for life than be declared insane, without hope of escape? Mrs. Schanz begged in German to know where she was, and pleaded for liberty. Her voice broken by sobs, she was led unheard out to us.

I always made a point of telling the doctors I was sane and asking to be released, but the more I endeavored to assure them of my sanity the more they doubted it.

“What are you doctors here for?” I asked one, whose name I cannot recall.

“To take care of the patients and test their sanity,” he replied.

“Very well,” I said. “There are sixteen doctors on this island, and excepting two, I have never seen them pay any attention to the patients. How can a doctor judge a woman’s sanity by merely bidding her good morning and refusing to hear her pleas for release? Even the sick ones know it is useless to say anything, for the answer will be that it is their imagination.” “Try every test on me,” I have urged others, “and tell me am I sane or insane? Try my pulse, my heart, my eyes; ask me to stretch out my arm, to work my fingers, as Dr. Field did at Bellevue, and then tell me if I am sane.” They would not heed me, for they thought I raved.

Again I said to one, “You have no right to keep sane people here. I am sane, have always been so and I must insist on a thorough examination or be released. Several of the women here are also sane. Why can’t they be free?”

“They are insane,” was the reply, “and suffering from delusions.”

* Read the whole of “10 Days in a Mad House” by Nellie Bly here, courtesy of the “A Celebration of Women Writers” site (here – well worth exploring).*

On an unrelated note (but equally impressive), Nellie Bly is also famous for travelling around the world in 72 days in 1889, in order to beat the time of Phileas Fogg, Jules Verne’s character who famously did the trip in 80. She completed the trip in 72 days, 6 hours, and 11 minutes, a world record at the time.

There’s a lot of stuff out there on the internet about Nellie, but the best website I found was http://www.nellieblyonline.com/ which features many of her newspaper articles.

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Filed under Cruelty and neglect, Mental health institutions, Reform

Select Committee report into the state of madhouses: 1815/1816

I have spent some time today looking at some of the fantastic documents freely available over at Google Books. Although many caught my eye, one to recommend is:

House of Commons papers, Volume 6, 1816 (HMSO)

Minutes of Evidence taken before the Select Committee appointed to consider of provisions being made for the better Regulation of Madhouses, in England.

To put it into its historical context: Parliament first tried to regulate care for the mentally ill with the Act for Regulating Private Madhouses, 1774. At this time mentally ill people were variously housed in prisons, workhouses, public hospitals (e.g. Bethlem) or private madhouses. This Act set out regulations for the private institutions, which were to be inspected and licensed by Commissioners in the London area, and Justices of the Peace in the provinces. See here for more on the 1774 Act.

Despite the legislation, standards of care continued to be poor in many areas. The reform movement led by individuals such as Samuel Tuke brought the public’s attention to the inhumane conditions often suffered by sufferers of mental illness. Following some high-profile cases including William Vickers, at York Asylum in 1813, and James Norris, at Bedlam in 1814, the Select Committee was set up in 1815 to examine the matter, and re-appointed in 1816. See here for more information about Bedlam and the Doctors in charge at the time.

The findings of the Committee were published in three reports, all of which are available as part of the above linked volume. Here is an advertisement for the publication of the report, also found through Google Books.


So who sits on a select committee?  An article in The Morning Post on May 30th 1816 (Issue 14153, pg. 1) announces the publication of the first report, and the members of the Committee as:

Rt. Hon. Lord Baring, Rt. Hon. Lord Lascelles, Rt. Hon. Lord Compton, Rt. Hon. George Rose, Rt. Hon. Charles Williams-Wynn, Rt. Hon William Sturges Bourne, Hon. Henry Grey Bennet, Charles C Western, Esq., J.A. Stewart Wortley, Esq., Thomas Thompson, Esq., William Smith, Esq.

Andrew Robert’s fantastic website (here) identifies a number of other committee members. See here for more information on select committees from the Government’s website.

I’ve selected some of the passages from the Select Committee Report that caught my eye, for their depiction of the prevalence of cruelty within madhouses. There were many parts of the accounts that I could have highlighted, and if you are interested I strongly encourage you to have a look at the whole report.

Death of Mrs Hodges after being forced to swallow (Evidence of Mr John W Rogers, apothecary):

Death of Mrs Hodges after being forced to swallow

More on forcing patients to swallow (Evidence of Mr John W Rogers, apothecary):

Typhus fever (Evidence of Mr John W Rogers, apothecary)

Ill-treatment of patient Mrs Elliott (evidence of Mr John W Rogers, apothecary)

Chains for patient James Norris (evidence of Mr John Woodall, smith):

And look at the contrast in the treatment of patients with money (Evidence of Edward Wakefield, land surveyor):

For those of you who like figures, the number of registered lunatics:

I am also fascinated by the classification of patients in the Glasgow Lunatic Asylum into “frantic”, “incurable”, “convalescent” and “ordinary”. Of course, these are  the days before standardised classifications such as DSM/ICD.

The Appendix of the Third Report, which is a summary of an inspection of the state of public and private madhouses in Scotland also makes interesting reading.

Update: Have just found the following document which has a handy index of the 1815/1816 reports and summaries of contents of witness statements.

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Filed under Cruelty and neglect, Individual cases, Mental health institutions, Mental health law, Reform