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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