In 19th-century America, female reporters were few and far between. But even with the odds stacked against her, a young woman named Nellie Bly became one of the pioneers of investigative journalism. A new arrival in New York City, she spent ten days undercover at the notorious insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island – and lived to tell the tale.
Still at the beginning of her journalistic career, Bly persuaded Joseph Pulitzer to hand over the juicy assignment for the New York World. And at just 23 years old, she boarded a ferry bound for an island in the East River. Equipped with little more than determination, she uncovered a scandal that would shake the city to its core.
Afterwards, Bly’s hard-hitting exposé resulted in an overhaul of New York City’s mental health services. And throughout her career, she continued to strive for social justice across the United States. But it was her time on Blackwell’s Island that really established the journalist as a force with which to be reckoned. So what really happened inside the insane asylum?
The story began in May 1864, when Bly was born under the name Elizabeth Cochran in Cochran’s Mills, Pennsylvania. Her mother Mary Ann and her father Michael, who founded the town, were both on their second marriage. And as a result, Bly grew up in a busy household of 14 siblings.
When Bly was just six years old, however, tragedy struck. Unfortunately, Michael passed away without signing a will, leaving his family without any legal right to his assets. But despite their financial difficulties, the young girl initially continued with her education, eventually enrolling at a small Pennsylvania college; she had dreams of becoming a teacher.
Sadly, the Cochrans’ meager income could not cover Bly’s education and she was forced to drop out. Instead of studying, she relocated to Pittsburgh, PA, where she helped her mother to run a boarding house. Then, towards the beginning of the 1880s, the young woman’s life took a dramatically different turn.
Around that time, an article appeared in the Pittsburgh Dispatch with the title “What Girls Are Good For.” In it, writer Erasmus Wilson poured scorn on the concept of gender equality, insisting that women were not fit to work and should remain limited to domestic tasks. For the feminist Bly, this diatribe was a step too far.
Angered by the article, Bly penned a fiery response and sent it to the paper. Ironically, editor George Madden was so impressed by the young writer’s words that he offered her a job. And in 1885 she started her career as a journalist, earning $5 a week reporting on various issues of the day.
At that point, Bly began using her pen name, taken from a song by the American musician Stephen Foster. And even from the beginning, her work was defined by her social conscience as she penned pieces in support of women’s and worker’s rights. However, her unconventional approach did not always go down well with her superiors.
While working for the Pittsburgh Dispatch, Bly went undercover in a factory to write an exposé about the low pay and terrible conditions. But instead of being applauded for her ingenuity, she was banished to the women’s pages. In disgust, the reporter left her position and took a job as a foreign correspondent.
In 1886 Bly traveled to Mexico, where she would spend the next six months reporting on the culture and people of the region. But these weren’t just popular travel pieces: she also laid bare the poor conditions and corruption that was rife throughout the country. And when a journalist was arrested for being critical of the government, she spoke out in support of freedom of speech.
Unwilling to be publicly criticized by an American journalist, the Mexican government threatened to incarcerate Bly. Returning to the United States, the young journalist decided to start afresh in New York City. And after spending months searching, she finally found a new position at the New York World under the famous publisher Joseph Pulitzer.
At the time, Pulitzer’s paper was famous for what was known as yellow journalism – a sensationalist style that tended to focus on lurid, attention-grabbing stories. However, there was scope for serious reporting at the New York World as well, and the 23-year-old Bly set out to make her name.
As one of only a few female journalists in the city, Bly had a tough road ahead. And her first assignment was certainly no easy ride. Keen to challenge his new reporter, Pulitzer gave her an undercover assignment: to infiltrate the lunatic asylum on Blackwell’s Island (now known as Roosevelt’s Island). Apparently, the city was rife with rumors about terrible conditions at the facility, and he hoped to be the one to break the scandal.
A narrow spit of land in the middle of the East River, Blackwell’s Island is just two miles long by around 800 feet wide. Originally purchased by a Dutch settler in the 17th century, it remained in private hands until 1828. That year, the City of New York acquired it for $32,000: the equivalent of about $750,000 today.
Four years later, the city authorities constructed a penitentiary on Blackwell’s Island. Apparently, the goal was to keep dangerous prisoners away from the city, isolated in a place where they could do little harm. But criminals were far from the only people to find themselves cast away in the middle of the East River.
Alongside the penitentiary, the City of New York also operated a number of additional facilities on Blackwell’s Island. And as well as a workhouse and an almshouse, there were also a number of hospitals treating everyone from smallpox victims to the terminally ill. Then in 1839 another institution opened its doors; one which proved vulnerable to sinister distortions of its intended function.
Known as the New York City Lunatic Asylum, the facility was the first of its kind in the whole of the city. But by the time that Nellie Bly arrived at the New York World almost 50 years later, the institution had developed a sordid reputation. Were abuse and malpractice rife on Blackwell’s Island? Pulitzer tasked his new reporter with finding out the truth.
Despite the challenging assignment, however, reports claim that Pulitzer did not give Bly any guidance on how she might infiltrate the asylum. Nevertheless, the young journalist threw herself into the challenge. In order to get a glimpse behind the scenes at Blackwell’s, she reasoned, she would need to become an inmate herself.
Determined to get herself committed to the asylum, Bly began to practice looking insane. In the article that she would later write for the New York World, she explained, “far-away expressions have a crazy air.” And so, she rehearsed for her undercover assignment by pulling faces in the mirror.
Once she was ready, Bly checked into a boarding house with the aim of proving herself to be clinically insane. Apparently, this first part was easy. Going by the name Nellie Brown, she got into character by ranting and raving at her fellow tenants. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take many diatribes about her “missing trunks” before people started to grow concerned.
After just 24 hours, at least one of the boarders had decided that Bly was insane – and a danger to the other tenants. Then, on the second night, another resident experienced a nightmare in which the deranged woman attacked them with a knife. Before long, the owners of the establishment had summoned the authorities to deal with the situation.
In an interview with the police, Bly told them that she was a Cuban woman who was suffering from amnesia. And at first, they believed that she was simply a missing person. But when she refused to talk to any reporters who might help to locate her family, she was shipped off to the city’s Bellevue Hospital.
At Bellevue, doctors determined that Bly was suffering from delusions as well as dementia. Her bold plan had been a success, and on September 26, 1887, she was placed on a ferry bound for Blackwell’s Island. As an inmate at the infamous asylum, she would observe first-hand the appalling treatment that was being doled out to some of the most vulnerable members of society.
At the time, it was not unheard of for outsiders to visit asylums in the United States. In fact, celebrities such as the writer Charles Dickens sometimes toured the facilities. However, these were typically supervised visits which often glossed over the grim reality. Bly, however, was able to glimpse life behind the scenes – and she was horrified by what she saw.
After her arrival, it didn’t take long for Bly to realize that the patients at the asylum were living under terrible conditions. In the mess hall, she was served rotten meat accompanied by stale and moldy bread, while the drinking water was often contaminated. However, the poor catering turned out to be the least of her worries.
According to reports, the asylum on Blackwell’s Island was originally designed for just over 1,000 patients. But by the time that Bly arrived, there were over 1,600 residents, mostly female, crammed into the facility. Moreover, cuts to the budget had left just 16 doctors to care for the entire population.
During her stay on Blackwell’s Island, Bly bore witness to an horrifying catalog of physical and psychological abuse. Apparently, the asylum was freezing cold – although this didn’t stop the nurses from administering cold baths on a regular basis. In her article, the journalist recalled, “I got, one after the other, three buckets of water over my head – ice-cold water too – into my eyes, my ears, my nose and my mouth.”
“I think I experienced the sensation of a drowning person as they dragged me, gasping, shivering and quaking, from the tub,” Bly continued. “For once I did look insane.” In fact, the journalist soon realized that the conditions at Blackwell’s Island were bad enough to make even the sanest person lose their mind.
“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 bad food and harsh treatment, and see how long it will take to make her insane,” Bly wrote. “Two months would make her a mental and physical wreck.”
When they were not being forced to sit motionless on benches for hours on end, some patients were allowed out in the grounds. However, what Bly witnessed was far removed from the bucolic scenes that might have awaited some asylum tourists. Instead, large groups of women were tethered together with ropes and forced to pull a cart like a horse.
Even at night, it seems, Bly was unable to get much in the way of rest, as the screams of the suffering patients rang throughout the building. Nevertheless, she tried to interview as many of the inmates as she could, collecting stories about the abuse that they had suffered at the hands of staff. One one occasion, a woman claimed that she had been beaten so badly that she had been left with internal injuries.
In another interview, Bly spoke to a woman who allegedly tried to complain to a doctor about the beatings – only for the abuse to intensify. Meanwhile, she noted that the patients were injected with large amounts of drugs. In her later article, she wrote, “The attendants seem to find amusement and pleasure in exciting the violent patients to do their worst.”
According to reports, Bly was so shocked by the conditions inside the asylum that she stopped pretending to be insane. However, she was unable to convince any of the staff that she was not unstable. In fact, she soon realized, many of the patients were actually sane people who had ended up at the facility through a cruel twist of fate.
Some patients, for example, were simply foreign immigrants, whose strong accents were difficult to understand – leading some to assume that they were speaking nonsense. Meanwhile, others were destitute, committed under the belief that they were being sent to a poorhouse rather than an asylum. In some cases, abusive husbands had claimed that their wives were insane and effectively banished them to Blackwell’s Island.
Eventually, after ten days, Pulitzer arranged for Bly to be released from the asylum and brought back to the city. And on October 9, 1887, the New York World published the first of two articles exposing the horrific conditions. Thankfully, the young journalist’s gamble paid off in spades, and soon the scandal was one of the most talked-about topics in New York.
Before long, a grand jury was dispatched to investigate reports of abuse at the asylum. But before they could get there, a clean-up operation had begun. Many of Bly’s fellow patients were transferred to other institutions, while everything from the catering to the building itself received a last-minute makeover. Fortunately, the officials weren’t taken in and a staggering $1 million was added to the facility’s budget, transforming mental health care in the city for decades to come.
Two months later, Bly published a book, Ten Days in a Mad-House, about her experiences on Blackwell Island. But her career was just getting started. For the next two years, she continued to work for Pulitzer, reporting on social justice issues such as corruption, the prison system and workers’ conditions.
Two years after her stint in the asylum, Bly took on another seemingly impossible challenge. Hoping to beat the time set by the fictional Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, she set out to traverse the globe in record time. And after 72 days, she arrived back in New York to immense fanfare and celebration. However, Pulitzer did not give her the credit that she deserved, and she ultimately left her position at the New York World.
Later in life, Bly would return to journalism, covering World War I before her death from pneumonia at the age of 57. And today, she is remembered as one of the pioneers of investigative journalism; a trail-blazing female reporter in an era when women were often overlooked. In fact, towards the end of 2020, a memorial to Bly will be unveiled on what is now known as Roosevelt Island, where the asylum she visited once stood. Featuring sculptures of both the journalist and the people she interviewed, it will celebrate the legacy of a woman who stopped at nothing to uncover the truth.