The Remarkable Nellie Bly and Her Adventure in a Mad House

The Remarkable Nellie Bly and Her Adventure in a Mad House


Born Elizabeth Jane Cochran in 1864, Nellie
Bly was considered the most rebellious of her father’s fifteen children. (Yes, fifteen) Her family was thrown into
poverty when her father died when she was just six years old; in a time when women weren’t
expected to hold down a job, it was difficult for her mother to find work enough to support
the family. By the time Elizabeth was fifteen, she decided
to go to school to become a teacher. Unfortunately, she didn’t have enough money
to continue studying past the first semester, and she returned home to her mother in Pittsburgh. There weren’t a lot of options there, either—she
helped to run a boarding house, but full-time work was difficult to come by. Not long after, Elizabeth read a series of
articles by “Q.O.” or “Quiet Observer”—the pen name of one Erasmus Wilson, one of Pittsburgh’s
most well-known journalists. The man had quietly observed that women belonged
in the home, no doubt barefoot, pregnant, and making their husbands’ dinners while
simultaneously rubbing their feet and bringing them a beer… 😉 Q.O. called working women “a monstrosity.” Elizabeth was angered by the statements, as
she knew that she and many other girls had to work to maintain some quality of life for
themselves and their families. Perhaps exhibiting that “rebellious” streak
that her parents had discovered in her as a child, Elizabeth wrote a strongly-worded
letter to the newspaper about the offensive articles. They liked the spirited nature and quality
of writing exhibited in her letter so much that they hired her on as a writer, giving
her the pen name “Nellie Bly.” Her first article talked about the difficulties
faced by poor working women, but the newspaper insisted on her covering stories for the women’s
pages. Nellie wasn’t interested in writing about
fashion, and she soon quit and headed for New York, where she got her big break. On September 22, 1887, Nellie Bly was approached
by the New York World to write an article about the inner workings of the notorious
Blackwell Island Insane Asylum. They wanted to know what went on behind the
barred doors and the smiles of white-clad nurses, and Nellie was determined to find
out. The editor offered her no solid plan to get
her out of the institution once her observations were completed, but promised her it would
be achieved somehow. Her instructions were simple: “Write up
things as you find them, good or bad; give praise and blame as you think best, and the
truth all the time.” But first, Nellie had to get herself committed,
which meant she had to feign insanity convincingly. She decided to pose as a poor girl looking
for work at the “Temporary Home for Females” under the name Nellie Brown. There, she started displaying “insane”
behaviour in an attempt to get herself committed. She said she was afraid of the other women,
spoke vaguely, and spent that first night staring blankly at a wall rather than sleeping. She reported that another woman staying at
the home had a nightmare that a crazed Nellie rushed at her with a knife—her plan was
working. The assistant matron of the house ended up
calling for police officers to take Nellie away in the morning. Nellie was brought before Judge Duffy, who
ruled that she had undoubtedly been drugged and had a doctor come in to examine her. She was declared insane. She was examined by a second medical expert,
who said of her Positively demented. I consider it a hopeless case. She needs to be put where someone will take
care of her. The first of Nellie’s observations about
insane asylums was that it wasn’t very hard to get into one. The doctors were incompetent in determining
who was actually insane and who wasn’t; Nellie met several other patients who didn’t
seem to have anything wrong with them, either. She and her new comrades weren’t necessarily
ill-treated those next few days while they waited to be taken over to Blackwell Island,
though the food was sub-par and the sleeping arrangements were chilly and uncomfortable. As her incarceration drew a bit of publicity,
one of Nellie’s biggest worries was that a reporter would come around to find out more
about her, because “if there was anyone who can ferret out a mystery it is a reporter,”
and she didn’t want to be recognized. Nevertheless, she managed to make it to the
island undiscovered, and once on the island, Nellie watched as the patients were brought
before the doctors. One woman had simply been sick with fever
leading up to her commitment to the mental institution, and was no more insane than Nellie
was. Another woman was German and, since the doctors
couldn’t understand her, wasn’t given a chance to tell her story. When it was Nellie’s turn, she was asked
several questions largely unrelated to the question of her sanity. The doctor was far more concerned with the
nurse, with whom he flirted. Bly decided to drop her feigned insanity and
act as she did in her everyday life as soon as she got to the island. The nurses barely took notice, adding another
concerning element to Bly’s stay in the institution. She noted that, “the more sanely I talked
and acted, the crazier I was thought to be.” Asylum life, Nellie soon found, was unsuitable
even for the truly insane. She was forced to endure ice-cold baths, freezing
nights, both verbal and physical abuse at the hands of the nurses, isolation, and fear
of fire (the doors were individually locked- so no easy way to unlock them all at once-
and the windows were barred; if a fire broke out, it was likely a majority of the patients
would die). Bly was only at the asylum for ten, cruel
days, but she noted that, 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. At one point, Bly was visited by a reporter
who she knew quite well. He was shocked to find Nellie Bly where he
thought to write an article on the insane Nellie Brown. Bly begged him not to blow her cover, and
he didn’t—saying only that she wasn’t the woman he had been sent to see. He ended up leaving shortly after. Towards the end of her stay, Bly pressed the
doctors for answers. How could they determine whether or not a
woman was insane if they didn’t listen to them? She insisted on a full examination to determine
her sanity, but the doctors only brushed her aside, thinking she was raving. Bly wrote that “The insane asylum on Blackwell’s
Island is a human rat-trap. It is easy to get in, but once there it is
impossible to get out.” Luckily for Bly, her editor made good on his
promise to get her out of the place. After ten days in the asylum, she was on her
way back to New York. The first installment of her report on the
conditions in the asylum was published a few days later. Readers were horrified, and Bly was made a
celebrity of sorts, praised for her bravery during her time in the asylum. The doctors and nurses were full of excuses,
but they weren’t heeded. Bly’s story forced many changes to be made. In addition, just under $1 million more was
appropriated to the Department of Public Charities and Corrections (about $25 million today)
as a result of her story, allowing for better, and safer, conditions and better treatment
of the patients. One of the women Bly had befriended during
her stay said, Ever since Miss Brown has been taken away
everything is different. The nurses are very kind and we are given
plenty to wear. The doctors come to see us often and the food
is greatly improved.” Masquerading in an insane asylum wasn’t
the last of Bly’s adventures. She went on to have a great many more, including
traveling around the world in 72 days almost completely unchaperoned- which was a much
bigger deal back then for a woman particularly. This was done as part of a race with another
reporter who was traveling in the opposite direction, to see who could beat the other
and if it were possible to beat the “80 days” from Jules Verne’s novel. During her trip, she even met Verne in France. Bly would later marry an extremely successful
businessman and herself become the president of the Iron Clad Manufacturing Co., making
her one of the most prominent women in business in the U.S. for a time, besides being one
of the more well known female reporters. Not bad for a little girl born one of fifteen
to a poor family in a time where women were actively discouraged from venturing outside the home for work.

82 thoughts on “The Remarkable Nellie Bly and Her Adventure in a Mad House

  1. For those of you wondering where the links are to Nellie Bly's books are (sloppy work TIFO) if you click through to their website (text version) the amazon links are at the bottom.

  2. What a fascinating woman. Interesting that David Rosenhan conducted the same experiment in the 1970s, and that's well documented, but I'd never heard of Nellie Bly before.

  3. Not much had changed in about 85 years. Read BEING SANE IN INSANE PLACES by Rohas(sp): About what happened to some progessional psychologists who infitrated a metnal ward as "patients" and almost could not get back out. It was required reading for psych majors and grad students in the 1973-8 timeframe

  4. It's a worry that 50% of today's medical practices will be discovered to be wrong within 10 years …. QI

  5. I think the guys at Citation Needed got to this topic first: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/citation-needed-3/e/51780285

  6. But doesnt that mean every woman was potentially able to do the same Nelly did, back then?? I mean..nobody stoped her for doing so.

  7. Why are there different spellings for the same name? And which one is the correct spelling? Sara vs sarah , john vs jon , megan vs Meghann, haily vs hayley , richie vs richey and others.

  8. We do much better today! We dump them on the street and wait till they commit a crime and put them in jail for a week. Progress…..

  9. I was in a trip to Washington DC where I saw this story shown in the new isn’t museum there! It was really good.

  10. Though Geraldo Rivera is not generally thought of as much of a journalist these days, it should be pointed out that his first story which established him was a piece similar to this exposing abuses at mental institutions.

  11. 3:30 Sadly they are not any better these days. Internal medicine has made incredible leaps forward in the treatment and diagnosis of physical disease and abnormalities, yet psychiatric medicine has barely progressed passed where it was 100 years ago. In fact in some ways it has even gone backwards.
    Because medication has helped in some cases, it as been applied to all cases, even cases where no real illness exists.

  12. Your videos don’t stand out as much as they used to, almost missed this one because it looks like a generic meme video

  13. Probably one of the last true field reporters, who reported the truth, without any fluff or pre-bias. We need more of them today.

  14. Awesome. Also the reporter who knew her and the editor who kept his promise to get her out.. deserve some respect for sure.

  15. I read her expose a couple years ago. Jeez. I would've escaped Shawshank-Redemption style within the first week.

  16. People tend to read labels on other people and expect and believe things based on the idea they form in their heads rather than bother to observe and understand someone. It's just easier that way. It's also bullshit. We discourage Nelly Bly's of the world and instead we have forged a society that cranks out conformists that do nothing but praise themselves for being unique and rebellious. It's the definition of stupidity.

  17. Very good video. It's report should definitely be important for everyone to learn about the story of Nellie Bly.

  18. I spent a week in a psych ward when it was actually my psychotic roommate who needed to be there and not me. In the process, I was put on an anti-psychotic which I was told was an antidepressant, and they doubled it without telling me or asking my permission, which led to my almost passing out (I'm chemical sensitive and have low blood-pressure issues). There was a constant tapping noise all night from something outside the roof windows which was much louder for some of the other people I hung out with. We joked that the place was actually going to drive us crazy… but it wasn't a joke.

    The kitchen absolutely cannot handle someone with severe food allergies, so food and the results thereof were miserable. The counselor I was assigned told me he believed me about my roommate, but when we sat down to a phone meeting with my landlord on the last day of my hospitalization, he said he believed that I believed the things that were happening around me were real. What dark age was all this? Last year.

  19. Just purchased 10 days in a Madhouse – looking forward to reading it – Nellie Bly was a inspiring woman.

  20. For anyone interested in learning more about asylums I highly recommend the book: Women of the Asylum: Voices from Behind the Walls, 1840-1945. It is fascinating.

  21. Hell yeah! Her reporting was instrumental in getting better conditions for patients in mental institutions. Having said that, I have some good friends who have spent a good amount of time in them. One of them was strapped down for days where she had to pee and poop on herself. I also know someone who was beat up by other patients to the point of having a concussion and they didn't get her medical help. I got her out by telling the case worker that they either needed to take her to the medical hospital for treatment or release her to me so I could do it. They released her to me. She felt better by then. She had only had a short break because she ran out of medicine and the mental ward was the only place to get any more. Sadly, a lot of people end up in the mental ward because they run out of medications, most of which give you unbearable side effects if you don't take them for even a day once you're used to them. We have a long way to go before we are treating mental patients properly and humanely. Still, what Nellie did stopped them from being treated as much less than human and that matters. We have a long way to go on a lot of social issues but that doesn't stop us from giving credit to the people whose shoulders we must stand upon to get a better world for all of us.

  22. Your videos are very well done and are very interesting. However your stilted speech is a bit annoying. :-/

  23. I got locked up in a psych ward and was just miserable. Felt so much worse there. Doctors, nurses, and staff were just assholes. Thing that helped me was another patient. Woman who cried when she saw me. We became friends. Told me I was the same age and looked like her son. How ashamed she was to be there, and how she wanted to be with her family. I realized I wanted the same. I was taking a psychology course when this happened so I knew exactly what to say to the docs to get out. And I was released early. I think about her sometimes, hope she found the help she needed, but seriously fuck those places

  24. Speaking of badass people getting themselves incarcerated, please check out one of my all-time favorite videos on this channel- The Soldier Who Voluntarily Became a Prisoner in Auschwitz https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O3qHnfxQmKk Seriously, this guy was a badass to end all badasses and an all around amazingly admirable individual. -Daven

  25. Simon what's wrong with women rubbing their husband's feet and bringing them a beer. I feel we have to get back to these values to put us on the right track.

  26. When all you have is a hammer everything is a nail – Of course the doctors of these institutions found insanity everywhere

  27. The funny thing about Nellie's "Race" was that it wasn't a race at all. She didn't even know it was a race until the last stretch. Her essays are available on the internet archive.

  28. My friend David Friedman composed a musical about Bly with book and lyrics by Peter Kellogg. It includes a scene about the madhouse. It's been known as Stunt Girl and Front Page Girl.

  29. Makes me wonder what it must`ve been like for the male asylums of the time. Did anyone find out or did they just not care?

  30. I found a list of reasons to put ladies in insane asylums in the old days, one of the reasons was reading books, I kid you not. It truly was the dark ages for women in the 18th century.

  31. Thank you so much. I've been telling people about Nelly Bly for over 20 years, and I've never met anyone who know about her; I've even been to about 10 air miles from Cochrans Mills, PA, and to my astonishment, no one I spoke to knew about her. She was a remarkable woman, and should be included in our History. Again I thank you, but if may suggest decaf for your next video. lol just kidding i'm the same way when talking about her and History.

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