Why Only A Woman Could Pull Off This Stunning Exposé Of A Victorian Mental Asylum

Published November 25, 2016
Updated August 8, 2017

The thrilling tale of perhaps the most daring undercover feat in the history of journalism.

The story of Nellie Bly, the pen name of a young reporter named Elizabeth Cochran, has been told and retold ever since she burst onto the scene in 1887. And much of this has to do with her firsthand account of life in an insane asylum.

Nellie Bly’s stint in the facility wasn’t necessarily how she envisioned making a name for herself. Indeed, it only came after successive failures.

Few New York City newspaper editors took Bly seriously — save for one potential editor at the New York World, who challenged Bly to get committed to an asylum in order to expose the dreadful conditions therein.

Nellie Bly was determined to succeed, and she did so with remarkable ease, in large part because it didn’t take much for doctors to deem a woman “hysterical” in the Victorian era.

Feigning Madness

Nellie Bly Portrait

Bettmann/CORBISNellie Bly, circa 1880s-1890s.

Nellie Bly seized the editor’s assignment for a mix of personal and professional reasons. First, she viewed journalism as a device to effect positive social change, and saw the mental asylum in need of that. Second, she knew that if she did this assignment correctly, it would solidify her career as a serious journalist.

Bly had been writing op-eds and “women’s interest” columns for a while at this point, but found its editorial limits stifling. She didn’t want to write about just china patterns anymore.

Bly’s ego also played a role in accepting the task: The reporter was in her early 20s at the time and conventionally attractive, and knew deep down that she could be some kind of a celebrity should she play her cards right.

Bly’s editor, meanwhile, had his doubts. “I’m afraid about that chronic smile of yours,” he warned her. Bly replied that she would smile no more, and headed home to prepare for her mission. She spent that evening contemplating the various tropes of insanity that she knew (which were few, really) and practiced grimacing in front of her mirror.

Bly ultimately decided that she would take a piecemeal approach to getting into the asylum — not by committing a single, “hysterical” act, but by taking a series of smaller steps involving visits to poorhouses, hospitals, and police stations.

Thus, she put on her most ragged clothing and headed out to find a poorhouse that she could stay in for the night. “I went out to my crazy business,” she wrote.

When Bly arrived at the boarding house for working women, she saw an environment not dissimilar from what would greet her at the asylum. Illness ran rampant among the extremely poor residents. Cold, distant matrons served bad food to shivering residents. A collection of “nervous” women sat in the corner.

Bly hadn’t even been at the boarding home a full day before she began her act. The young reporter opted to display paranoia, and was so good at it that the woman with whom she was supposed to share a room refused.

Instead, the assistant-matron stayed with Bly, and Bly kept her act up through the night and into the next morning. While the matron slept, Bly kept herself awake by thinking of how she’d arrived at this point in her career, and imagining what would come if she pulled off this grand scheme.

“That was the greatest night of my existence,” she wrote,”For a few hours I stood face to face with ‘self’!”

The next day, the boarding home had Bly sent to the local courts for evaluation. This decision came after Bly convinced the boardinghouse matron that she didn’t quite know who she was or where she came from, but that she feared everyone and everything and had lost her trunk in her travels.

As Bly tells it, her judge — a kind, older man who decided he would “be good to her” because “she looks like my sister, who is dead” — ordered that Bly go to Bellevue Hospital for evaluation, where he likely thought someone would claim her.

The first set of doctors at Bellevue, which still operates today, thought Bly was on drugs — belladonna, specifically. Before even asking Bly how she felt, the next set accused her of being a prostitute.

By the time she arrived at a Bellevue holding unit, Bly began to suspect that the incompetence of medical professionals would follow her straight through until her journey’s end.

What Nellie Bly had not prepared for, however, was the cruelty of the nurses, and the hopelessness of her fellow patients.

Abby Norman
Abby Norman is a writer based in New England, currently writing a memoir for Nation Books. Her work has been featured on The Rumpus, The Independent, Cosmopolitan, Medium, Seventeen, Romper, Bustle, and Quartz.
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