On September 22,1887, Elizabeth Cochrane Seamen was asked by the New York World if she would be willing to go undercover inside the New York Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island in order to write an expose on the treatment of patients in the asylum. The only instructions she was given were to “Write up things as you find them, good or bad, give praise or blame as you think best, and truth all the time.” Cochrane, who wrote under the sobriquet “Nellie Bly”, optimistically accepted the assignment.
Bly’s biggest hardship would be to first be declared insane and be admitted to the institution. She also worried about being discovered before her assignment was complete. The newspaper wanted her to go incognito so that she could observe exactly how patients were treated as there were rumors that patients were being abused and that conditions in the asylum were deplorable. If her identity was discovered, conditions in the asylum might be altered so as to conceal the real treatment of patients. The final hurdle for the undercover reporter would be getting out once having been declared insane.
It took a few days for Bly to come up with a plan to get admitted and then to put her plan into action. The first thing she did was decide on a name to use in order to conceal her identity. She chose the name “Nellie Brown” because it had the same initials as her sobriquet “Nellie Bly”. This would be the name her editor would use to track her whereabouts as well as to free Bly once her assignment was complete. The second thing she did was to determine exactly how she would attempt to get admitted to the asylum. She came up with two options, only one of them viable. The first option was to “feign insanity at the house of friends”. The reporter felt that this would not be kind to her friends. The second option was to be committed by being declared insane by the courts. Having chosen the second course, Bly was ready to practice being insane. She knew insane people all had staring eyes so, in the dead of night she stared unblinkingly at her reflection in the mirror as she pondered becoming a lunatic. She concluded her evening reading ghost stories. In the morning, having stayed up all night long, Bly washed up and said goodbye to her belongings as she set out to be committed.
The plan was to enter a boarding-house for working women. She planned on putting these women at ill-ease knowing that “they would never rest until I was out of their reach and in secure quarters.” Bly selected the Temporary Home for Females, No. 84 Second Avenue and wasted no time putting these women on edge. She secured a bed and bought an expensive and meager meal and then stood, staring listlessly at the women in the front parlor. When confronted, Bly commented that all the women looked “Crazy” to her and that she was afraid of them. When the evening came, most of the women were claiming she was crazy and would potentially murder them in their sleep. After being escorted to bed, she spent the night “staring blankly at vacancy”. In the morning the police were called and Bly was escorted to the courts where she was declared insane by one judge, a doctor, and a mass of people.
From the courts, the reporter was successfully conveyed by ambulance to the Bellevue Hospital Pavilion to await transport to Blackwell’s Island. Here she met a Miss Anne Neville. Miss Neville had been sick from overwork. Her family had been unable to pay for her treatment so she’d been transferred to Bellevue Hospital whose doctors determined she was insane and she was to be sent to the asylum on Blackwell’s Island. Miss Neville lamented to Nellie Bly that “the doctors refuse to listen to (her) and it is useless to say anything to the nurses.” Up until this point, Nellie Bly had believed that only the mentally insane would be treated in the asylums.
The cold settled in and Bly complained of the cold. She was handed a musty, moth-eaten shawl before being brought before yet another doctor who would pronounce her insane. She was to be transported to Blackwell’s Island in the morning, but first she would have to endure the long night.
All night long the nurses read one to the other aloud, and I know that the other patients, as well as myself, were unable to sleep. Every half-hour or hour they would walk heavily down the halls, their boot-heels resounding like the march of a private of dragoons, and take a look at every patients. Of course this helped to keep us awake. Then as it came toward morning, they began to beat eggs for breakfast, and the sound made me realize how horribly hungry I was.
At 6 o’clock on Sunday, September 25th, she was roused from her sleep, fed and had her nails clipped to the quick by the nurses. Bly was shortly thereafter visited by reporters who were interested in the mysterious “Nellie Brown”, which was disconcerting as it might blow her cover. (Thankfully it did not.) Doctor Field visited and, once again, Bly was asked a barrage of questions. As he was leaving, Miss Tillie Mayard, another patient, discovered that she was in the insane ward of Bellevue. Until that point, she’d been under the impression that her friends had brought her to a convalescent ward to be treated for a nervous debility which was the result of a previous illness. She ran up to Doctor Field who laughed at her request to be tested for sanity.
At noon, the patients were transported to the island where the real abuse would begin. Patients were interviewed and then invited to supper. The hall was so cold and the food so deplorable. After dinner, patients were taken to the bath. They were stripped of their clothing and put into a tub of ice-cold water, the contents of which were not emptied between women. There they were viciously scrubbed. Three buckets of ice-cold water were dumped overhead with no warning to rinse the suds off each of the patients before they were dragged from the tub and, dripping wet, placed into a short canton flannel slip. Bly was able to catch a glimpse of herself in the mirror which caused her to burst into a roar of laughter because of the absurd picture she presented. Once escorted to her room, Bly attempted to sleep. She recounted that night in the accounting of her “Ten Days in a Madhouse” as follows:
A sheet and an oilcloth were under me, and a sheet of black wool blanket above. I never felt anything so annoying as that wool blanket as I tried to keep it around my shoulders to stop the chills from getting underneath. When I pulled it up I left my feet bare, and when I pulled it down my shoulders were exposed. There was absolutely nothing in the room but the bed and myself. As the door had been locked I imagined I should be left alone for the night, but I heard the sound of the heavy tread of two women down the hall. They stopped at every door, unlocked it, and in a few moments I could hear them relock it. This they did without the least attempt at quietness…
Another memorable moment was the first walk Bly took at the asylum. They were given comical white straw hats and moth-eaten shawls to go with their odd dresses. They were then put in a two-by-two line, which was strictly guarded by attendants.
I looked at the pretty lawns, which I had once thought was such a comfort to the poor creatures confined on the Island, and laughed at my own notions. What enjoyment is it to them? They are not allowed on the grass– it is only to look at. I saw some patients eagerly and caressingly lift a nut or a colored leaf that had fallen on the path. But they were not permitted to keep them. The nurses would always compel them to throw their little bit of God’s comfort away.
As I passed a low pavilion, where a crowd of helpless lunatics were confined, I read a motto on the wall, “While I live I hope.” The absurdity of it struck me forcibly. I would have liked to put above the gates that open to the asylum, “He who enters here leaveth hope behind.”
After her walk, having previously determined to go so far undercover as to be put with the more violent patients, Bly decided that the conditions for a “good” lunatic were deplorable enough. In subsequent days, Bly would witness patients being beaten and strangled by attending staff. She saw staff eating ripe fruit, nuts, fresh bread and salted meat while patients were given meager portions of stale bread and maggoty meat with which to sate their voracious appetites. She noticed that patients were given clean gowns to wear only when they were visited by friends, relatives or persons seeking to find lost loved-ones. Bly witnessed staff make numerous attempts to incite violent behavior from patients in order to start a commotion in the ward. Bly would also witness the health of several patients– including Miss Tillie Mayard– degrade severely. By the time her assignment to spend a week in the New York Insane Asylum on Blackwell’s Island was complete, Bly was all to eager to leave.
Shortly after taking leave of the asylum and writing up her story for the paper, Bly was asked to testify in front of a Grand Jury. The subsequent investigation would reveal a lack of funding for the institution as well as the abuse of the patients at the hospital. Though, someone from Bellevue had tipped off the asylum staff prior to the investigators’ arrival, the jury would still conclude that a change in the treatment of the mentally ill at the New York City Asylum was warranted. They saw to it that patients were given clean clothing more frequently, that they were given healthier meals, and that the bath water and towels were to be changed between patients. To this effect, the City of New York appropriated an additional $1,000,000 per annum for the betterment of the institution.
Bly’s undercover assignment was an influential moment in history as it was quite a popular piece of investigative journalism. Her story revealed to the world the abuse of patients in asylums.