To say that Nellie Bly was a woman of many talents would be, in many ways, an understatement.
Amongst other things, Bly is famed for sailing around the world in seventy two days, making her a real-life Phileas Fogg. Unlike the fictitious Fogg however, Bly was an actual intrepid adventurer, as well as being a pioneer in the field of investigative journalism. She was committed to exposing previously hidden socio-political horrors to the American public.
The most famous example of Bly’s admirable and courageous undercover work was her exposé of the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island in New York. Her work Ten Days in a Mad-House, one of the most groundbreaking moments in the journalistic field of her time, remains powerful even in the modern day.
From the age of eighteen, it was clear that Bly had an aptitude for journalism. In response to a Pittsburgh Dispatch column called What Girls Are Good For, she damned the editor and establishment for their blatant misogyny. Despite living in a time when women were denied the constitutional right to vote, in her letter, Bly was outspoken and passionate to a fault.
Instead of gathering up the ‘real smart young men’, gather up the real smart girls, pull them out of the mire, give them a shove up the ladder of life, and be amply repaid both by their success and unforgetfulness of those that held out the helping hand.
Her words prompted the paper to offer her a job, impressed with her determination. However, she soon became unsatisfied with the limited reporting geared to women of the era. Bly decided to make a move to The New York World which would define her unconventional career in journalism. It was here that she published her staggeringly successful series of articles that would later be compiled as Ten Days in a Mad-House.
That such an institution could be mismanaged, and that cruelties could exist ‘neath its roof, I did not deem possible.
Mental health institutions in the period were shrouded in mystery, so it’s hardly surprising that Bly was oblivious to the cruelties within the Women’s Lunatic Asylum. “There was a latent desire to know positively,” Bly said, and having to feign madness in order to gain access to the institution, it was clear her desire to discover the truth outweighed any of her doubts.
Bly was successfully admitted to the asylum on Blackwell’s Island after being taken into police custody when women at a boarding house became afraid of her rehearsed insanity. From then on, she was extensively examined by one doctor after another, unanimously concluding that she was “positively demented” and “a hopeless case” – truly a testament to Bly’s theatrical talents!
It is often said that the truth hurts, and this was certainly the case for Bly when she discovered the appalling conditions at the institution. Her report condemned the asylum, asking “what, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment?”. Bly witnessed and bravely endured the horrific conditions in the hospital, detailing that the wardens “pounced upon (a patient) and slapped her face and knocked her head in a lively fashion. This made the poor creature cry the more, and so they choked her. Yes, they actually choked her… I plainly saw the marks of their fingers on her throat for the entire day”.
Bly’s findings and reports caused outrage among the American public, as they were horrified to learn what happened behind closed doors at the institution. This proved to be sufficient evidence for a full-scale enquiry into the institution. With Bly’s assistance, the New York Assistant District Attorney made numerous changes in legislation that would ultimately increase funding for the mentally ill by almost $1 million. Nellie Bly brought hope to a society that shunned the insane.
Even after the pinnacle of her career, Bly continued to go undercover. She conducted similar editorials on the treatment of workers and inmates in New York factories and prisons respectively. It was only after her marriage to prosperous American industrialist Robert Seaman at the age of thirty that Bly retired from journalism – undoubtedly she had carved out a hugely influential career at a remarkably young age. In 1905, she revived her writing profession after the death of her husband. It was, however, tragically cut short by her own death two years later. Bly was 57 years old at the time of her death, untimely for a woman with such tenacity.
References include: Ten Days in a Mad House by Nellie Bly, National Women’s History Museum, Biography.com.
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