“It started as a dare. “New York World” managing editor John Cockerill suggested an outlandish stunt designed to attract readers, while testing the journalistic mettle of the intrepid Nellie Bly. Bly would pose as an insane woman and allow herself to be committed to Blackwell’s Island — New York City’s notorious asylum. What resulted was a searing exposé that got the attention of reformers and readers alike.” (2)
American journalist Elizabeth Jane Cochran, born in Pennsylvania on May 5, 1864, and died in New York City on January 27, 1922, used the pen name Nellie Bly. Prior to 1887, she feigned insanity in order to go undercover and investigate first hand the treatment of the women in the Insane Asylum on Blackwell’s Island. What is most amazing to me is how quickly she ended up there. Miss Cochran, alias Nellie Brown, never showed any displays of violence or agitation and only stated that she lost her trunks, didn’t know how to work, and that people looked crazy to her. One doctor stated that she was a hopeless case. This is a true story about how penniless women, with no support and nowhere to go, many of whom were not insane, were treated during the nineteenth century. The link to the full text is located below as source 1.
TEN DAYS IN A MADHOUSE. CHAPTER XI. IN THE BATH.
“A few more songs and we were told to go with Miss Grupe. We were taken into a cold, wet bathroom, and I was ordered to undress. Did I protest? Well, I never grew so earnest in my life as when I tried to beg off. They said if I did not they would use force and that it would not be very gentle. At this I noticed one of the craziest women in the ward standing by the filled bathtub with a large, discolored rag in her hands. She was chattering away to herself and chuckling in a manner which seemed to me fiendish. I knew now what was to be done with me. I shivered. They began to undress me, and one by one they pulled off my clothes. At last everything was gone excepting one garment. ‘I will not remove it,’ I said vehemently, but they took it off. I gave one glance at the group of patients gathered at the door watching the scene, and I jumped into the bathtub with more energy than grace.
The water was ice-cold, and I again began to protest. How useless it all was! I begged, at least, that the patients be made to go away, but was ordered to shut up. The crazy woman began to scrub me. I can find no other word that will express it but scrubbing. From a small tin pan she took some soft soap and rubbed it all over me, even all over my face and my pretty hair. I was at last past seeing or speaking, although I had begged that my hair be left untouched. Rub, rub, rub, went the old woman, chattering to herself. My teeth chattered and my limbs were goose-fleshed and blue with cold. Suddenly 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 some of the sensations of a drowning person as they dragged me, gasping, shivering and quaking, from the tub. For once I did look insane. I caught a glance of the indescribable look on the faces of my companions, who had witnessed my fate and knew theirs was surely following. Unable to control myself at the absurd picture I presented, I burst into roars of laughter. They put me, dripping wet, into a short canton flannel slip, labeled across the extreme end in large black letters, ‘Lunatic Asylum, B. I., H. 6.’ The letters meant Blackwell’s Island, Hall 6.” (1)
1. Ten Days In A Madhouse by Nellie Bly at A Celebration Of Women Writers. Ten Days in a Mad-House, Published with “Miscellaneous Sketches: Trying to be a Servant,” and “Nellie Bly as a White Slave.” by Nellie Bly [Elizabeth Jane Cochran Seaman] (1864-1922) New York: Ian L. Munro, Publisher, n.d.
2. PBS American Experience – Nellie’s Madhouse Memoir.
3. National Women’s Hall Of Fame – Elizabeth Jane Cochran (Nellie Bly).
State of New York, State Board of Charities, In the Matter of the Investigation of the New York City Asylum for the Insane, Report, August 12, 1887.