In March 2015, I attended a National History Day showcase at my son’s school. As we browsed the talented students’ projects, I came across an exhibit one articulate young lady prepared about Nellie Bly. She told us that Nellie Bly was a reporter who got herself committed to an insane asylum in the 1880s to write a story about it in Ten Days in a Madhouse. I went home, found the e-book on Amazon, and purchased it for 99 cents (I found it later for free here).
Ten Days in a Madhouse was written in 1887; it’s easy to read and filled with humor, despite the horrible conditions Nellie Bly endured. At the time, it was easy to get committed; an internet search for insane asylum commitment reasons will show you an array of what could be viewed as typical problems today. All Nellie had to do was pretend she didn’t know where she came from; otherwise, she behaved totally sane. Even she seemed surprised at how easy it was and that she wasn’t discovered.
The story itself tells a story of mistreatment and cover-up; any patient who tried to tell anyone otherwise was judged as providing proof of her insanity. The book talked about beatings, rope lines, cold inedible meals, and frigid baths taken in the same water as all of the other patients. It was all covered up by the nurses who enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle with fresh fruits who teased and tortured the patients (some of who were sane).
After Nellie’s expose’, the conditions at Blackwell Island in New York City changed for the better, at least on paper. Though I have to wonder after reading what Nellie witnessed if I can trust that things actually improved.
The website nellieblyonline.com contains a wealth of information about Nellie Bly, the pen name for her real name of Elizabeth Jane Cochrane, along with a link to the free electronic book. Nellie pioneered investigative reporting and is also known for reports she did about working conditions and traveling around the world.
I don’t know if the students at my son’s school learned anything at the showcase, but I did and I think some of what Nellie witnessed may end up in my next novel…