Ten Days in a Mad-House – Nellie Bly

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/9e3/45106722/files/2014/12/img_0990.jpgSummary (Amazon):  Nellie Bly, posing as “Nellie Brown,” went undercover to investigate the deplorable conditions of insane asylums. Her memoirs of this event form the basis of “Ten Days in a Mad-House,” which forever changed the way the world looks at treatment and housing of the insane.

My Review (Spoilers!):

Executive Summary: incredible

Nellie Bly, at age 23, in 1887, basically changed journalism forever. She managed to get herself committed into the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island (although it did not seem very tough to get admitted) and then wrote about the atrocities that were there. Her initial intention was to get to the worst section of the Asylum, but after arrival and talking to some of the other patients, she decided to not risk her health in that way.

At the time, it was very easy to be committed to an asylum. You just had to behave a little strangely and you were admitted. A lot of foreign women who did not understand fully what was happening were admitted. And no one ever recovered. You could only leave if someone from the outside came to collect you and promise to take responsibility of you. Nellie simply had to go to a working class boarding house and act strangely before the other women there were nervous enough to call the police. Once there, she was evaluated by the police and a doctor, and a judge sentenced her to to go to Belleville Hospital where she was again examined before taking the boat over to the Asylum. The doctor’s examinations consisted of very general questions, but regardless of the answers, everyone in there was deemed insane.

Upon arrival to the island, she found conditions much worse than expected. The nurses were lazy and cruel, and any discussion of it to the doctors or supervisor would result in further punishment. Complaints to the doctors also resulted in verdicts of insanity as the patients were obviously deluded and making up stories. They were bathed once a week in succession, with no water change, regardless of whether they were sick or not. The same with the post-bath hair combing. The temperature was frigid and none of the patients were provided with enough clothes or blankets. The food for the patients was horrible and spoiled while the nurses were provided with fresh food. The nurses specifically picked on certain patients trying to cause them to act out. Some patients were beaten and choked. No one was allowed to have any books or anything really to do.


“What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment? Here is a class of women sent to be cured. I would like the expert physicians who are condemning me for my action, which has proven their ability, to take a perfectly sane and healthy woman, shut her up and make her sit from 6 a.m. until 8 p.m. on straight-back benches, do not allow her to talk or move during these hours, give her no reading and let her know nothing of the world or its doings, give her bad food and harsh treatment, and see how long it will take to make her insane. Two months would make her a mental and physical wreck.”


Eventually Bly’s publisher came to collect her, and she testified before a jury about what she had found. They planned a surprise trip to the island to verify, but it turned out to not be a surprise. Someone had found out ahead of time and fixed many of the issues. Many of the women, specifically the ones who had the more horrible things done to them, were nowhere to be found. However, some small consolations were that one of the doctors told Nellie that had he known what she was doing, he would have helped her. Most of the atrocities were covered up by the nurses. And separately, even though much of what Nellie described could not be verified during their visit, they believed her story enough to allocate an additional $1M to help the insane.

Verdict: 4 stars

It’s hard to give a rating to a journalistic story. The writing in and of itself is nothing terribly impressive, but it’s the whole situation that is. It’s impressive that in an era where women did not even have the right to vote, Nellie was able to gain the respect of the newspaper, the court, and the general public to create actual change in a terrible situation. And not only that, she opened the door to investigative journalism from which I’m sure stemmed many other investigations which changed society for the better. It’s incredibly inspirational.


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