Bly in Blackwell's Island Madhouse (Before, During & After)
The drumroll Pink Cochrane counted on to herald her debut in the capital of newspaperdom turned out to be nothing but a long, loud, flat thud. She arrived in May 1887, hell-bent on swift hire at one of the city's major dailies. But as May stretched into June, and June into August, her forays down the one-sided crush of newspaper offices angling from Ann Street and Broadway into Printing House Square, known as Park Row, proved ever more futile.
Her Pittsburgh portfolio meant little to the surly nay-sayers at the office doors of The Sun, The World, The Herald, The Tr1hune, The Times, and The Mail and Express, the guards who stood sentry in the shadow of City Hall. She, like so many hopeful provincial reporters, couldn't get past them. It began to seem that the small furnished room overlooking a dark back alley at 15 West Ninety-sixth Street might be home forever.
. . . . The World was where she wanted to work. In the four years since Joseph Pulitzer had bought the ailing newspaper from financier Jay Gould, he had fashioned it into the most successful, most imitated newspaper in the country by combining a taste for the lurid and grisly sensations and scandals of the day, captured in provocative headlines, with top-notch reporting of all the day's news, strong use of illustrations, crusades and contests, and an editorial page renowned for its excellence.
As an immigrant himself, Pulitzer instinctively understood the need to appeal to the diverse pool of potential readership represented by the masses of new Americans settling in the city. He took up their causes, appealed to their interests, confronted in newsprint the issues they faced, and commanded their attention. The catapult in circulation The World experienced between 1883 and 1887 -- from 20,000 to 200,000 on Sundays alone -- generously affirmed the wisdom of his approach.
. . . . Upon her arrival, Bly must have found fortuitous the announcement in The World of May 1 that the newspaper planned to send up a hot-air balloon in St. Louis, home of Pulitzer's other newspaper, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The manned balloon was to travel west with the two newspapers chronicling its journey day by day. Bly, seeing her opening, immediately offered in a letter to be the reporter on board. She enclosed a note of introduction from a Pittsburgh acquaintance, Edward Dulzer. The rejection pointed out that the undertaking was too dangerous for a lady. . . .
By mid-July, with no prospect of a local job, Bly brought in some money writing women's features sent back for publication in her alma mater, The Pittsburg Dispatch, alongside the reporting of George N. McCain, the paper's regular New York correspondent, who could not have taken kindly to this incursion onto his turf She stayed out of his way for the most part, directing her attention to the very subjects she had fled Pittsburgh to escape. There were Sunday pieces on what fashionable New York women were wearing . . . and some unrelated, oddly recounted pieces of the sometimes strange turns of city life.
The second week in August, Bly told the readers of The Dispatch that she had received a letter from an ambitious young lady who longed to become a journalist, . . . The woman asked Bly if she thought New York was the best place to get a start. Rather than answer herself, Bly got the idea to use this excuse to put the question to the city's most powerful journalistic personalities, the men she described with a knowing air as "the newspaper gods of Gotham."
Her Dispatch credentials were all the entree she needed, and she visited them all . . . [including] Colonel John A. Cockerill, Pulitzer's chief editor at The World . . . The story that resulted, though it was not much more than the editors' verbatim quotes, read like a feminist's lament. Getting past their editorial mind-set and into the city room was going to be some trick for Bly or the young female aspirant, who might well have been one and the same. . . .
The story Bly wrote, published in The Pittsburg Dispatch, proved a better showcase for her ability than any stunt or letter of introduction. The statements of these editors proved so out of touch -- women had started to elbow their way into city rooms across the country -- that the story ricocheted from Pittsburgh to New York to Boston over the next two months and then out to the rest of the nation's journalistic community through the trade magazine, The Journalist.
More important for Bly, it got her in personal contact with the men who held the power to hire and showed her how to position herself for the New York market, pathetic as it was for women reporters. . . .
"I really think," shc recalled, "I at last gained admission by saying that I had an important subject to propose, and if the editor-in-chief would not see me, I would go to some other paper."
. . . . Ushered into Cockerill's "sacred precincts," Bly wasted no time. She presented her story ideas, suggestions "as desperate as they were startling to carry out." Cockerill looked them over but declined to give her an immediate response. Instead, to keep her from going elsewhere, presumably until he could speak with Pulitzer, he handed her twenty-five dollars to retain her services until a decision could be made.
She called him at the appointed time and by September 22, had her chance. . . . Cockerill commissioned her to feign insanity and get herself committed to the Women's Lunatic Asylum, set amid the prisons, charity hospitals, almshouses, workhouses, and "other cancer spots of modern Manhattan" on the 120-acre sliver of land in the East River then known as Blackwell's Island.
It was a harrowing demand to make of a gentlewoman only trying out for a position, but to Bly it was far more appealing than the prospect of starvation. Cockerill knew what he was asking. "You can try," he told her. "But if you can do it, it's more than anyone would believe."
. . . . With the benefit of hindsight, The World retold the story of how Nellie Bly ended up an inmate on Blackwell's Island, in the newspaper's tenth-anniversary issue, May 7, 1893. This time the paper said, without specifying the originator of the idea, that it directed Bly to investigate the asylum after "frequent reports of shocking abuses ... but no direct evidence on the subject had been given out to the public."
In fact, in the two months before attendants carted Nellie Bly away to Bellevue Hospital and then to the dreaded island, all the newspapers were full of stories of asylum abuses at the city's various institutions. The World itself ran two editorials, July 3 and July 9, demanding investigation of alleged maltreatment of patients at the charitable and penal institutions on Ward's Island, also in the East River, just north of Blackwell's. Meanwhile, two keepers of the Ward's Island facility were indicted for manslaughter in the killing of a "lunatic," prompting The World to call for an overhaul of the "disgracefully overcrowded" facility.
The New York Times ran frequent stories. In August, two nurses, ages seventeen and twenty-eight, leveled what the prim Times would only describe as "charges seriously affecting the character" of two Blackwell's Island physicians, resulting in the suspensions from duty of all four. An editorial in the newspaper on August 18 decried the "very ugly and painful stories" circulating about brutality and neglect of the island's inmates. "It would be as much a mistake to assume that there is nothing in these stories as to assume that they are all literally true," the newspaper wrote.
The asylum cried out for independent investigation, which newspapers by this point in their evolution saw as part of their domain. Thanks to The World's revival of the shocking as daily newspaper fare, the subject of ill-treated lunatics was a natural. And women in journalism had only one hope of escaping work on the dreary society pages: the new, wild-side genre of "stunt" or "detective" reporting with which Bly's name would fast become synonymous. Although such exploits had been attempted before by male reporters in the name of public service and, more important, wider newspaper circulation, this one launched the decade of Girl Reporter Derring-Do. . . .
"Behind Asylum Bars" was the headline of the first installment of the illustrated two-part series, which The World started running October 9, 1887. The newcomer was permitted to sign her story at the end of the two entire pages of newsprint it occupied as the lead of the Sunday feature section, another Pulitzer innovation. As rare as bylines were for veterans on the pages of The World, other than stars like Bill Nye or a guest columnist like the poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox, they were almost unheard of for a new hire, no matter how impressive his or her feat.
By the time the second installment ran one week later-with the same sensational display, lead feature on two successive pagesNellie Bly was no longer just a byline, that line above or below a newspaper story that gives the name of the writer. Even though so little time had elapsed, Nellie Bly meant enough to be part of the headline, the large type atop a story aimed to attract the reader's eye:
By the time the second installment ran one week later -- with the same sensational display, lead feature on two successive pages -- Nellie Bly was no longer just a byline, that line above or below a newspaper story that gives the name of the writer. Even though so little time had elapsed, Nellie Bly meant enough to be part of the headline, the large type atop a story aimed to attract the reader's eye:
INSIDE THE MADHOUSE
. . . Two months later, Nellie Bly's "Ten Days in a Mad-House" was out in book form, slightly embellished with Bly's afterthoughts on her adventure, along with reprints of two subsequent stunts that appeared in The World to fill the work out to book length.
In a matter of days, Nellie Bly had caused the New York sensation she hoped for and, in the process, become one herself. Her name appeared in the headline of that story and virtually every other story she wrote for the rest of her newspaper life. .
To succeed at feigning insanity and live to write about it was an extraordinary feat. As the achievement of a woman journalist in this period, its brilliance was blinding. The acclaim Bly won was as much of a sensation as the achievement itself. Fame ignited and spread fast and far. . .
The strategy for getting into the Blackwell's Island Insane Asylum for Women was Bly's concoction. Cockerill gave her no more instruction than to use the name Nellie Brown, so that she could be identified by her monogram no matter what, and to try to suppress her chronic smile. He promised to find a way to get her out when the time came.
For hours, she practiced looking like a lunatic in front of a mirror. Always meticulously groomed, she put on her idea of old clothes, later described by the reporters she duped as stylish. She left behind her soap and toothbrush. Faraway expressions look crazy, she decided. She wandered the streets in a daze.
For legal advice, she called on Assistant District Attorney Henry D. Macdona. "I looked at the little woman with amazement," he later recalled. "I learned that she had obliterated every vestige of her identity and would go into the asylum absolutely leaving no trace behind. At first I declined to have anything to do with the matter and cautioned her as to the danger. I expressed the opinion that she did not possess sufficient bodily strength to enable her to pass harmless through the threatened ordeal."
Although writers as early as the I840s, notably Charles Dickens in his American Notes and Margaret Fuller in The New York Tribune, had gone to Blackwell's Island and reported on conditions, no one before Bly had assumed the guise of the deranged for the assignment. Macdona earnestly advised Bly to give up the idea, but she jumped from her chair, stamped her foot defiantly, and declared that no asylum keeper or anyone else was going to frighten her off. "That settled the question in my mind," Macdona said, and he agreed to give her immunity from prosecution for the ruse.
Giving her name as Nellie Brown, Bly checked into Matron Irene Stenard's Temporary Home for Women at 84 Second Avenue, a working-class boardinghouse. There, after two meals and a few irrational conversations, she would contrive to lose her mind. Her performance was convincing enough that by bedtime one woman was heard to say, "I'm afraid to stay with such a crazy being in the house." Added another, "She will murder us before morning."
"But how I tortured all of them!" Bly wrote later. "One of them dreamed of me -- as a nightmare." She herself would stay up all night -- standing "face to face with self!" -- engulfed in the melodrama of the adventure that was about to alter the course of her life. . . . "It was," she would write later, "the greatest night of my existence."
By morning, the assistant matron tried to get Bly out of the house, but she refused, keeping up a refrain about looking for her missing trunks. One woman left and returned with two police officers, who escorted her to the station house. From there she was taken into the Essex Market police courtroom of the kindly Judge Patrick G. Duffy, who offered in compassion that he was sure this well-dressed, well-spoken lady was "somebody's darling."
Bly covered her face with a handkerchief so the laughter he provoked would not betray her. Judge Duffy concluded she had been drugged and brought to the city. "Make out papers and we will send her to Bellevue for examination," he ordered. In the meantime, trying to determine the origin of her odd accent, he asked her if she were from Cuba. She said yes and at that, putting the fruits of her Mexican sojourn to good use, took to calling herself Nellie Moreno (Spanish for Brown, misspelled by all the reporters). Duffy called in' reporters, hoping publicity about the case would help in locating the family to whom the pretty 112-pound, five-foot five-inch young woman with the size two and a half shoe belonged.
The Sun played the story as a mystery, placing it in the lead right-hand column of the front page on September 25 under the headline "Who Is This Insane Girl?" . . . . It reported the contradictions in the story of her background, her apparent disorientation. The doctors, confounded, called hers "the most peculiar case that ever came into the hospital."
. . . Dr. William C. Braisted, head of the insane pavilion at Bellevue, repeated his diagnosis to The New York Herald. "She never seems to be restless. Her delusions, her dull apathetic condition, the muscular twitching of her hands and arms and her loss of memory, all indicate hysteria." To The Evening Telegram the next day, he said she was "undoubtedly insane."
Only Bellevue's warden, William B. O'Rourke, was suspicious. He told The Sun reporter he considered the girl "a humbug." No one listened. . . . On Monday, September 26, The Times wrote movingly of the "mysterious waif' at Bellevue with the "wild, hunted look in her eyes," describing her plaintive whisper, her incoherence, and the despair in her oft-repeated cry, "I can't remember. I can't remember."
In her wordy series, Bly elaborated on every sensation, every detail. There was the filthy ferry that carted her across to Blackwell's Island; the "coarse, massive" female attendants who "expectorated tobacco juice about on the floor in a manner more skillful than charming;" and the foreign women, wholly sane, who were committed simply because they could not make themselves understood. She wrote about the wretched food, the lack of salt, too little warm clothing, and the freezing cold baths:
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 the sensation of a drowning person as they dragged me, gasping, shivering and quaking, from the tub. For once I did look insane.
She told in detail of witchy, vicious nurses who choked, beat, and harassed their deluded patients; of fire hazards; of having to share towels with "crazy patients who had the most dangerous eruptions all over their faces;" of oblivious doctors, and of sitting idle all day long after a brief, morning walk.
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. to 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.
. . . . After ten days, on Tuesday, October 4, The World sent attorney Peter A. Hendricks to arrange for Miss Moreno's release, ostensibly to the care of friends willing to take responsibility for her.
The World's cartoonist, Walt McDougall, accompanied Hendricks. Left alone in the inner courtyard for a few minutes, McDougall recalled years later almost having his clothes ripped off by "a raging crowd of female maniacs, idiots and plain bugs. The way the mob rushed me, one would have thought I was the first train out after a subway hold-up."
The Sun reported the mysterious waif's release in a brief paragraph on October 7. The Times provided a longer account, concluding that her treatment for mental depression had achieved "gratifying results" and with further care, her reason could be restored. The facts of her case, however, remained a mystery. Two days later, imagine the editorial fury, not to mention embarrassment, along Newspaper Row when the first installment of Bly's report appeared in The World.
The Times dropped the story entirely, but Dana's staff at The Sun did its best to recoup. A good yarn is a good yarn, and The Sun cleverly undertook to make the story its own. Before Bly could get into print with the continuation of her account, the part of her saga that dealt with her actual stay on Blackwell's Island, The Sun produced its own quite comprehensive version
of those events, gleaned by an unnamed Sun reporter from medical reports and interviews with the asylum's staff. It was published on the Friday before Bly's second Sunday piece.
The World may have been scooped on half of its scoop, but it was all the better for Bly, who, in the process, got her first boost into legend. In tall, heavy black type, The Sun led its front page with a blaring headline:
PLAYING MAD WOMAN
In six columns of type, The World's rival newspaper recounted the entire saga. The Sun included rumors which had circulated at the asylum after Bly's release that Nellie Brown actually was a pretender. Speculation as to her identity, The Sun said, ultimately settled on "a young woman known as Nellie Bly as the heroine of the adventure."
And who was Nellie Bly?
She has been doing newspaper work in New York for several months and is the metropolitan correspondent of a Pittsburgh newspaper. Her mother is the widow of a Pittsburgh lawyer [sic]. She is intelligent, capable and self-reliant, and, except for the matter of changing her name to Nellie Bly, has gone about the business of maintaining herself in journalism in a practical, business-like way.
The story detailed the reactions of physicians and staff as they tried to explain how so many professionals could have gone so wrong. The World cribbed from the piece and reprinted or re-reported whole sections of it under a gloating headline the next day:
ALL THE DOCTORS FOOLED
Bly refuted most of the excuses of doctors, nurses, and administrators in a subsequent story. And the doctors and administrators, in turn, denied her charges.
News of the young reporter's exploit traveled well beyond the city. Papers all over North America lauded her achievement. The World carried excerpts from as many as it could. Most of the comments focused on how frightening it was that so many experts could be taken in by a girl with no special training or rehearsal performing a lunatic charade. "We all know that in times not so very remote men and women were sent to insane asylums on the certificates of doctors who were in collusion with relatives interested in having them put out of the way" was the ominous comment of The Hamilton Times of Ontario. . . .
The World did its own vaunting. "The World Their Savior" the headline read. "How Nellie Bly's World Will Help the City's Insane." The story was about the appearance on October 27 before the Board of Estimate and Apportionment of commissioners for the Department of Public Charities and Corrections. The men appealed for a $1 million increase in their appropriation for the department. Mayor Abram S. Hewitt, noting Bly's expose, recommended appropriating the full amount.
Bly's own report on the impact of her investigation served as the last paragraph of her book, published immediately after the series ran. She wrote, "I have one consolation for my work -- on the strength of my story the committee of appropriation provides $1 million more than was ever before given, for the benefit of the insane."
The actual sequence of events was somewhat different. Before Bly's exploit, the Board of Estimate already was considering its budgetary provisions for 1888, as required by law. On October 5, four days before Bly's first report appeared, requests were submitted for substantial increases in the budgets of all the facilities under the
jurisdiction of the Department of Public Charities and Corrections, including the prisons, hospitals, workhouse, and almshouse, as well as the asylums. The request would increase the department's budget from nearly $1.50 million in 1887 to more than $2.64 million in 1888.
The commissioners acknowledged how "overcrowded and entirely inadequate" these facilities had become, reaching a point "where relief has become imperative." For the Lunatic Asylum, they requested funds for a new building to accommodate staff so they would not have to share living quarters with the inmates. They asked for new bathrooms, a double oven for the kitchen, and funds to remodel the "Old Lodge," the building "for many years containing the most violent maniacs" now "unfit for habitation." They wanted to turn it into workshops and an amusement hall.
On October 25, Dr. Charles Simmons, head of the charities and corrections board, invited Mayor Hewitt and the rest of the Board of Estimate to visit the island and see for themselves how deplorable conditions were. Two days later, the department's commissioners appealed to the board in person, as reported in The World..
Two weeks after Bly's report appeared, Assistant District Attorney Vernon M. Davis led the October grand jury in an investigation of conditions at the asylum, which The World. said was prompted solely by Bly's report. She was invited to accompany the panel. In her book, Bly reported that by the time she and the grand jury made their island tour, many of the abuses she had reported had been corrected, the foreign patients she named had been transferred away, the food service and sanitary conditions had been improved, and the hateful nurses and attendants she described had disappeared.
Still, when the jury members filed into the General Sessions courtroom of Judge Henry A. Gildersleeve on November 2, they immediately recommended approval of the larger appropriation of funds for care of the insane, specifically calling for improvement in the quality of staff members and food service, appointment of several women physicians to oversee nurses and attendants, relief of the overcrowding, and a change in the existing system of individual locks on each ward door because of the obvious fire hazard it created.
On December 18, the Board of Estimate took up the commissioners' invitation to visit the various facilities, even causing an uproar at the Lunatic Asylum among the most violent inmates. The grim tour further convinced them of the department's need for more money.
By December 29, the board made a few trims, then voted to approve an increase in the department's appropriation of $850,000 over the previous year -- a 57 percent raise and the largest appropriation increase by far granted any department.
The total amount of $2.34 million was only 10 percent under the department's total original request for all the facilities under its control. Of this amount, some $50,000 of $60,000 requested was earmarked for the Blackwell's Island asylum.
In light of the adverse publicity that preceded Bly's expose, it is clear that a consensus had been forming for some time to increase funding to the city's jalls, hospitals, almshouses, workhouses, and asylums. Given the sensation her report caused, however, it is an allowable lapse into hyperbole to claim as she did that the additional funds came "on the strength of my story." She certainly had added valuable heft. . . .