Wednesday 8th March was International Women’s Day and one woman I heard justifiably eulogised on the radio was journalist Nellie Bly. Born in 1864 in Cochran’s Mills, Pennsylvania, USA, she is best known for going around the world, in the style of the fictional Phileas Fogg, only eight days faster. But she also made a great contribution to investigative journalism, especially in the cause of those being treated for mental illness.
She first began writing for the Pittsburgh Dispatch in 1885, when she posed as a sweatshop worker to expose the poor conditions for working women. But, frustrated by the lack of opportunities for female journalists, she moved to New York in 1887 and began writing for the New York World. One of her first assignments was an investigation into the conditions in a notorious insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island ( now Roosevelt Island ), which she titled ‘Ten Days in a Madhouse’. This assignment exposed serious neglect, poor health care and physical abuse.
Posing as Nellie Moreno, a Cuban immigrant, she checked into a New York boarding house, where she refused to sleep, saying she was afraid of the other residents because they looked ‘crazy’, and then continually asked where her bags were. This fairly unextreme behaviour got her taken, first to court, and then to Blackwell’s. The asylum was supposed to be a state-of-the-art humane and moral institution but, when funding ran out, it’s good and progressive intentions did also. Nellie found ‘oblivious doctors’ and orderlies who ‘choked, beat and harassed patients’, often deliberately provoking them to get violent results. She also found the women were refused all reading materials or forms of entertainment and had to endure filthy rat-infested conditions, rancid food and forced, freezing cold baths. Many women there were completely unaffected by any mental health problems but were incarcerated simply because they were foreign so nobody understood them; others were there because they were poor, or because they had been unfaithful to their husbands. And the worst aspect of the asylum was the constant isolation and enforced inactivity…as Nellie Bly said:
“What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment?…Take a perfectly sane and healthy woman, shut her up and make her sit from 6am to 8pm…do not allow her to talk or move…give her bad food and harsh treatment, and see how long it will take to make her insane…”
Nellie only spent 10 days there, a very short time, but she found it easy to understand how a lengthy stay there would be horrendous, and permanently damaging, physically and mentally. One of the women she met reported:
“…they tied my hands and feet, and, throwing a sheet over my head, twisted it tightly around my throat so I could not scream, and thus put me in a bathtub filled with cold water…”
And despite the fact that, from the moment Nellie actually entered the asylum, she acted completely sanely and rationally, no-one (except one very kind doctor) would believe, or even question the fact, that she should not be in there:
“Yet strangely to say, the more sanely I talked and acted, the crazier I was thought to be…”
Her writing on the subject caused New York Assistant District Attorney Vernon M. Davis to launch an investigation. When the Grand Jury visited, Blackwell’s clearly had received advance warning, so that the place had been cleaned up and the most badly treated women hidden from sight. However, Nellie’s story was believed, resulting in a number of changes, including a greater appropriation of funds for the care of mental health patients, more supervision of nurses and health care workers, and regulations to prevent overcrowding. Nellie wrote other such investigative pieces after this, specifically looking into conditions in prisons and factories.
Care and treatment for those with mental health problems may still be oppressive, unfair and often barbaric. But, like most things, it is all relative. And although Nelly Bly went on to be better known for travelling around the world, alone, in 72 days, her pioneering work in mental health reform, particularly for women, is well worth remembering.
The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Changes Bristol