The Amazing Life of Investigative Journalist Nellie Bly

In a Nutshell

Nellie Bly was an investigative journalist who made headlines in the 1880s when she got herself committed to an insane asylum on purpose so she could do a report on the conditions on the inside from the point of view of a patient.

The Whole Bushel

Nellie Bly was born as Elizabeth Jane Cochran in Cochran Mills Pennsylvania in 1864. In 1885 at the age of 18, Nellie started her journalistic career when she picked up a pen and wrote a fiercely worded reply to a misogynistic article published in the Pittsburgh Dispatch that called the working woman a monstrosity.

The editor of the paper was so impressed he asked for her to come and meet him. Nellie went to his office and was immediately hired. She decided she would write under the pen name Nellie Bly. A lot of writers wrote under pseudonyms during this time. Women did it a lot more than men because it was still considered improper for them to be receiving paid work.

Nellie was a fierce supporter of women’s rights. She started off her career by reporting on sexism and doing several investigative pieces about the plight of women working in sweatshops. Nellie must have ruffled some feathers because editorial pressure eventually forced her out of politics and into writing about traditional women’s issues. She was told it was the “rightful place” for her as a female journalist and was asked to turn in a piece about gardening.

When Nellie handed in the article she also gave them her resignation slip. She left Pittsburgh and moved to New York. She ended up getting a job at a newspaper called The World. The editor liked her attitude. He challenged her to bring him a story that would prove to people one and for all that she should be taken seriously as a journalist. Nellie proposed going undercover at an insane asylum by posing as a mentally ill person so she could report on the conditions on the inside. Her editor liked the idea and told her to get to work.

Nellie had a lot of fun transforming herself into a crazy person. She started wearing tattered rags, she stopped brushing her teeth and bathing and started wandering around with a dazed and distant look on her face. It didn’t take long for her to be diagnosed as “delusional and insane” and dumped in an asylum.

Nellie ended up at Blackwell Island. This was no accident on her part. Blackwell Island was pretty well known at the time for having a terrible reputation. Charles Dickens visited the place in the 1840s and described seeing patients cowering with long disheveled hair, laughing hideously and picking at their hands and lips. He said the patients were “without disguise, in naked ugliness and horror” so Nellie had a pretty good idea of what to expect when she got put in there.

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Nellie spent 10 days at Blackwell Island. She experienced rotting food, cramped and diseased conditions, and cruel attendants. Once, Nellie reported, she experienced torture at the hands of the staff, who dumped three buckets of water over her mouth to make her experience the sensation of drowning.

Nellie was also quick to note that a lot of the women in there weren’t insane. Most were immigrants who could not speak English or disadvantaged women. Not surprisingly most ended up being driven insane after being forced to endure the harsh conditions in the asylum. Nellie remarked, “What, expecting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment?”.

After Nellie was let out of the asylum she wrote a book about her experiences that she called “Ten Days in a Mad House”. Her expose caused a huge embarrassment. There was an investigation into the conditions of the asylum and into the “professionals” there who had been fooled so easily by Nellie’s ruse. Nellie’s actions led to a $1,000,000 increase in the budget of the Department of Public Charities and Corrections and the eventual closure of Blackwell Island in 1894.

Nellie went on to live a long and interesting life. She was a feminist during a time when women had little to no rights. She asked the questions no one wanted to ask and stood up for those who were too scared to have a voice. When she died in 1922 she was called the best reporter of her time.

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