Nellie Bly is arguably most famous for her round-the-world trip in 1890, a feat she managed in just 72 days. She was also one of the first “muckraking” journalists, pioneering a new investigative style to draw attention to social problems and affect change. Her fame led many women to careers in journalism.
Not long after beginning a job at the New York World, the 23-year-old Bly was given an assignment that would define her legacy. She was to go undercover as a patient at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum, located on Blackwell’s Island (now known as Roosevelt Island), and write an exposé on her experiences. To achieve this, she secured lodging at a boarding house and then began acting as if she was mentally disturbed. She was clearly convincing enough to fool the police officers, judge, and physicians who interviewed her, ultimately getting herself committed to Blackwell’s Island.
Bly spent 10 days at Blackwell’s Island before the
secured her release, serving as an eyewitness to the often appalling treatment of the female patients who were supposedly being cared for there. She recorded instances of physical abuse and neglect by hospital staff, as well as the gravely substandard food and clothing given to patients. Bly noticed how some of the women appeared to be mentally ill yet were not given proper care, while others were suffering from physical ailments. Some appeared to be entirely sane, yet had little chance of leaving the facility. Bly also commented that the women's treatment, far from being therapeutic, would cause anyone to become "a mental and physical wreck" within a couple of months.
The unstoppable Nellie Bly:
- Nellie Bly was the pen name of Elizabeth Jane Cochran, who was born in Armstrong County, Pennsylvania in 1864. She got her start in journalism at age 21 when she criticized a piece in the Pittsburgh Dispatch that argued that a woman’s place was in the home. Impressed, the editor of the Dispatch sought out the identity of the anonymous letter writer and ultimately offered her a job.
- Dissatisfied with the types of articles she was assigned in Pittsburgh (mainly about fashion and the social scene), Nellie Bly set out for New York City, eventually landing a job at the prestigious New York World, under publisher Joseph Pulitzer.
- Bly's exposé of Blackwell's Island enthralled readers, leading to a grand jury investigation and a significant budget increase for the Department of Public Charities and Corrections. Bly's New York World articles were later published as a popular book, entitled Ten Days in a Mad-House.