The Compassion of Nellie Bly

The Compassion of Nellie Bly

Bly’s 1887 masterpiece Ten Days in a Mad-House reminds us that the ultimate test for public safety programs for the mentally ill is their impact on the most vulnerable.

Nellie Bly in 1880 (Bettmann/Getty Images)

When it comes to investigative journalism in America, Nellie Bly (the pen name of Elizabeth Jane Cochran) had few equals. In her 1887 masterpiece, Ten Days in a Mad-House, she provided an unprecedented firsthand account of life in a nineteenth-century New York City insane asylum for women. The conditions and treatment of mentally ill people has changed much in the ensuing century and a half. But in the face of New York City Mayor Eric Adams’s ambitious and controversial plans for dealing with the city’s estimated 100,000 untreated mentally ill, it is Bly’s compassion, as much as her daring, that deserves our attention.

Adams is a realist who knows that one of the quickest ways for a mayor to lose office these days is to be perceived as soft on street safety—and that includes, as Adams put it, the “shadow boxer on the street corner in Midtown, mumbling to himself as he jabs at an invisible adversary.” Adams has only to look at the example of Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who lost her reelection bid this spring in part as a result of voter unhappiness with the city’s rising crime rate.

Voters will decide whether Adams’s proposal succeeds politically. But Bly’s work reminds us that the ultimate test for his mental health plan will be its impact on the vulnerable people he speaks of helping. Bly’s articles for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, which became the basis for Ten Days in a Mad-House, offered readers a chance to see the mentally ill through the lens of an embedded reporter. Adopting the alias Nellie Brown, Bly, who was just twenty-three at the time—at the start of a career that would include covering the woman’s suffrage movement and reporting on the First World War—feigned mental illness and managed to get herself incarcerated by city authorities.

It did not take Bly long to find herself in legal trouble. Her encounters with the police began soon after she checked herself into the Temporary Home for Females on Second Avenue. Her deliberately eccentric conduct and refusal to go to bed at night drew the attention of the assistant matron of the home, who asked the police to help her deal with Bly. Two policemen and the assistant matron took her to the Essex Market Police Courtroom, where she came under the authority of the presiding magistrate, Judge Patrick G. Duffy.

“Here is a poor girl who has been drugged,” the judge declared soon after meeting Bly. He assigned her case to a doctor, who said that he believed Bly had been taking belladonna. The doctor then had her sent to Bellevue Hospital, where another snap judgment occurred. On scant evidence, a physician declared Bly “positively demented” and ordered her to be sent to the Insane Asylum for women on Blackwell’s Island, known today as Roosevelt Island.

For Bly, who had feared she might not be a good enough actor to fool the authorities, the swiftness of her incarceration was a surprise. Nobody had taken the time to speak to her with any degree of care, let alone ask meaningful questions.

When Bly arrived at the Blackwell’s Island, she felt relief. She had gained her journalistic goal. But what followed was a far worse experience than she anticipated.

Forced cold baths and terrible food were routine. Most shocking of all to Bly were the beatings of patients who were regarded as uncooperative by the asylum staff and the indifference of most of the doctors to those under their care. “You are in a public institution now, and you can’t expect to get anything,” Bly was told at one point.

“The insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island is a human-rat trap,” Bly concluded. It did her no good, she discovered, to act as she did in ordinary life. “The more I endeavored to assure them of my sanity the more they doubted it.” Only through friends and her lawyer was she able to obtain her release.

Bly had intended to see if she could get herself assigned to the violent wards, but fearing for her own health, she backed off. As a result, Bly left Blackwell’s Island conflicted about resuming her old life in New York. “For ten days I had been one of them,” she wrote, and “it seemed intensely selfish to leave them to their sufferings.”

Bly took consolation in the fact that her reporting did not go unnoticed. She testified about the abuses she had seen before a grand jury investigating the asylum. In the final chapter of her book, she notes with pride that, on the basis of her reportage, $1 million more than was ever appropriated before was budgeted for treatment of the insane. But Bly did not delude herself into believing that these developments were going to be enough in the long run. That is where her example is most meaningful for us today.

Mayor Adams’s proposals for treating the mentally ill, which included incarcerating some of the mentally ill against their will, immediately aroused bitter controversy, particularly from New York progressives. This due-process controversy is serious. But for many of New York’s untreated mentally ill, how they get basic treatment and how we measure the effectiveness of that treatment are paramount. Adams has spoken of using “mobile treatment” teams to reach the mentally ill on the streets and in shelters. He also wants to employ medical professionals rather than the police to deal with mental-health 911 calls.

These are good-sounding ideas, but we will not know whether they actually work unless we are able to hear directly from both those who enter New York City’s mental health system and skilled, clinical observers who are not paid by the system to evaluate it. In this complicated endeavor, we will need the modern successors to Nellie Bly to help us.

Nicolaus Mills is author of The Triumph of Meanness: America’s War Against Its Better Self. He is professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College.

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