I first heard of Nellie Bly many, many years ago when I listened to Jimmie Rodgers’ version of “Frankie and Johnny” (composer and lyricist unknown). The song tells the story of a woman, Frankie, and her unfaithful lover, Johnny. Frankie goes out for a bucket of beer, and asks the bartender if he has seen Johnny. He replies, “I don’t want to cause you no trouble, / I ain’t gonna tell you no lie / I saw your lover an hour ago / with a gal named Nellie Bly.” Well, Frankie ends up shooting Johnny and paying the consequences. The story, says Rodgers, shows that “there ain’t no good in men.”
I was surprised to find out much later that there was actually a reporter who wrote under the name “Nellie Bly.” She was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran in a small town near Pittsburg, Pennsylvania in 1864. In 1880 she wrote an impassioned response to a Pittsburg Dispatch article entitled “What Girls Are Good For.” The editor was so impressed that he asked her to write another article, and soon hired her as a full-time reporter. Women journalists usually used pen names, so the editor proposed that she take the name “Nelly Bly” which was the title of a popular song by Stephen Foster. He accidentally spelled her first name as Nellie, and the spelling remained that way.
She did some good articles for the Dispatch, but was ultimately told to write for the lady’s section – that what women journalists were supposed to do in those days. Frustrated, she eventually went to New York in 1887 and agreed to go undercover to research and write an article on life in an insane asylum for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. That’s what made Nelly Bly a household name, and that’s probably why “Nellie Bly” is the name of Johnny’s lover in “Frankie and Johnny.” It also helps, no doubt, that “lie” and “Bly” happen to rhyme.
To get into an asylum Nellie took a room in a boarding house for single women, and feigned insanity. She was so good that the other women were afraid to go to sleep fearing that Nellie would kill them. The owner of the lodging had the police remove her, and she ended up being examined by a number of doctors and a judge who all agreed that she was hopelessly insane. All of this was done with little evidence, and with disgracefully cursory medical examinations. Bly was sent to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island (renamed Roosevelt Island in 971 after FDR) where she remained for 10 days before being retrieved by members of the World newspaper.
She wrote a book about her experiences while in the asylum that exposed the ill treatment of the patients by guards (some were simply brutal while others were truly sadistic), and the horrible living conditions (including putrid food and lack of heating in the facility). She spoke to women who seemed quite normal, and she saw severely mentally ill women who were continually mistreated and laughed at by the guards. As a result of her exposé changes were made in the asylum and the budget was increased by almost a million dollars a year.
Here are a few of Bly’s observations:
“But here let me say one thing: From the moment I entered the insane ward on the Island, I made no attempt to keep up the assumed role of insanity. I talked and acted just as I do in ordinary life. Yet strange to say, the more sanely I talked and acted the crazier I was thought to be by all except one physician, whose kindness and gentle ways I shall not soon forget.”
“Thus was Mrs. Louise Schanz [who only spoke German] consigned to the asylum without a chance of making herself understood. Can such carelessness be excused, I wonder, when it is so easy to get an interpreter? If the confinement was but for a few days one might question the necessity. But here was a woman taken without her own consent from the free world to an asylum and there given no chance to prove her sanity. Confined probably for life behind asylum bars, without even being told in her language the why and wherefore. Compare this with a criminal, who is given every chance to prove his innocence. Who would not rather be a murderer and take the chance for life than be declared insane, without hope of escape?”
In the next passage Bly writess about getting an ice-cold bath in a freezing room. All of the women took baths in the same tub – with the same filthy water.
“The water was ice-cold, and I again began to protest. How useless it all was! I begged, at least, that the patients be made to go away, but was ordered to shut up. The crazy woman began to scrub me. I can find no other word that will express it but scrubbing. From a small tin pan she took some soft soap and rubbed it all over me, even all over my face and my pretty hair. I was at last past seeing or speaking, although I had begged that my hair be left untouched. Rub, rub, rub, went the old woman, chattering to herself. 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 some of the sensations of a drowning person as they dragged me, gasping, shivering and quaking, from the tub. For once I did look insane. I caught a glance of the indescribable look on the faces of my companions, who had witnessed my fate and knew theirs was surely following. Unable to control myself at the absurd picture I presented, I burst into roars of laughter. They put me, dripping wet, into a short canton flannel slip, labeled across the extreme end in large black letters, “Lunatic Asylum, B. I., H. 6.” The letters meant Blackwell’s Island, Hall 6.”
“As I passed a low pavilion, where a crowd of helpless lunatics were confined, I read a motto on the wall, ‘While I live I hope.’ The absurdity of it struck me forcibly. I would have liked to put above the gates that open to the asylum, ‘He who enters here leaveth hope behind.’”
You can understand why people were so outraged by what Bly found. The book Ten Days in a Mad-House also contains accounts of some of Bly’s other undercover assignments including working in a cardboard box factory, and her attempts to get a job as a servant in someone’s home. In both cases you see women at the mercy of men – some who are decent, and some who are sleazy cheats.
Her other claim to fame was her successful attempt to travel around the world faster than Phileas Fogg did in Jules Verne’s classic Around the World in Eighty Days. She accomplished her circumnavigation in 72 days.
Bly’s experience in successfully faking insanity reminded me of an experiment done in the 1970s by Dr. David Rosenhan a psychology professor at Stanford University. In the experiment three women and five men (including Rosenhan) claimed to be suffering from auditory hallucinations. They went to 12 different mental hospitals in five different states and, when examined, all were found to be mentally ill. Like Bly they all claimed to be free of hallucinations once they were admitted, and like Bly, all were determined to still be mentally ill. All had to agree to take antipsychotic drugs before they were released.
As you might expect Rosenhan’s report, “On Being Sane in Insane Places” was not popular with those who dealt with the mentally ill. As a follow-up to his first experiment Rosenhan informed a research and teaching facility that he would send a number of “pseudo-patients” there in the coming weeks. Of the 193 new patients admitted to the facility during that timeframe 41 were suspected of being pseudo-patients. In fact, Rosenhan had sent no pseudo-patients to the facility.
The author of an interesting summary of Rosenhan’s experiments writes that, “The main experiment illustrated a failure to detect sanity, and the secondary study demonstrated a failure to detect insanity.”
The experiences of both Bly and Rosenhan (almost a century apart) indicate that diagnosing mental illness is somewhat subjective despite the best efforts of psychologists and psychiatrists.