Sane Nellie Bly spends ten days in a Mad House (1886) and writes about it

Getting a sane person admitted into an asylum for the insane was nothing new (re Being Sane in Insane Places: The Rosenhan experiment.) ‘Nellie Bly’, the pen name of Elizabeth Jane Cochrane, was ahead of David Rosenhan and his colleagues by almost a 100 years.

She was trying to establish herself as an investigative journalist on the New York World when, as she recounts:

I was asked if I could have myself committed to one of the asylums for the insane in New York, with a view to writing a plain and unvarnished narrative of the treatment of the patients therein and the methods of management, etc. (Nellie Bly, Ten Days in a Mad-House. p. 3).

Before commenting on her report of her experience, may I say that she was an exceptionally able and courageous woman (this photograph suggests as much) and a fine investigative journalist. Her writing is as clear as a bell. She’s an admirable role model. Even now, her writing speaks to us.

She did as requested. After her 10 days she wrote a series of revelatory news articles in the World and these created an uproar. The following year she rewrote the articles in the form of a short book, Ten-Days in a Mad-House. ‘Plain and unvarnished’ makes gripping writing. It can be read in a couple of hours and is hard to put down.

‘Nellie Bly’s’ Ten Days in a Mad-House’ (1887) and Rosenhan’s ‘On Being Sane in Insane Places‘ (1973) bear reading side-by-side.

Like Rosenhan and his fellow pseudo-patients, Bly had no trouble gaining admittance to the asylum. ‘Pronounced insane by four expert doctors and shut up behind the unmerciful bolts and bars of a madhouse!’ (Bly, p. 45).

Like them, Bly acted normally when inside the asylum/mental hospital. Yet ‘the more sanely I talked and acted the crazier I was thought to be’ and ‘the more I endeavoured to assure them of my sanity the more they doubted it’ (Bly, p. 84).

Although she had been pronounced insane by four doctors, the other patients were not so sure.

‘They looked at us curiously, and one came up to me and asked: “Who sent you here?” “The doctors,” I answered. “What for?” she persisted.”‘Well, they say I am insane,” I admitted. “Insane!” she repeated, incredulously. “It cannot be seen in your face” (pp. 45-46).

A little over eighty years later, Rosenhal and his co-pseudopatients found real patients similarly perceptive.

‘It was quite common for the patients to “detect” the pseudo patients’ sanity. During the first three hospitalizations, when accurate counts were kept, 35 out of a total of 118 patients on the admissions ward voiced their suspicions, some vigorously. “You’re not crazy. You’re a journalist or a professor…. You’re checking up on the hospital.’ This leads Rosenhal to comment: ‘The face that the patients often recognized normality when staff did not raises important questions’ (Rosenhal, p. 252).

She passed through several stages before being incarcerated:

A. Temporary Home for Females, No. 84, Second Avenue, New York: ‘.. secures to women out of employment clean, cheap lodging away from the haunts of vice.’ (Report of the Commissioner of Labor, 1888, p. 46.)

B. Essex Market Police Courtroom (location): here she noted the presence of ‘poorly dressed men and women with stories printed on their faces of hard lives, abuse and poverty’ (Bly, p. 21).

C. Bellevue Hospital for the Insane (location):

D. And finally Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum. She called it a rat-trap. ‘It is easy to get in, but once there it is impossible to get out’ (p. 86). In her assessment, many of her sister inmates were as sane as she. They were stressed by unremitting poverty or had been brought there by husbands who had no further use for them. Once inside: ‘I watched the insanity slowly creep over the mind that had appeared to be all right’ (p. 69). The plight of Miss Millie Maynard caught my eye.

In this image of the asylum we can see two spokes of buildings emanating from a central tower. The tower is octagonal and more spokes were intended but the money ran out. Had it not, the plan view of the building would have resembled Bentham’s panopticon. This is the building as depicted on a map of the time:

It is telling that the only part of the building to survive to now is that panoptic octagonal tower.

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