Asylum seeker

Nellie Bly knew how easily one might end up institutionalised so when, in the late 1800s, she heard of the mistreatment of women in an asylum she acted in the only way she knew how – from the inside

Hero image

Nellie Bly, the inspiration for my novel, Madwoman, was America’s first female investigative journalist. She grew up without privilege or education, knowing that her greatest asset was the force of her own will. Her maxim was: “Energy rightly applied and directed will accomplish anything.”

Early in her career, she heard a rumour about patients facing abusive treatment at the women’s lunatic asylum on Blackwell’s Island in New York and decided to feign madness and institutionalise herself for ten days. She would go where no sane woman had voluntarily gone before, and she would come back with a story like no other. When I first learned about Nellie, I was fascinated. I wondered what kind of person could pull off such a stunt for the sake of a newspaper scoop.

I began my research and discovered that she was born Elizabeth Cochran in 1864 and grew up competing with two older brothers in Pennsylvania. Her father was a judge who encouraged her to form her own opinions; her mother taught her how to be different by dressing her in pink frocks and white stockings amid the local girls in their basic browns and greys. Nellie stood out like a sore thumb, but she would have anyway – with her sharp mind and her outspokenness.

The defining moment of her childhood was her father’s sudden collapse and death. One minute he was an upright, loving presence in their lives; the next he was a vegetable. Furthermore, he died without making a will, leaving no provision for his family’s security. Nellie’s mother soon remarried, but her new husband, Jack Ford, was a violent alcoholic who couldn’t hold down a job. Raised voices came from the couple’s room and, sometimes, the sound of breaking glass. Jack’s harsh words turned to blows and their mother, Mary Jane, had bruises on her arms and eyes red-rimmed from crying. Things came to a head when she broke down completely and Jack drew a pistol. Her children formed a human shield, giving her time to escape.

On 14 October 1878, Mary Jane took the momentous step of suing for divorce. It was one of only 15 divorce actions in the county that year and one of only five brought by the wife. Nellie was called upon to testify at the trial. It was agony to pull out the details of their personal life for inspection, like the contents of a grubby purse. The family’s disgrace was sealed.

Nellie came of age in the heat of domestic turmoil, at a time when the women’s rights movement was starting to cause reverberations in the outside world. Despite having two older brothers, she took on the role of her mother’s protector, and began to see herself as the one responsible for everyone else’s wellbeing. She understood the necessity of self-reliance, and of being able to create her own financial and emotional security. Reluctant to give up her freedom for marriage, she directed all her energies into finding a career.

The family moved to Pittsburgh, where Nellie struggled to find work. Then she read an article in the Pittsburgh Dispatch that changed her life. The writer claimed that any woman who had a job was a monstrosity, and that in China they killed baby girls, or sold them as slaves, because they could make no good use of them. Nellie fired off a letter of protest – just one in a huge pile on the editor’s desk – but it caught his eye because of the passion and conviction with which it was written. He interviewed her and, impressed, offered her a job as a reporter. She chose the pen name Nellie Bly, after the popular song by Stephen Foster.

A newsroom in those days was a tobacco-stained, white male environment. Nellie’s fellow journalists were a crude lot, unused to having a woman in their midst. They tolerated her presence rather than welcomed it, alternating between familiarity and sarcasm. She left the Dispatch after only nine months because she was limited to working on the society pages, which she hated, and was barred from writing serious news. One day, she didn’t show up for work. She left a note for her colleagues to find: “I am off for New York. Look out for me. BLY.”

New York was tougher than Nellie imagined, and no newspaper would employ her. Down to her last dime and desperate to prove her worth, she came up with a dangerous plan. She talked her way into the private offices of the New York World, the city’s most successful and cutting-edge newspaper. There she proposed to Colonel John Cockerill and Joseph Pulitzer, the managing editor and owner, that she fake insanity and commit herself to the asylum for women on Blackwell’s Island. She would tell the story like it had never been told before – from the inside. Recently, the press had sensationalised stories of asylum abuse, and Nellie argued that the asylum system cried out for independent inquiry.

Initially, the men were doubtful because of the risks but Nellie was persuasive and, eventually, they agreed to let her try it, though Cockerill thought her chances of success were slim. “If you can do it, it’s more than anyone would believe,” he told her.

Nellie hid her fears about the assignment, recognising that it would be the scoop to launch her career. “For a good story,” she said, “I can endure anything.”

The strategy for getting committed was Nellie’s invention. For hours, she practised looking like a lunatic in front of a mirror. She put on old clothes and stopped using her soap and toothbrush. Faraway expressions look crazy, she decided, so she wandered the streets in a daze. Using the name Nellie Brown and with 73 cents in her pocket, she got a room in a cheap boarding house for women and proceeded to lose her mind. She stared at the other guests and spoke little, plucking at her hair and dress with trembling fingers. From time to time, she muttered gibberish under her breath. Then she cried out that she was afraid of mad people and that everyone there looked mad. Her performance was so convincing that by bedtime, one woman said: “I’m afraid to stay with such a crazy being.” Another added: “She will murder us all before daybreak.”

The next morning, Nellie refused to leave, and the police were called. Next, a judge and several doctors talked to her. They were unanimous in their opinion that Blackwell’s Island was the only place to send her. Her plan had worked brilliantly. She arrived on the island just five days after being offered the World assignment. But when the asylum doors slammed shut behind her, she found herself in a place of horrors, governed by a cruelty she could never have imagined. My novel, Madwoman, recounts Nellie’s ordeal there in grim detail.

On her eventual release, Nellie’s articles about life in the asylum improved the conditions of patients all over the country. Her writing captured public imagination and turned her into a celebrity, a fiery national presence. She was given a position on the World’s permanent staff, creating the first real place for women as regular members of the newsroom and an important part of the editorial mix. Her feat also catalysed a new journalistic movement known as stunt or detective reporting, the acknowledged forerunner of full-scale investigative journalism.

But this success was hard won. To get locked up with the mentally ill, some of whom were violent, Nellie had to dig deep into her own reserves of courage. Before entering the asylum, she didn’t know if she had the mental and physical strength to survive.

I believe that Nellie’s interest in madness – and her fear of it – was sparked by her own experiences. In the past, she’d had close brushes with mental illness, like the time her mother had broken down with Jack, screaming and beating her head against the wall. Mary Jane could easily have been deemed insane and institutionalised. And there was also her father, whose mind had vanished completely before he died. But these trials had also given her strength. She’d been to hell and back with her mother’s marriage to Jack. She had tasted and survived pure terror. She knew she was capable of facing the dark side of life head on, for once you have lost everything, there is nothing left to fear.

Thus, Nellie’s broken past sparked her interest in the mentally ill and gave her the courage to enter the asylum and expose the horrors the patients faced. Nellie overcame her own atrocious traumas and went on to achieve the extraordinary – not despite, but because of, her early life. Later she accomplished other remarkable feats, like travelling around the globe in an attempt to smash Phileas Fogg’s record in Jules Verne’s novel, Around the World in Eighty Days. She beat Fogg by a week and became an international sensation, proving once and for all the maxim she lived by: “Energy rightly applied and directed will accomplish anything.”

Madwoman by Louisa Treger is out now, published by Bloomsbury  

If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:

Interact: Responses to Asylum seeker

  • Asylum seeker – Big Issue North – Big Issue North – Social Care News and Features
    14 Jun 2022 12:36
    […] Discussion disabled. Category: Mental Health Previous post Next […]

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.