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Nellie Bly: the Journalist who let herself be interned in Asylum to save the patients

4 min read

Elisabeth Cochran Seaman (1864-1922) is probably not a well-known name, although perhaps the pseudonym with which she signed her articles, Nellie Bly, is better known.
She became popular all over the world in 1890, when she left on behalf of her newspaper, the New York World, for a world tour: she wanted to turn into reality the story of Julius Verne (Around the world in 80 days). It took her 72 days, almost always traveling alone, which was unusual for a woman of the time.

However, before this adventure, Elisabeth had already proven herself to be a woman with clear ideas, arranging a personal risk for what she believed.
When she was only 23 years old, she became one of the best-known journalists in the United States, thanks to a perhaps more dangerous undertaking than a journey around the world: she was hospitalized for ten days in an asylum, when these were the antechamber of hell.
At that time, Nellie Bly was rather disappointed with her role as a reporter for the “female page” of the Pittsburgh Dispatch, in which she wrote about fashion or theatrical performances, after making investigative reports on the living conditions of women in the factories, and she was an uncomfortable correspondent from Mexico, when journalists were not well seen by the dictator Porfirio Diaz.

Thus she moved to New York, looking for a more fulfilling job, presenting herfelf to the New York World, a newspaper directed by none other than Joseph Pulitzer. Almost immediately she was entrusted with this particular and dangerous job: she had to pretend to be mad to be admitted to the Lunatic Asylum. During her stay she had to investigate the alleged negligence, brutality and abuse of power, perpetrated on the sick, a pact to be “saved” after ten days of stay.

However, the women’s mental hospital on Blackwell Island (New York) had a sad reputation for treating patients, even if no one had ever had the courage to undertake an investigation into the conditions of mental illnesses, and the abuses they suffered. Elisabeth practiced in front of the mirror to learn how to pretend shocked expressions, then, one evening, in a pension, she staged a crazy behavior, which required police intervention. In front of the judge she pretended an amnesia, and medical advice from famous psychiatrists was requested. Of course, everyone thought she was crazy and the case was also reported by the New York Times and the New York Sun, who wondered who the pretty girl was with “a wild look in her eyes” that cried desperately just saying “I don’t remember, I don’t remember” .
Nellie Bly instead worked to discover the horrors of the female mental hospital: the food was inedible, made with rotten meat and dry bread, the building invaded by rats, patients considered dangerous were tied with ropes, while the others had to sit on benches, with light clothes, all day, without moving or talking. The bath water was cold, while one of the most frequent forms of torture was to throw buckets of ice water on the heads of the sick, by nurses who constantly shouted at women, usually beaten and some also subjected to sexual abuse.
When she started talking to other patients, the journalist realized that some of them were not crazy at all, but only poor and marginalized women, rejected by family and society.
After 10 days, Nellie was pulled out of the asylum, and her investigation led to the publication of a book “Ten days in a crazy house”.
The articles published in the New York World and the resulting book aroused great sensation, so much so that a “grand jury” was set up to investigate precisely the conditions of life at Blackwell.
Nellie Bly achieved a great result: thanks to her investigation, the funds for the mentally disabled were increased, and a procedure was introduced to have people who were actually ill admitted.

Later, Nellie Bly returned to being Elisabeth Cochran: at 31, after marriage, she left journalism. However, when she was widowed she returned to her first love, and in 1914 she became a war correspondent for “The Evening Journal” from the Russian and Serbian front.

However, her main commitment remained in favor of women, so much so that she gave a speech during the “Parade for women’s suffrage”, which took place in Washington in 1913. “The Suffragettes are superior to men” was the significant title chosen by Elisabeth, who foresaw how the vote for women would not be approved in the United States before 1920.
She died in 1922, at the age of 57: Nellie Bly, a woman who in a relatively short life managed to change the life of many voiceless women in some way.

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