Nellie Bly – An Underappreciated Hero

March is Women’t History Month. And while history has many impressive women to honor, one that I feel sometimes gets overlooked is Nellie Bly.

Nellie Bly

Nellie Bly was an investigative journalist who did many remarkable things over the course of her career, including traveling around the world in 72 days. But what I want to highlight today is another feat of hers that gained her notoriety, which is her expose of a mental asylum.

Bly accomplished this by feigning insanity at a local boarding house until the police were called. After an examination by a doctor and by a judge, she was sent to the asylum. Once there, she dropped the act and began behaving normally, only to have her behavior and her pleas for release be ignored by the staff. After living in these conditions, she published a story on the institution. To say it was not kind would be as gross an understatement as saying her experience was merely unpleasant. She wrote:

What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment? Here is a class of women sent to be cured. I would like the expert physicians who are condemning me for my action, which has proven their ability, to take a perfectly sane and healthy woman, shut her up and make her sit from 6 a.m. until 8 p.m. on straight-back benches, do not allow her to talk or move during these hours, give her no reading and let her know nothing of the world or its doings, give her bad food and harsh treatment, and see how long it will take to make her insane. Two months would make her a mental and physical wreck.”

Ten Days In a Madhouse by Nellie Bly

She also described rats being visible within the facility, patients being tied together, bath water that wasn’t changed between patients, and ice water being thrown on her.

Her reporting of the abysmal conditions there prompted more funding to be devoted by the state, as well as other major reforms to be put in place for mental institutions. Not only did she become a pioneer in investigative journalism, she helped secure a better future for mental health patients everywhere, which should be comforting to her given that she also said, “I left the insane ward with pleasure and regret–pleasure that I was once more able to enjoy the free breath of heaven; regret that I could not have brought with me some of the unfortunate women who lived and suffered with me, and who, I am convinced, are just as sane as I was and am now myself.

So, this Women’s History Month, I want to tip my hat to Nellie Bly.

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