In the late 1880’s, a young journalist called Nellie Bly wanted to make her mark outside the usual writing restrictions accorded to most women journalists back then. (They were usually limited to the Society page and rarely given any hard news to cover.) Her editors at the New York paper The World agreed with her and so she got herself admitted to Blackwell Island (also called Welfare Island, and now called Roosevelt Island) which was America’s first municipal mental hospital. Bly wanted to prove her worth as a journalist and decided to do an expose on the conditions at the hospital and believed only by becoming admitted as a patient could the truth come out.
Charles Dickens had already previously covered conditions here in his American Notes (published in 1842) but they were from the perspective of an outsider and of a foreign traveler. This was the first time that an actual US journalist has been on the inside of the institution. (Blackwell Island has a fascinating history by the way: it was a penitentiary, a workhouse, a smallpox hospital…)
Printed as a series of first-person narrative articles, the resulting coverage was explosive for that time and for Blackwell. Originally intended as a state-of-the-art mental institution “devoted to humane and moral rehabilitation of its patients”, funding had been cut and care had been reduced to bitter and sadistic staff and unsympathetic doctors who simply ascribed any patient claims to sanity (and thus release) as delusional. A very Catch-22 situation for all the female patients who were imprisoned there and with little hope of freedom in their future.
Bly took her project very seriously and prepared deeply for her role as a mental patient: she practiced “looking like a lunatic” in the mirror, she dressed in tattered clothing, and posing as a Cuban immigrant who could not remember her history, Bly checked into a temporary boarding house for poorer women. Within twenty-four hours of pretend irrational behavior, Bly was taken by police to Bellevue Hospital for an evaluation, and then from there, pronounced “delusional and undoubtedly insane”, taken to Blackwell. (Testing was minimal at the time and was subjective and very quick.)
Bly’s detailed account of her time at Blackwell as a mental patient are harrowing to read about – patients were stripped of clothing in corridors and publicly humiliated by the nursing staff, mandatory cold baths in dirty bath water, and appalling living conditions (little heat, poor nutrition, no activities).
“I looked at the pretty lawns, which I had once thought was such a comfort to the poor creatures confined on the Island, and laughed at my own notions. What enjoyment is it to them? They are not allowed on the grass – it is only to look at. I saw some patients eagerly…lift a nut or a colored leaf on the path. But they were not permitted to keep them. The nurses would always compel them to throw their little bit of God’s comfort away…”
It’s also notable that all the patients were female and mostly poor (some couldn’t speak English) and so were powerless in this system of neglect.
“I have watched patients stand and gaze longingly toward the city they in all likelihood will never enter again. It means liberty and life; it seems so near, and yet heaven is not further than hell.”
Any patient who stood up for herself (and the other patients) or who proclaimed her sanity was invariably labeled delusional and so hospital stays to Blackwell became hamster wheels of no release for nearly all the patients imprisoned there.
Once Bly’s stay was over and she had been formally released by the newspaper’s attorney, the story went public, and one month later, Bly was giving details of her experience to a Grand Jury who then visited the hospital themselves. Prior warnings to the staff had helped to clean up the place and the patients, but Bly’s report lead to recriminations from the hospital doctors and to a fast-tracked funding increase of $1 million (enormous at the time).
This was a fascinating read, and was nicely complimented by my earlier reading of “Mad, Bad, and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors” by Lisa Appignanesi. (No post on that, but definitely not a reflection on the quality of the book or the author.) The treatment of mental health has come a long way in the past one hundred years or so, and Bly’s work helped to propel some of that change.