13 June 2010

Nellie Bly

This photo caught my attention because of the very slight disconjugate gaze of the young lady (another photo at Wiki shows the same phenomenon).  Her name rang a faint bell, but I couldn't remember the context.  Here is part of her remarkable story:
Penniless after four months, she talked her way into the offices of Joseph Pulitzer's newspaper, the New York World, and took an undercover assignment for which she agreed to feign insanity to investigate reports of brutality and neglect at the Women's Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island.

After a night of practicing deranged expressions in front of a mirror, she checked into a working-class boardinghouse. She refused to go to bed, telling the boarders that she was afraid of them and that they looked crazy. They soon decided that she was crazy, and the next morning summoned the police. Taken to a courtroom, she pretended to have amnesia. The judge concluded she had been drugged.

She was then examined by several doctors, who all declared her to be insane. "Positively demented," said one, "I consider it a hopeless case. She needs to be put where someone will take care of her."  The head of the insane pavilion at Bellevue Hospital pronounced her "undoubtedly insane". The case of the "pretty crazy girl" attracted media attention: "Who Is This Insane Girl?" asked the New York Sun. The New York Times wrote of the "mysterious waif" with the "wild, hunted look in her eyes", and her desperate cry: "I can't remember I can't remember."

Committed to the asylum, Bly experienced its conditions firsthand. The food consisted of gruel broth, spoiled beef, bread that was little more than dried dough, and dirty undrinkable water. The dangerous inmates were tied together with ropes. The inmates were made to sit for much of each day on hard benches with scant protection from the cold. Waste was all around the eating places. Rats crawled all around the hospital. The bathwater was frigid, and buckets of it were poured over their heads. The nurses were obnoxious and abusive, telling the patients to shut up, and beating them if they did not. Speaking with her fellow residents, Bly was convinced that some were as sane as she was...

After ten days, Bly was released from the asylum at The World's behest. Her report, later published in book form as Ten Days in a Mad-House, caused a sensation and brought her lasting fame. While embarrassed physicians and staff fumbled to explain how so many professionals had been fooled, a grand jury launched its own investigation into conditions at the asylum, inviting Bly to assist. The jury's report recommended the changes she had proposed, and its call for increased funds for care of the insane prompted an $850,000 increase in the budget of the Department of Public Charities and Corrections. They also made sure that all of the examinations were more thorough so that only people who were actually insane went to the asylum...

In 1888, Nellie suggested to her editor at the New York World that she take a trip around the world, attempting to turn the fictional Around the World in Eighty Days into fact for the first time. A year later, at 9:40 a.m. on November 14, 1889, and with two days' notice, she boarded the Augusta Victoria, a steamer of the White Star Line, and began her 24,899-mile journey.

She brought with her the dress she was wearing, a sturdy overcoat, several changes of underwear and a small travel bag carrying her toiletry essentials. She carried most of her money (200 £ in English bank notes and gold in total as well as some American currency) in a bag tied around her neck...

"Seventy-two days, six hours, eleven minutes and fourteen seconds after her Hoboken departure" Bly was back in New York. She had circumnavigated the globe almost unchaperoned...

She retired from journalism, and became the president of the Iron Clad Manufacturing Co., which made steel containers such as milk cans and boilers. In 1904 she invented and patented the steel barrel that was the model for the 55-gallon oil drum still in widespread use in the United States. Her husband died that year. For a time she was one of the leading female industrialists in the United States, but mismanagement forced her into bankruptcy.
More at the link. I would bet her book Ten Days in a Mad-House would be an interesting read, but unfortunately it isn't in our library system.

Addendum:  Full text online.


  1. I wonder why Ten Days in a Mad-House isn't on Project Gutenberg? Only the audiobook is, which is strange.

    In any case, you can find it for free on Manybooks.net: http://manybooks.net/titles/blynother06ten_days_in_a_madhouse.html

  2. What a beautiful,young woman! So accomplished and skilled, too. I'm not sure about the disconjuagate gaze; I think it may be the result of the shadow in the photo. Anyway, after living with an insane wife for so many years, I am pleased that she was able to make so many improvements in the treatment of the insane.

  3. The name Nelly Bly might also be familiar sounding because it shows up in the popular ballad Frankie and Johnny. The poem is, supposedly, based loosely on historical facts, though the Nelly Bly of the poem has no connection to the Nelly Bly of muckraking fame.

  4. Another idea that you might try is Inter-Library Loan, if such is available to you; it is at most public libraries. Ask at the Reference Desk.


  5. It's also available on Google Books - http://books.google.com/books?id=KvwkqAgiTQ8C&lpg=PP1&dq=%22Ten%20Days%20in%20a%20Mad-House%22&pg=PA7#v=onepage&q&f=false

    Great article, I love your posts!!!

  6. Growing up in th 1940's, I lived beside the Pennsylvania railroad line and knew all the engineers and firemen by sight. The fastest train on that line was the Nellie Bly, a parlor car only express train. I remember that the train hit a car at a crossing on one end of town and couldn't stop until it had passed the crossing at the other end of town right before the train bridge across the Rancocas Creek.

  7. In Dylan's version she is named 'Alice Bly'

  8. http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/bly/madhouse/madhouse.html

  9. Thanks, anon. Link added to text.

  10. Another variation on the theme: you can download a free Kindle reader for the PC and then buy a digital copy of the book at Amazon for 99 cents.

  11. what an incredible woman!thanks for that, would love to read her book!

  12. Ten Days in A Madhouse is available on Kindle for $.99. Good read.

  13. You can listen to the entire book through links on the Gutenberg project site. FREE btw.


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