Nellie Bly: Playing Mad Woman

This week Comedy Central’s Drunk History aired a brief segment about Nellie Bly’s 1887 exposé on the treatment of female patients at Blackwell’s Island, a New York lunatic asylum. The journalist faked mental illness and was admitted to the hospital on assignment from Joseph Pulitzer of The New York World. The result of Nellie’s ten-day stay in the system attracted attention to overcrowded, diseased conditions in the hospital and called into question whether or not its doctors were qualified to determine a sane person from someone actually suffering from mental illness.

One of the lengthier articles I  found about Nellie “Brown’s” institutionalization at Blackwell’s Island was printed in The Sun on October 14, 1887. “Playing Mad Woman” ran after the original piece in the World, which you can find at NYU’s digital library. You can also download Nellie’s account of the asylum experience in  “Ten Days in a Mad-House” at Nellie Bly Online.

The most interesting part of this particular article to me were the “official records” written about Nellie’s behavior and appearance by doctors and other asylum staff, found at the very end of the story. Nothing seemed to glaringly point towards a need for hospitalization, which isn’t surprising to anyone familiar with the treatment of conditions such as “hysteria” or “neurasthenia” in the 19th century.

“She was very rude and saucy sometimes, and inclined to make other patients the same.”
“…she tried to excite the other patients and asked them why they were not screaming.”
“Answers questions by repeating over and over something in a foreign language.”