In 1887, intrepid reporter Nellie Bly pretended she was crazy and got herself committed, all to help improve conditions in a New York City mental institution.
The insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island is a human rat-trap. It is easy to get in, but once there it is impossible to get out.”
Those words, describing New York City’s most notorious mental institution, were written by journalist Nellie Bly in 1887.
It was no mere armchair observation, because Bly got herself committed to Blackwell’s and wrote a shocking exposé called Ten Days In A Madhouse.
The series of articles became a best-selling book, launching Bly’s career as a world-famous investigative reporter and also helping bring reform to the asylum.
In the late 1880s, New York newspapers were full of chilling tales about brutality and patient abuse at the city’s various mental institutions.
Into the fray came the plucky 23-year Nellie Bly (born Elizabeth Cochrane, she renamed herself after a popular Stephen Foster song).
At a time when most female writers were confined to newspapers’ society pages, she was determined to play with the big boys.
The editor at The World liked Bly’s moxie, and challenged her to come up with an outlandish stunt to attract readers and prove her mettle as a “detective reporter.”
The stylish and petite Bly, who had a perpetual smile, set about her crazy-eye makeover.
She dressed in tattered second-hand clothes. She stopped bathing and brushing her teeth.
And for hours, she practiced looking like a lunatic in front of the mirror. “Faraway expressions look crazy,” she wrote. Soon she was wandering the streets in a daze.
Posing as Nellie Moreno, a Cuban immigrant, she checked herself into a temporary boarding house for women. Within twenty-four hours, her irrational, hostile rants had all of the other residents fearing for their lives.
“It was the greatest night of my life,” Bly later wrote.
The police hauled Bly off, and within a matter of days, she bounced from court to Bellevue Hospital’s psychiatric ward.
When she professed to not remembering how she ended up in New York, the chief doctor diagnosed her as “delusional and undoubtedly insane.”
Meanwhile, several of the city’s other newspapers took an interest in what one called the “mysterious waif with the wild, hunted look in her eyes.”
Bly had everyone hoodwinked, and soon enough, she was aboard the “filthy ferry” to Blackwell’s Island.