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A Journalist Tries on Madness
Nellie Bly

A Journalist Tries on Madness
  • Notes on Asylums for the Insane in Ameri... (by )
  • The Treatment of Insanity (by )
  • Ten Days in a Madhouse (by )
  • Around the World in 80 Days (by )
  • Around the World in Seventy-Two Days (by )
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By the time writer and reporter Nellie Bly—born on May 5, 1864—was age 23, she was bored with the regular theater and arts she reported on up until that point. She wanted to push into new territory. So in 1887, only two years into journalism, Bly dove into immersion journalism—a precursor to gonzo journalism—pretending to be insane in order to get admitted to the Women's Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island (today known as New York City’s Roosevelt Island).

Madness, as they diagnosed it back then, was easy to replicate. Bly dressed herself in old tattered clothes, practiced vacant, faraway stares, and checked herself into a boarding house for women where she proceeded to rant at everyone and no one in particular. She was quickly apprehended, and upon inspection from multiple doctors, deemed undeniably insane.

A clue to the loose process of madness admittance might be gained from looking into the then recent history of madness research and treatment. The Treatment of Insanity describes the evolution of madness treatment from a 1776 doctor directing patients to take "the juice of swallows, and blood taken from behind the ears of an ass" (p. 10) to an 1814 treatment that, while the notes are much more extensive, are also more erratic, ranging from the application of leeches to various parts of the body, opium dosing, and hot and cold baths, to chocolate dosing: "May. Chocolate, gummy drinks; eats well; sleeps better; recognises those approaching her; hears the advice given her, but has often incoherence in her ideas." (p. 330)
Bly did not intend to report ill of the asylum, but what treatments she witnessed and endured personally spoke ill of themselves: rotten food, solitary confinement, cold baths while simultaneously doused in ice cold buckets (a process eerily resembling waterboarding), and the detainment of immigrants who had no way of proving their sanity, let alone understanding where they were, due to the lack of translators. Bly wrote in her serialized column "Behind Asylum Bars," “What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment?”

Bly's writing led to reforms within the asylum in the same way the documentary Titicut Follies did for Bridgewater State Hospital years later. Her entire account was later published in Ten Days in the Mad-House.

This marked the beginning of a string of immersion journalism stories from Bly, including ventures titled “Should Women Propose?” in which she proposes to a man, “Nellie Bly Buys a Baby” wherein she exposes human trafficking of babies in New York, and “Nellie Bly as a Salvation Army Girl.” Her most famous stint was travelling around the world, inspired by Jules Verne's book Around the World in Eighty Days, and published as "Around the World in 72 Days."

Although she pioneered diversity for women journalists and showed considerable creativity and gumption in throwing herself into each story, in retrospect she is often criticized as being a tourist to or sensationalizing the suffering of real people. Although this shouldn't negate her work, it is necessary to take into account when critiquing the ways in which we still publicize and consume stories born from fellow human suffering. 

By Thad Higa

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