By Carl Blumenthal
How Much Have Things Really Changed Since 1887?
Note: The author's use of “insane, mad, and crazy” is not meant to offend, but rather in keeping with the terminology Bly and everyone else used in 1887. Back then such labels were powerful indictments which could lock people up for a lifetime.
Mt. Holyoke College psychology professor Gail Hornstein lists more than 1,000 mostly obscure authors in her bibliography of first-person narratives about madness.
(See www.psychologytoday.com/blog/rethinking-mental-health/ for an April 16, 2016 interview with Hornstein by Dr. Eric Maisel.)
In contrast, a handful of journalists have gained notoriety for going undercover in mental hospitals by faking illness. One such journalist investigated Brooklyn’s Kings County Hospital in 1961. The first and most celebrated journalist to do so was Nellie Bly, who spent 10 days at the Blackwell Island Insane Asylum in 1887 and reported on her incarceration for the New York World.
During a period when many immigrants must have “lost their way” in new surroundings, Bly, who spoke Spanish, claimed to be Cuban in support of her “case.” Given her Irish family came here in the 1790s and grew to financial prominence, this early feminist needed to disguise her nonetheless ladylike airs. Thus she checked into a boarding house for poor working women and acted out the “alienation” which passed for mental illness in those days.
Less remarkable than being declared mad was that once inside the hospital with 1,600 other women, Bly dropped the pretense of insanity, only to be considered crazier than the norm. Why? As we look back, what stands out was not so much the expected deplorable conditions there, but the resourcefulness she exhibited.
Bly risked punishment advocating for others, yet managed to identify workers who treated patients humanely. Likewise she met women who were sane when they entered with her and a few others who kept their wits despite ill treatment. All the while she pitied the overwhelming majority of “lost souls.”
She wrote, “Pronounced insane by four expert doctors and shut up behind the unmerciful bolts and bars of a madhouse! Not to be confined alone, but to be a companion, day and night, of senseless chattering lunatics; to sleep with them, to eat with them, to be considered one of them was an uncomfortable position.”
Uncomfortable indeed. Statements like these allowed the World’s customers to experience the horror of mental illness from a comfortable enough distance so they would continue reading the many installments of Bly’s story.
In spite of their madness, the inmates, not the staff, were expected to maintain the asylum. When Bly saw the motto on a wall, “While I live, I hope,” (like “work sets you free,” which later adorned the entrances to Nazi labor camps), she thought, “The absurdity of it struck me forcibly. I would have liked to put above the gates that open to the asylum, 'He who enters here leaveth hope behind.'”
Dubbed “the crazy girl from Cuba” by reporters from whom she hid her identity as a colleague, Bly was clearly exceptional. Why else would she be singled out among the dozens of women sent to Blackwell each day? That her objective reporting was sympathetic to inmates without being sensational—she avoided the wards for “incorrigibles”—probably explains why a grand jury investigated the asylum and the city increased funding for care by $1 million annually.
How long this lasted and whether it made a difference in conditions remains unanswered without more research. Journalists rarely revisit the sufferings of their subjects.