Our idea of adventure today might be a road trip to a new destination, or simply getting on a terrifying roller coaster. However, what we envision never seems to include what we watch in movies, like going undercover and spying on an enemy, or traveling around the world in the least amount of days as possible. For journalist Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman, also known by her pen name Nellie Bly, these almost impossible events became realities as her career offered her these kinds of opportunities.1 Even though these assignments seem thrilling, Bly not only completed them of her own free will, but did so to help others by informing the public of various unacceptable behaviors that people were treating others to behind closed doors. There was no doubt in her mind that she would pass up an opportunity to use her gift as an exceptional reporter to liberate those being mistreated who had no voice to be heard. In one of Bly’s early assignments, she willingly allowed herself to be treated as one deemed to have a mental illness. In the 1880’s, she personally experienced the horrors that mentally ill patients went through. in order to have personal insight on the matter.
Bly was still new to journalism and in 1887 editors rarely hired women, so when Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, a leading newspaper company at the time, offered her the opportunity to investigate an insane asylum, she did not hesitate to accept.2 Bly had so much confidence in herself that she had little doubt that she would be able to pull off the act of being insane. The asylum was located in New York on Blackwell’s Island, where it was known to be easy to get in, but nearly impossible to get out. She had read previous documents about the mistreatment of the mentally unstable and assumed they were all over dramatized; however, she knew little of what she would soon come to experience firsthand.3
Bly started this journey with seventy cents and a single promise from her editor that he would get her released after she spent ten days in the asylum on Blackwell’s Island, even if that meant exposing her identity.4 Bly first began by checking herself into a boarding house for women, and with some acting under her cover name Nellie Brown, she staged an encounter with the police. This soon led four doctors to claim she was insane, and soon after, Bly found herself riding in an ambulance on her way to Blackwell Island.
Once settled into the daily routine that doctors had for the patients at the asylum, Bly began to notice what was occurring within the facility. What happened behind the walls of this mental institution consisted of common mistreatment, such as having few heaters so everyone was freezing, forcing patients to shower in ice cold baths, and feeding them very small portions of food with repulsive tastes.5 The treatment became worse as the attendants were abusive and this misconduct was slowly integrated into part of the day-to-day procedure at the asylum, which Bly had to cooperate with.6 However, she was not alone, as she met other women in the institute that did not have any mental illnesses either, but had been checked in because of miscommunication and other various reasons.
The women Bly encountered each had their own story and explanation for how they ended up in this horrifying mental hospital. One woman specifically had no need to be there, but since she mostly spoke French, she was unable to tell the doctors her story, and because she was crying in fear of never being released, the attendants choked her. Bly recorded many cases such as this one, when women would be hurt and nobody would speak up and change it. The injures towards one of the women resulted in a black eye, and when the doctors asked about it, the nurses claimed she entered the facility with it. Many others shared with Bly the details of the abuse they encountered, including Mrs. Cotter:
Then they tied my hands and feet, and, throwing a sheet over my head, twisted it tightly around my throat, so I could not scream, and thus put me in a bathtub filled with cold water. They held me under until I gave up every hope and became senseless. At other times they took hold of my ears and beat my head on the floor and against the wall. Then they pulled out my hair by the roots, so that it will never grow in again.7
As promised, Bly’s editor got her out of the asylum ten days later, and soon after, Bly was able to share the outrage she discovered on her assignment with the world.8 Bly became that needed voice the patients in Blackwell’s Island Asylum were lacking, leading to a contribution of one million dollars per year towards caring for those with mental illnesses in New York City. This dreadful news had shocked the public and had given Bly the publicity she needed to boost her career. Yet she did not stop there. Bly continued with her passion of reporting and went undercover in places such as women’s prisons, and later traveled to the front lines during War World I.9 During Bly’s profession as a journalist she changed the views that individuals had towards the poor and helpless and how they should be treated in the hopes of having a future in which all people would be given the respect and dignity they deserve.