May 5, 2010

Birth of Nellie Bly

Just 40 miles outside of Pittsburgh, on May 5, 1864, Elizabeth Jane Cochran (she later added an "e" to the end of her last name) was born. As a child, she was nicknamed "Pink" for her attachment to that color. In later years, she was known by her pen name, Nellie Bly.

Bly was a journalist, first inspired by a column in a Pittsburgh newspaper she deemed sexist enough to warrant a reply. The editor, impressed by her spirit, offered her a job. It was this editor who chose her pen name, based on a song by Stephen Foster.

She focused many of her articles on the conditions of working women, including investigative articles from behind the scenes. She was pressured, however, to focus on more feminine topics, like fashion. Bly rebelled and attempted to serve as a foreign correspondent in Mexico; she was pressured out of the country for criticizing unlawful arrests authorized by the Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz. She left the Pittsburgh newspaper; she was 21.

Then, in 1887, she went insane.

Bly was institutionalized at the Women's Lunatic Asylum at Blackwell's Island, New York. She was deemed "a hopeless case" by doctors and newspapers sensationally reported of the "pretty insane girl." She was released after ten days with help from editor Joseph Pulitzer. In fact, it was all a ruse; she had feigned insanity to get an inside look at the conditions of the asylum, with help from Pulitzer.

She exposed the whole thing in her book, Ten Days in a Mad-House. She particularly lashed out against the poor meals, the lack of cleanliness (rats roamed the halls), exceptionally bad treatment from nurses who often beat patients. Worse, doctors paid no attention to patients and, as she strove to convince them she was sane, she was ignored. "The insane asylum on Blackwell's Island, she wrote, "is a human rat-trap. It is easy to get in, but once there it is impossible to get out." Her book led to a federal investigation and extensive reform. As she wrote:

What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment? Here is a class of women sent to be cured. I would like the expert physicians who are condemning me for my action, which has proven their ability, to take a perfectly sane and healthy woman, shut her up and make her sit from 6 a.m. until 8 p.m. on straight-back benches, do not allow her to talk or move during these hours, give her no reading and let her know nothing of the world or its doings, give her bad food and harsh treatment, and see how long it will take to make her insane. Two months would make her a mental and physical wreck.


  1. I've read Ten Days in a Mad House and it was a tremendous work of investigative journalism that had a thunderous impact on the conditions in mental institutions. Nellie was a shining example of pre-feminist feminism, a fascinating woman. Thanks for the excellent post about her.

  2. good gracious! This blog is one heck of a splendid, elaborate endeavor and aren't I glad to have [belatedly] discovered it!

  3. I had one of the Value Tales books about Nellie Bly when I was a kid and thought she was fascinating. Sadly, I've never followed up on learning more about her as an adult. I'll be sure and rectify that soon! She was amazing.