In recent years, proponents of women’s history have grown increasingly vocal about the overwhelming lack of female statues in New York City. As the city works to redress this historic inequity, a new monument honoring pioneering journalist Nellie Bly is scheduled for completion in 2021. The Girl Puzzle by sculptor Amanda Matthews will be located on the northern tip of Roosevelt Island, near the former site of the Insane Asylum for Women where Bly conducted her first undercover investigation in 1887. In anticipation of this new monument, and as part of our series exploring the lives and professional experiences of women in media while our exhibition, Cover Story: Katharine Graham, CEO, is on view in the Joyce B. Cowin Women’s History Gallery, the Center for Women’s History dives into Bly’s story and how her investigative reporting created a new genre of journalism open to female writers.
Nellie Bly was the pen name of Elizabeth Jane Cochran, born on May 5, 1864 in Cochran’s Mills, Pennsylvania. The small town was founded by her father, a judge and owner of the local mill. Although born into relative wealth and privilege, Bly’s father passed away when she was a small child, leaving the family financially insecure. Desperate to support herself, Bly enrolled in a teacher’s program when she was 15, only to drop out after she was unable to pay tuition. In 1885, while helping her mother run a boarding house in Pittsburg, Bly read a column in the Pittsburgh Dispatch stating that any woman who participated or expressed interest in public affairs was “a monstrosity.” Bly submitted a lengthy rebuttal to the paper, and its editor, impressed by her writing style, offered her a job as a columnist. Adopting the name Nellie Bly, she began writing women’s interest pieces for the paper. Yet when the Dispatch refused to allow Bly to venture beyond the “society pages” into more serious reporting, she quit in protest and decided to try her luck in the nation’s publishing capital—New York City.
For several months, Bly faced rejection from every newspaper editor she met, many of whom admitted biases toward female reporters. Finally, in September 1887, Bly talked her way into a meeting with Colonel John Cockerill, managing editor of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. Cockerill seized upon Bly’s willingness to pursue “startling” stories and proposed that she go undercover to get herself committed to one of the city’s lunatic asylums, which were rumored to be abusing patients. Upon accepting the assignment, Bly received only three instructions from Cockerill: use the pseudonym Nellie Brown so that he could track her location, report her experiences honestly, and stop smiling since it might give her away.
To get herself committed, the 23-year-old Bly checked herself into the Temporary Home for Females at 84 Second Avenue, a boarding house for working-class women and their children. Dressed in her old clothes, she adopted a “Far-away” countenance, and began incessantly asking about the whereabouts of her travel trunks, implying that she was a newly arrived foreigner. Bly’s behavior greatly disturbed the other boarders, and after she refused to sleep all night, the police were called. She was taken to the Essex Market Police Courtroom, where Bly lied and affirmed Judge Patrick G. Duffy’s speculation that she was Cuban, capitalizing on nativist beliefs that immigrants were more likely to be sick, criminal, and mentally ill. After she was examined by four separate doctors, all of whom diagnosed her as insane, Bly was sent to Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum for Women.
For 10 days, Bly witnessed and personally endured the inhumane treatment asylum patients suffered. According to Bly, patients sustained severe beatings, were given spoiled food, had scant clothing and bedding, were bathed in freezing and unhygienic conditions, and were subjected to relentless verbal assaults by the staff. Far from caring for the mentally ill, the asylum severely degraded their physical and mental health. Bly wrote, “What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment? … Take a perfectly sane and healthy woman, shut her up and make her sit from 6 am until 8 pm 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.”
Most egregious to Bly, however, was the number of patients she believed showed no signs of mental illness at all. She spoke with women who were committed because of penurious circumstances or physical exhaustion from strenuous labor. Many were immigrants who did not speak English, caught in a foreign legal system and unable to communicate. One woman had even been committed by her vindictive husband. Bly herself had decided to act as normal as possible while in the asylum, writing, “From the moment I entered the insane ward on the Island, I made no attempt to keep up the assumed role of insanity. I talked and acted just as I do in ordinary life. Yet strange to say, the more sanely I talked and acted, the crazier I was thought to be.” She concluded, “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.”
Fortunately for Bly, after 10 agonizing days in confinement, an attorney for the New York World successfully arranged her release. She wrote, “I left the insane ward with pleasure and regret—pleasure that I was once more able to enjoy the free breath of heaven; regret that I could not have brought with me some of the unfortunate women who lived and suffered with me, and who, I am convinced, are just as sane as I was and am now myself.”
On October 9, 1887, The World published the first installment of Bly’s account and newspapers across the country picked up the story. The young reporter was widely praised for her fortitude and ability to dupe so many medical “experts.” The tremendous success of her serialized article then prompted Bly to publish her story in book form under the title Ten Days in a Mad-House.
The public’s fascination with Bly and her undercover exploits on Blackwell’s Island quickly led to a surge of young, female journalists performing investigative reporting. This new genre of “girl stunt reporting” married sensation journalism with vivid first-person narratives. Stunt reporters donned disguises and got the inside scoop on public institutions, opium dens, sweatshops, and abortion providers. Such stories tantalized readers by granting female reporters permission to forsake the bounds of respectable womanhood, if only temporarily. Although stunt reporting largely faded away by the turn of the century, the genre was critical in allowing female journalists to move beyond the “society pages” and begin writing on more substantial topics like politics, crime, labor, and finance.
By 1890, after completing a trip around the world in only 72 days, Bly cemented her status as one of the most well-known journalists in the United States and her image became a staple of mass culture, used to sell everything from tobacco, washing powder, kerosene lamps, to boardgames. In 1895, she retired from writing and married millionaire Robert Livingston Seaman. After his death in 1904, she briefly served as president of his manufacturing companies before returning to journalism. She covered national news stories, including the women’s suffrage movement, and during World War I, she traveled to Europe and became the first female journalist to report from the trenches on the front line. She died from pneumonia in New York on January 27, 1922.
Written by Brenann Sutter, Andrew W. Mellon Predoctoral Fellow in Women’s History and Public History, Center for Women’s History.