In 1887, Nellie Bly (Elizabeth Jane Cochran Seaman), the dauntless Victorian journalist, feigned insanity and got herself committed to Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum in New York City, in order to expose the harsh treatment inflicted on the patients there and to improve their condition.
Her resulting disclosure, a shocking exposé, titled Ten Days in a Mad-House, originally published as a series of articles in The World, not only resulted in a $1 million increase in New York City’s budget for the care of the mentally ill but also launched her career as a world-famous investigative reporter.
Although this book is a fast read (only 96 pages), it is nonetheless gut-wrenching and gripping, replete with quick-witted language and a crystal clear narrative that will stay with you after you have finished reading it.
Posing as Nellie Moreno, a Cuban immigrant, Bly fearlessly checks herself into a temporary boarding house for women. This is the first step in her lucid plan, after her editor challenged her to go undercover into New York’s most notorious insane asylum to investigate its sordid conditions. In 24 hours, Bly has everyone at the boarding house convinced that she is insane. She even succeeds in having the police haul her away and declare her “positively demented.”
As soon as Bly arrives at the asylum, she drops her crazy act. Yet to her horror, she finds that that only confirms her diagnosis. “Strange to say, the more sanely I talked and acted, the crazier I was thought to be,” she writes in this sensational book.
This unembellished and riveting account of her 10-day stay at Blackwell’s Island is a powerful and poignant tale that proves how much cruelty humans are capable of when they assume positions of authority over those less fortunate.
Once inside Blackwell’s Island, Bly paints a sinister picture that sounds more like a prison than a facility dedicated to healing. Bly starkly describes the terror of the cold baths, the sickening patient abuse, and the deplorably poor hygiene, evoking sympathy in readers for the “poor unfortunates” as she calls the inmates, many of whom, she unexpectedly finds, are just as sane as she is.
Ten Days in a Mad-House is an austere portrayal of how quickly power morphs into abuse. It is also a timeless reminder of how crucial it is for us, as a society and as individuals, to stand up against injustice and effect change for those less privileged and above all, to help find the warm light of kindness even in the coldest and darkest realities.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.