To Expose the Truth about Mental Asylums, Nellie Bly Feigned Insanity to Study One

Cultural Curator

This video is part of a series on female genius, in proud collaboration with 92Y's 7 Days of Genius Festival.

Nellie Bly may be little known but her achievements are truly outsized. She spoke out for women's rights; carved out a place for women in journalism by feigning insanity, entering a mental institution, and covering what she saw as a reporter; and she beat Jules Verne's hypothetical record of traveling around the world in 80 days, accomplishing the feat in just 72.

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TRANSCRIPT

Maria Popova:  In 1885 a young woman named Elizabeth Cochran sent a letter to the editor of her hometown newspaper, The Pittsburgh Dispatch. She was responding to a letter by a man that the paper had published earlier under the title, What Girls Are Good For. This man, the father of five girls, had not so subtly implied the answer: girls are good for birthing babies and tending to households. And he had even evoked China's then policy of killing girl babies as some kind of justification for an act of mercy that would spare girls the drudgery of their destiny of being women in the world. Young Elizabeth Cochran's letter, it was a rebuttal, so impressed the editor that she was hired as a reporter and she went on to become a trailblazing journalist that paved the way for women in media.

A couple of years later when she was only 23 she pulled off one of the most extraordinary feats of investigative journalism. She had heard rumors of patient abuse in mental asylums and so she feigned insanity and checked herself into the women's lunatic asylum in Blackwell's Island. There undercover she endured horrible mistreatment and she barely got out to publish the expose under the title, Ten Days in a Madhouse. It was an instant sensation, so much so that the public attention she brought to the abuse and the horrific things that were happening to patients lead to a grand jury investigation, in which Bly herself assisted. That produced a $1 million increase in the budget for care for the mentally ill in New York City and forever changed their legal protections.

Another couple of years later, at that point Bly is 25, the newspaper for which she worked began losing circulation and so she took matters into our own hands and devised a publicity stunt that she thought would draw attention back to the paper. It was kind of an honorable click bait; if there ever was such a thing this was it, integrity at the risk of the journalist life. So she, inspired by Jules Vern's Eighty Days Around the World, decided to do a real life version of the journey packing little or nothing more actually then a small duffel bag she managed to beat Vern's fictional journey by eight days and set the world record for the first fastest real life voyage around the world in 72 days. In the novel Vern had written anything one man can imagine other men can make real, and here was a woman who made it real, a woman who shaped the future for women in journalism.