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

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

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.

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.

A map of America’s most famous – and infamous

The 'People Map of the United States' zooms in on America's obsession with celebrity

Image: The Pudding
Strange Maps
  • Replace city names with those of their most famous residents
  • And you get a peculiar map of America's obsession with celebrity
  • If you seek fame, become an actor, musician or athlete rather than a politician, entrepreneur or scientist

Chicagoland is Obamaland

Image: The Pudding

Chicagoland's celebrity constellation: dominated by Barack, but with plenty of room for the Belushis, Brandos and Capones of this world.

Seen from among the satellites, this map of the United States is populated by a remarkably diverse bunch of athletes, entertainers, entrepreneurs and other persons of repute (and disrepute).

The multitalented Dwayne Johnson, boxing legend Muhammad Ali and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs dominate the West Coast. Right down the middle, we find actors Chris Pratt and Jason Momoa, singer Elvis Presley and basketball player Shaquille O'Neal. The East Coast crew include wrestler John Cena, whistle-blower Edward Snowden, mass murderer Ted Bundy… and Dwayne Johnson, again.

The Rock pops up in both Hayward, CA and Southwest Ranches, FL, but he's not the only one to appear twice on the map. Wild West legend Wyatt Earp makes an appearance in both Deadwood, SD and Dodge City, KS.

How is that? This 'People's Map of the United States' replaces the names of cities with those of "their most Wikipedia'ed resident: people born in, lived in, or connected to a place."

‘Cincinnati, Birthplace of Charles Manson'

Image: The Pudding

Keys to the city, or lock 'em up and throw away the key? A city's most famous sons and daughters of a city aren't always the most favoured ones.

That definition allows people to appear in more than one locality. Dwayne Johnson was born in Hayward, has one of his houses in Southwest Ranches, and is famous enough to be the 'most Wikipedia'ed resident' for both localities.

Wyatt Earp was born in Monmouth, IL, but his reputation is closely associated with both Deadwood and Dodge City – although he's most famous for the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which took place in Tombstone, AZ. And yes, if you zoom in on that town in southern Arizona, there's Mr Earp again.

The data for this map was collected via the Wikipedia API (application programming interface) from the English-language Wikipedia for the period from July 2015 to May 2019.

The thousands of 'Notable People' sections in Wikipedia entries for cities and other places in the U.S. were scrubbed for the person with the most pageviews. No distinction was made between places of birth, residence or death. As the developers note, "people can 'be from' multiple places".

Pageviews are an impartial indicator of interest – it doesn't matter whether your claim to fame is horrific or honorific. As a result, this map provides a non-judgmental overview of America's obsession with celebrity.

Royals and (other) mortals

Image: The Pudding

There's also a UK version of the People Map – filled with last names like Neeson, Sheeran, Darwin and Churchill – and a few first names of monarchs.

Celebrity, it is often argued, is our age's version of the Greek pantheon, populated by dozens of major gods and thousands of minor ones, each an example of behaviours to emulate or avoid. This constellation of stars, famous and infamous, is more than a map of names. It's a window into America's soul.

But don't let that put you off. Zooming in on the map is entertaining enough: celebrities floating around in the ether are suddenly tied down to a pedestrian level, and to real geography. And it's fun to see the famous and the infamous rub shoulders, as it were.

Barack Obama owns Chicago, but the suburbs to the west of the city are dotted with a panoply of personalities, ranging from the criminal (Al Capone, Cicero) and the musical (John Prine, Maywood) to figures literary (Jonathan Franzen, Western Springs) and painterly (Ivan Albright, Warrenville), actorial (Harrison Ford, Park Ridge) and political (Eugene V. Debs, Elmhurst).

Freaks and angels

Image: Dorothy

The People Map of the U.S. was inspired by the U.S.A. Song Map, substituting song titles for place names.

It would be interesting to compare 'the most Wikipedia'ed' sons and daughters of America's cities with the ones advertised at the city limits. When you're entering Aberdeen, WA, a sign invites you to 'come as you are', in homage to its most famous son, Kurt Cobain. It's a safe bet that Indian Hill, OH will make sure you know Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, was one of theirs. But it's highly unlikely that Cincinnati, a bit further south, will make any noise about Charles Manson, local boy done bad.

Inevitably, the map also reveals some bitterly ironic neighbours, such as Ishi, the last of the Yahi tribe, captured near Oroville, CA. He died in 1916 as "the last wild Indian in North America". The most 'pageviewed' resident of nearby Colusa, CA is Byron de la Beckwith, Jr., the white supremacist convicted for the murder of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers.

As a sampling of America's interests, this map teaches that those aiming for fame would do better to become actors, musicians or athletes rather than politicians, entrepreneurs or scientists. But also that celebrity is not limited to the big city lights of LA or New York. Even in deepest Dakota or flattest Kansas, the footlights of fame will find you. Whether that's good or bad? The pageviews don't judge...

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