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.

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Sponsored
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

People who engage in fat-shaming tend to score high in this personality trait

A new study explores how certain personality traits affect individuals' attitudes on obesity in others.

Pixabay
Mind & Brain
  • The study compared personality traits and obesity views among more than 3,000 mothers.
  • The results showed that the personality traits neuroticism and extraversion are linked to more negative views and behaviors related to obesity.
  • People who scored high in conscientiousness are more likely to experience "fat phobia.
Keep reading Show less

4 anti-scientific beliefs and their damaging consequences

The rise of anti-scientific thinking and conspiracy is a concerning trend.

Moon Landing Apollo
popular
  • Fifty years later after one of the greatest achievements of mankind, there's a growing number of moon landing deniers. They are part of a larger trend of anti-scientific thinking.
  • Climate change, anti-vaccination and other assorted conspiratorial mindsets are a detriment and show a tangible impediment to fostering real progress or societal change.
  • All of these separate anti-scientific beliefs share a troubling root of intellectual dishonesty and ignorance.
Keep reading Show less

Reigning in brutality - how one man's outrage led to the Red Cross and the Geneva Conventions

The history of the Geneva Conventions tells us how the international community draws the line on brutality.

Napoleon III at the Battle of Solferino. Painting by Adolphe Yvon. 1861.
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Henry Dunant's work led to the Red Cross and conventions on treating prisoners humanely.
  • Four Geneva Conventions defined the rules for prisoners of war, torture, naval and medical personnel and more.
  • Amendments to the agreements reflect the modern world but have not been ratified by all countries.
Keep reading Show less