Ten Days in a Madhouse by Nellie Bly
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Long before Christiane Amanpour, Frances Fitzgerald and Martha Gellhorn blazed a trail in courageous investigative journalism, a pioneering and intrepid writer and journalist whose pen name was Nellie Bly opened up a whole new field in what had previously been a strictly male domain.
Ten Days in a Madhouse was published as a series of articles in the New York World during 1887. Nellie Bly was given the assignment by her editor to have herself committed to an insane asylum in New York with a “view to writing a plain and unvarnished narrative of the treatment of patients therein and the methods of management…” She was to feign insanity and get herself legally declared insane, pass the test conducted by the doctors and get committed. She was to chronicle her experiences and write a report that revealed everything that she went through in the asylum. It was not an easy decision to make and Nellie herself had doubts about the fact that once she was declared insane, her editors would hardly be in a position to get her out!
Ten Days in a Madhouse received a sensational response. Nellie’s account of the dehumanizing conditions inside the asylum, the prevailing attitudes towards mental illness, contemporary ideas of treatment and the brutality and neglect of the system that she experienced were an eye-opener for the authorities. The authorities were left red-faced when it was discovered that insanity could so easily be faked. However, her expose of the conditions inside the Lunatic Asylum for Women at Blackwell’s Island prompted a grand jury investigation in which she was asked to testify. The Department of Public Charities and Corrections was allotted a larger budget as a result of this.
Nellie Bly, or to give her real name, Elizabeth Jane Cochrane, was a champion of human rights. She was also an extremely adventurous and creative journalist who looked at her profession not just as a job. A later series of articles that followed Ten Days… was one in which she aimed to beat Phineas Fogg’s record of 80 days recreating the journey described in Jules Verne’s novel. Nellie completed the nearly 25-thousand km journey in 72 days.
Her other articles included Six Months in Mexico, a report on Mexico under the dictator Porfirio Diaz. She retired from journalism after marrying the industrial tycoon Robert Seaman and proceeded to devote herself to social causes.
Ten Days in a Madhouse is a riveting account of the shocking and pathetic condition of mental health rehabilitation in the early part of the twentieth century.
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