No. 526
Crime, Eccentricity, and the Sporting Life in 19th Century America.
June 21, 2021

Undercover Lunatic.

May 26, 2013
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"Louisville Courier-Journal," May 8, 1881, via Newspapers.comWhen I started this blog, I hoped to focus on the smaller, obscure stories from the past--the long-forgotten bits of random oddities that, when taken together, show just what a strange world we live in.  In short, the "uncommon" is really quite commonplace.One such story is the death of one otherwise completely unmemorable young man. 
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Strange Company - 6/21/2021

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An Ordnance to Cover the Defective Points.Denver Tribune-RepublicanMay 14, 1885(Click image to enlarge)   n order to cover such cases as "Soapy" Smith, the arrest of whom for violating the lottery ordinance"  Note how bad the Xerox copy at the top is. This was shared to my father, by his brother (my uncle) Joseph Jefferson Smith​ (1909-1977). Obviously, the copiers at the time did not do
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Soapy Smith's Soap Box - 6/13/2021

When railroad baron H.H. Cook decided to build himself a New York City mansion, he didn’t try to squeeze into a plot of land on Fifth Avenue in the 50s—an area that had been colonized by several Vanderbilt heirs and other Gilded Age moneymakers. Instead, he went to the then-hinterlands of Manhattan, purchasing the entire […]
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Ephemeral New York - 6/20/2021
Youth With Executioner by Nuremberg native Albrecht Dürer … although it’s dated to 1493, which was during a period of several years when Dürer worked abroad. November 13 [1617]. Burnt alive here a miller of Manberna, who however was lately engaged as a carrier of wine, because he and his brother, with the help of […]
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Executed Today - 11/13/2020
Parental hostility drove Fanny Madison out of her home and into the arms of her cousin, Thomas Cluverius. It was not a wise decision.Read the full story here: Kissing Cousins.                                             Pictures from Illustrated Police News, May 2, 1885.
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Murder By Gaslight - 6/19/2021

Producer-director Ric Rebelo has today, in memory of LeeAnn Wilber, former co-owner of the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast, released this award-winning film for public view on Youtube. This was filmed in 2010, some of the participants in the production are no longer with us today. What was recorded in 2010 has not changed much today in 2021, only intensified in fascination.
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Lizzie Borden: Warps and Wefts - 6/16/2021
[Editor’s note: Guest writer, Peter Dickson, lives in West Sussex, England and has been working with microfilm copies of The Duncan Campbell Papers from the State Library of NSW, Sydney, Australia. The following are some of his analyses of what he has discovered from reading these papers. Dickson has contributed many transcriptions to the Jamaica Family […]
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Early American Crime - 2/7/2019
Dan Creedon in Training. | What Led to a Divorce.

Undercover Lunatic.

Insanity Expert

In September 1887 a young woman named Nellie Brown was declared insane and sent to the New York City lunatic asylum on Blackwell’s Island. Unbeknownst to the authorities the woman was feigning insanity; she was in fact a reporter named Nellie Bly on her first assignment for the New York World.

Nellie BlyNellie Bly

Nellie Bly had come to New York for a career in journalism. She had already made a name for herself as a reporter for the Pittsburgh Dispatch where she had worked her way up from women's stories to serious assignments such as foreign correspondent in Mexico. She was born Elizabeth Jane Cochrane but when she started writing serious pieces her editor suggested a snappier byline—“Nellie Bly,” from a popular song by Stephen Foster.

Finding work as a reporter in New York was not easy; the men there were not ready to see women in their newsrooms. After being rejected by every paper in town she finally convinced an editor at the New York World to give her a chance. She agreed to the plan of getting herself committed to Blackwell’s Island to experience conditions in the insane asylum first hand. The paper assured her that they would have her released after ten days.

Nellie Bly assumed the name Nellie Brown and checked into a temporary home for working woman where she convinced the other tenants that she was insane. A policeman took her Bellevue hospital where she was examined by a doctor. Nellie would later say that the doctors were easy to fool, she was more worried about the reporters who had taken an interest in the case. After being declared insane, Nellie was taken by boat to the asylum on Blackwell’s Island.

Insane Hall

Here she would meet women who were truly insane—who would shriek in the night and hold conversations with people only they could see. Just as distressing were the women whom Nellie could tell were as sane as she was, but through unfortunate circumstances found themselves in a situation they could not escape. “The insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island is a human rat-trap” she would later write, “It is easy to get in, but once there it is impossible to get out."

The conditions she experienced on Blackwell’s Island were appalling. The meals were barely edible, with rancid butter and spoiled meat. Inmates were given cold baths and made to wear garments too thin to keep out the September chill in the unheated building. There was very little entertainment beyond occasional walks outside. Most days the inmates were forced to sit quietly on wooden benches and do nothing for endless hours. Protests were met with violence by the nurses who would beat or choke unruly inmates. Even the doctors used violent methods to subdue their patients. Complaints were ignored or considered symptoms of madness.

Nellie Bly

At the end of ten days Nellie Bly was rescued by her employer. On October 7, 1887 The World published the first installment of a two part story on Nellie’s stay on Blackwell’s Island. Though bylines were rare at the time, the story included the byline “Nellie Bly.” The story was such a sensation that in the second installment, a week later, her name became part of the headline. As a result of Nellie Bly’s reporting, a grand jury was convened to investigate conditions on Blackwell’s Island and after their report an extra $1,000,000 was appropriated for the insane.

Nellie Bly’s career progressed with this type of “stunt reporting.” In 1889 she set out to best Phileas Fogg, Jules Verne’s fictional globetrotter, and travel around the world in fewer than eighty days. She did it in seventy-two. The trip made her famous and by the turn of the twentieth century “Nellie Bly” was a household name.

 

 

 


Sources:

  • Bly, Nellie. Ten Days in a Mad-House. New York: Ian L. Munro, 1887.
  • Kroeger, Brooke. Nellie Bly: daredevil, reporter, feminist. New York: Times Books, 1994.