She Wanted Change, So She Got Herself Committed To An Asylum

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In 1887, an American journalist best-known by her pseudonym "Nellie Bly" helped reform the inner workings of New York's mental institutions and made a name for herself as the pioneer of a new kind of investigative reporting.

She also wrote her way into fame for taking a record-breaking trip around the world in 72 days, inspired by Jules Verne's famous novel Around the World in Eighty Days.


Humble Beginnings

Bly was born Elizabeth Cochran on May 5, 1864 in Cochran's Mills, Pennsylvania. From a young age onward, Bly showed interest in school and writing, but after the death of her father she was forced to drop out of school due to a lack of money.

In 1880, after her family moved to Pittsburgh, a young Bly penned an anonymous letter addressed to the Pittsburgh Dispatch's editor, George Madden, after reading a sexist column titled "What Girls Are Good For." The editor was so impressed with Bly's passion and writing skill that he sought her out and gave her a chance to write for the paper again. Madden eventually offered her a full-time position and assigned her with the pen name "Nellie Bly," since female newspaper writers didn't use their real times at the time.


Ten Days In The Mad-House

Nellie took it upon herself to delve deep into issues affecting women and write investigative articles that involved her going undercover. However, being in a field dominated by men who didn't always agree with her opinions meant that she would have to be reassigned to "women's pages" where she would cover topics like fashion, arts and gardening.

Unsatisfied with the role she's been handed, Bly left the Pittsburgh Dispatch in 1887 and moved to New York City, where she hoped she'd be given the chance to write more meaningful pieces.

Four months later, a 23-year-old Bly found a position within Joseph Pulitzer's newspaper, The New York World. At the time, mental institutions were a hot topic and editors at The World challenged Bly to come up with a big story that would place them ahead of the competition and solidify her role as a "detective reporter."


She decided to go undercover at Blackwell's Island, New York City's most notorious mental asylum and pose as a mentally ill patient so she could expose the sinister activities taking place behind closed doors.

Women admitted at Blackwell's rarely ever made it out and the employees remained mum about what went on inside the institution, so there was really no other way for Bly to find out if the rumors of abuse were true.


Bly was promised that she'd be released after 10 days if she took on the assignement. Following this agreement, the young reporter got into character and practiced her expressions in front of a mirror until they were convincing enough.

She checked into a boarding house, but was picked up by police the next morning because she was deemed "crazy." She faked amnesia at the courthouse and the judge concluded that she had been drugged.

Bly was then admitted to Blackwell's, where she would experience one of the biggest shocks of her life. She knew the conditions would be bad, but she could've never imaged how awful they would really be.

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