Ten Days in a Mad-House by Nellie Bly
Matthew Goodman’s Eighty Days is a really fantastic piece of nonfiction—the kind that’ll make you gasp out loud, even though you know how this race between two lady journalists in the 1880s is going to turn out. I’d heard of Nellie Bly in passing before (something something asylum something something), but Eighty Days introduced me to her in her entirety, from birth to death. Naturally, despite Goodman’s warnings about Bly’s subpar attempts at writing novels, I was interested in what put Nellie Bly on the map: Ten Days in a Madhouse. While it was originally published as a series of articles in The New York World, it was collected into a book the same year (1887), making it eligible for my establishment.
In Ten Days in a Mad-House, New York journalist Nellie Bly answers her editor’s challenge to come up with a stunt by feigning mental illness in order to be committed to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell Island. Rumors of corruption and abuse have been pouring out of the island, but no one has been able to confirm anything—until now. Posing as Cuban immigrant Nellie Moreno (although she initially determines to go by Nellie Brown), Bly gets herself committed and begins documenting the harsh treatment of society’s most vulnerable members. This edition includes a few more of Bly’s investigative adventures, from servant to factory worker.
Well, Goodman was right—Bly isn’t exactly someone you read for her writing. It’s capable enough, but in the face of modern nonfiction, not exactly gripping. What is gripping is Bly’s pluck, determination, and bravado. She glosses over being assigned the project, but imagine yourself, a young woman of twenty-three, penniless, eager to support yourself on your own pen… and this is the first assignment you get from your boss. It takes a lot of wherewithal in order to tackle that.
Unfortunately, that moxie feels a bit submerged. Part of that is probably period dissonance: what’s utterly shocking to a Victorian audience is pretty blase material for someone who spent a Thanksgiving break in middle school binging on CSI. But part of that is Bly constantly negotiating her position in society. As Eighty Days shows us, plucky female journalists hellbent on getting the story are really only tolerated as long as they’re pretty, modest, and demure. In one of the other investigations collected in the book, Bly goes undercover as a factory worker to expose labor exploitation. But she opens it by creating a dichotomy of pleasure-seekers and working people, and talks about joining the working people for the first time—as if she herself is not a working woman. It’s quite shrewd, in a way, although I suspect part of it is internalized; still, it’s always a pleasure to peek behind the curtain and hear Bly be vain of her hair.
The abuses Bly discovers at the asylum are awful. Bly constantly points out that Blackwell Island (now Roosevelt Island) is handling the most vulnerable members of society, and we see (and hear, through second-hand accounts, as Bly could not bring herself to be committed to “the rope gang”) women being slapped, choked, forced to sleep in wet hair and clothing in freezing temperatures, all in incredibly poor sanitation (by Victorian standards, mind). Most horrifying are the haphazard ways of curating who should and should not be committed—one of Bly’s tests is administered by a doctor much more interested in getting into the nurse’s skirts than making sure a sane woman isn’t committed.
But what defines a sane woman in a misogynistic and xenophobic society? It’s nebulous, fickle, and cruel, as Bly shows us. She does meet women with legitimate mental illnesses, whose stories are harrowing (especially after she returns and several of them are mysteriously gone), but, among other women committed due to their foreignness or sexual appetites, the story of Margaret gripped me the most. Margaret, a German servant, is committed because she had a fight with the other servants. “Other people are not shut up for crazy when they get angry,” Margaret fumes.
Well, they’re not shut up anymore, Margie, but women’s anger is still constantly treated as irregular or unnatural—anything to make it not real. You just had the misfortune to live in a time and a place where they could shut you up physically and torture you mentally by forcing you to sit without any stimulation, physical or intellectual, all day long. It’s enough to drive a sane woman “insane” by your society’s standards: just look to your right and behold Tillie Maynard’s downward spiral.
(Sometimes you think old books don’t apply to you and then you’re brutally, brutally wrong.)