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Ten Days in a Madhouse: The Woman Who Got Herself Committed

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In 1887, intrepid reporter Nellie Bly pretended she was crazy and got herself committed, all to help improve conditions in a New York City mental institution.

“The insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island is a human rat-trap. It is easy to get in, but once there it is impossible to get out.”

Those words, describing New York City’s most notorious mental institution, were written by journalist Nellie Bly in 1887. It was no mere armchair observation, because Bly got herself committed to Blackwell’s and wrote a shocking exposé called Ten Days In A Madhouse. The series of articles became a best-selling book, launching Bly’s career as a world-famous investigative reporter and also helping bring reform to the asylum.

In the late 1880s, New York newspapers were full of chilling tales about brutality and patient abuse at the city’s various mental institutions. Into the fray came the plucky 23-year Nellie Bly (born Elizabeth Cochrane, she renamed herself after a popular Stephen Foster song). At a time when most female writers were confined to newspapers’ society pages, she was determined to play with the big boys. The editor at The World liked Bly’s moxie, and challenged her to come up with an outlandish stunt to attract readers and prove her mettle as a “detective reporter.”

The stylish and petite Bly, who had a perpetual smile, set about her crazy-eye makeover. She dressed in tattered second-hand clothes. She stopped bathing and brushing her teeth. And for hours, she practiced looking like a lunatic in front of the mirror. “Faraway expressions look crazy,” she wrote. Soon she was wandering the streets in a daze. Posing as Nellie Moreno, a Cuban immigrant, she checked herself into a temporary boarding house for women. Within twenty-four hours, her irrational, hostile rants had all of the other residents fearing for their lives. “It was the greatest night of my life,” Bly later wrote.

The police hauled Bly off, and within a matter of days, she bounced from court to Bellevue Hospital’s psychiatric ward. When she professed to not remembering how she ended up in New York, the chief doctor diagnosed her as “delusional and undoubtedly insane.” Meanwhile, several of the city’s other newspapers took an interest in what one called the “mysterious waif with the wild, hunted look in her eyes.” Bly had everyone hoodwinked, and soon enough, she was aboard the “filthy ferry” to Blackwell’s Island.

The Lonely Island

Opened as America’s first municipal mental hospital in 1839, Blackwell’s Island (known today as Roosevelt Island) was meant to be a state-of-the-art institution committed to moral, humane rehabilitation of its patients. But when funding got cut, the progressive plans went out the window. It ended up as a scary asylum, staffed in part by inmates of a nearby penitentiary.

Although other writers had reported on conditions at the asylum (notably Charles Dickens, in 1842, who described its “listless, madhouse air” as “very painful”), Bly was the first reporter to go undercover. What she found exceeded her worst expectations. There were “oblivious doctors” and “coarse, massive” orderlies who “choked, beat and harassed” patients, and “expectorated tobacco juice about on the floor in a manner more skillful than charming.” There were foreign women, completely sane, who were committed simply because they couldn’t make themselves understood. Add to that rancid food, dirty linens, no warm clothing and ice-cold baths that were like a precursor to water boarding. Bly described the latter:

“My teeth chattered and my limbs were goose-fleshed and blue with cold. Suddenly I got, one after the other, three buckets of water over my head – ice-cold water, too – into my eyes, my ears, my nose and my mouth. I think I experienced the sensation of a drowning person as they dragged me, gasping, shivering and quaking, from the tub. For once I did look insane.”

And worst of all, there was the endless, enforced isolation:

“What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment? . . . Take a perfectly sane and healthy woman, shut her up and make her sit from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. on straight-back benches, do not allow her to talk or move during these hours, give her no reading and let her know nothing of the world or its doings, give her bad food and harsh treatment, and see how long it will take to make her insane. Two months would make her a mental and physical wreck.”

As soon as Bly arrived at Blackwell’s Island, she dropped her crazy act. But to her horror, she found that only confirmed her diagnosis. “Strange to say, the more sanely I talked and acted, the crazier I was thought to be,” she wrote.

Near the end of her stay, her cover was almost blown. A fellow reporter she’d known for years was sent by another newspaper to write about the mysterious patient. He himself posed as a man in search of a lost loved one. Bly begged her friend not give her away. He didn’t. Finally, after ten days, The World sent an attorney to arrange for Nellie Moreno’s release.

Going Public

Two days later, the paper ran the first installment of Bly’s story, entitled “Behind Asylum Bars.” The psychiatric doctors who’d been fooled offered apologies, excuses and defenses. The story traveled across the country, with papers lauding Bly’s courageous achievement. Almost overnight, she became a star journalist.

But for Bly, it wasn’t about the fame. “I have one consolation for my work,” she wrote. “On the strength of my story, the committee of appropriation provides $1,000,000 more than was ever before given, for the benefit of the insane.”

Actually, the city had already been considering increasing the budget for asylums, but Bly’s article certainly pushed things along.

A month after her series ran, Bly returned to Blackwell’s with a grand jury panel. In her book, she says that when they made their tour, many of the abuses she reported had been corrected: the food services and sanitary conditions were improved, the foreign patients had been transferred, and the tyrannical nurses had disappeared. Her mission was accomplished.

Bly would go on to more sensational exploits, most notably, in 1889, circling the globe in a record-setting seventy-two days (she meant to beat out Jules Verne’s fictional trip in Around The World in Eighty Days). In later years, she retired from journalism and founded her own company, designing and marketing steel barrels used for milk cans and boilers. She died in 1922. Bly’s amazing life has since been the subject of a Broadway musical, a movie and a children’s book.

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Are Smart People More Likely to Believe Stereotypes?
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A new study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General finds that people who score higher on one type of intelligence test are more likely to buy into stereotypes. Fortunately, they’re also more likely to discard them.

There are many different kinds of intelligence, each reliant on its own set of skills and abilities. One such ability is pattern recognition, without which we’d have trouble recognizing faces, learning languages, or reading other people’s emotions. Because it’s so central to our cognitive and social functioning, pattern recognition is sometimes used by researchers as a shorthand for overall intelligence.

Researchers at New York University wondered if there was any downside to this kind of intelligence—if a person’s ability to make quick associations could make them more susceptible to harmful generalizations and stereotypes.

To find out, they designed a series of six online experiments to compare more than 1200 participants’ pattern recognition skills with how easily they bought into stereotypes.

In one experiment, the researchers showed participants a collection of men’s faces, along with a description of something each man had done in the past. Some of the men’s actions were good, like sending flowers to someone who was sick. Others were unpleasant.

What the participants didn’t realize was that the researchers had rigged the setup so that one facial feature, either a wide nose or a narrow one, was paired more frequently with bad behavior, essentially inventing a negative stereotype.

After this subconscious introduction, participants were invited to play a trust game with a virtual partner (actually a research bot). The “partner” avatars had subtle differences in the shape and size of their noses.

Sure enough, participants who aced the pattern recognition test were more distrustful of participants with the “bad” kind of nose, whichever type that happened to be. Their ability to jump quickly to conclusions seemed to lead them right into the stereotype trap.

“Superior cognitive abilities are often associated with positive outcomes, such as academic achievement and social mobility,” lead author David Lick said in a statement. “However, our work shows that some cognitive abilities can have negative consequences.”

The news wasn’t all bad. Another experiment tested people’s ability to let go of harmful existing stereotypes—in this case, relating to gender. The researchers subtly exposed participants to information that challenged their beliefs, showing women behaving assertively, for example, or men stepping aside to let others lead.

As it turned out, participants who scored higher on the pattern recognition test were also better at taking in this new information and letting it change their minds. After exposure, they were less likely to buy into harmful gender stereotypes.

“Finding that higher pattern detection ability puts people at greater risk to detect and apply stereotypes, but also to reverse them, implicates this ability as a cognitive mechanism underlying stereotyping,” co-author Jonathan Freeman said in the statement.

“Our findings may help pave the way for future research that leverages pattern detection or other cognitive abilities for reducing social biases.”

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Experts Say Trying to Force Yourself to Be Happy Doesn't Work
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A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology finds that people who accept their difficult emotions are better off in the long run than those who try to force their way into a better mood.

Many psychologists and meditation teachers endorse a practice called radical acceptance. The basic idea is that when something bad happens—say, a dear friend moves away—you have two options. You can either deny or fight that reality, or you can accept it, deal with the loss, and move on. Or, to put it a different way: Pain is inevitable, but suffering, like the kind caused by denial, is optional.

Radical acceptance works because it teaches practitioners to accept reality and hard situations. Could the same framework help with hard emotions like anger, sadness, and grief? 

To find out, psychologists conducted three separate studies. The first was an online survey, in which 1003 people described how they related to their emotions. Participants were asked how strongly they agreed or disagreed with statements like "I tell myself I shouldn't be feeling the way that I'm feeling."

The second study took place in the lab and was framed as a mock job interview. The researchers told 156 people that they would be giving a speech extolling their job skills and qualifications. They were told the taped speech would be shown to a panel of judges as part of a mock job application. Then they were given two minutes to prepare. 

The last study invited 222 people to spend two months journaling about tough moments in their lives. Six months later, the researchers surveyed these people to see how they were feeling.

All three experiments yielded the same basic result: People who let themselves feel their feelings were, on average, less stressed, anxious, and depressed than those who tried to avoid or control them. 

"We found that people who habitually accept their negative emotions experience fewer negative emotions, which adds up to better psychological health," senior author Iris Mauss of UC Berkeley said in a statement. 

"Maybe if you have an accepting attitude toward negative emotions, you're not giving them as much attention," Mauss said. "And perhaps, if you're constantly judging your emotions, the negativity can pile up."

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