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

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.

The Question that Baffled Britain's High Court: Are Pringles Chips?

iStock/eskaylim
iStock/eskaylim

Are Pringles potato chips? From 2007 to 2009, that question plagued judges at three different levels of the British judiciary, leading to a series of head-scratchingly comical legal proceedings. The stakes, however, were nothing but serious: The ruling put hundreds of millions of dollars on the line.

The question revolved around Britain’s value-added tax, or VAT. According to the 1994 VAT Act, any product that is “wholly, or substantially wholly, made from the potato” was subject to a 17.5 percent tax. In 2007, Britain’s VAT and Duties Tribunal determined that Pringles fell under the tax’s umbrella—and demanded the chipman payeth.

Procter & Gamble, who owned Pringles at the time, vehemently disagreed. They argued that Pringles were only 42 percent potato flour, with the rest mostly a slurry of wheat starch, corn and rice flour, and vegetable oil. The snack food, they said, could not be classified as a potato chip because, unlike a real potato chip, its overall contents and shape were “not found in nature.”

In addition to being unappetizing, this argument was a marked shift from the company's original position. When the snack first hit shelves in the mid-1960s, Pringles were proudly marketed as “potato chips.” (More specifically, as newfangled potato chips.) They did this despite reported complaints from competing chip-makers, who argued that the snack food—which is cooked from a thin, mashed potato-like dough—should be classified differently.

But now that millions of dollars were on the line, Procter & Gamble’s lawyers wholeheartedly embraced Pringles's unique place as a “not-really-a-chip” chip. The VAT and Duties Tribunal, however, didn’t buy it. In a decision that sounds more like a Zen kōan, the tax masters argued that Pringles were chips because they were “made from potato flour in the sense that one cannot say that it is not made from potato flour.”

To that, the British High Court of Justice basically replied: Wow, that's confusing! Now, excuse us, we would like to top it.

The following year, the High Court stepped in and reversed the Tribunal's decision. First, the Court argued that Pringles were more akin to a cake or bread than a chip. (Who, of course, can forget their first birthday Pringle?) Furthermore, the Court declared that a Pringle—which we should emphasize is, in fact, mostly made from potatoes—was not “made from the potato." Their reasoning invoked Greek metaphysics, claiming that Pringles did not possess the required amount of (and this is their word) “potatoness.”

The controversy didn’t end there. In 2009, the case moved up another judicial wrung, this time to Britain’s Supreme Court of Judicature. The lower court's metaphysical arguments about "potatoness" were enough to make Aristotle's brain hurt, the justices moaned. They criticized the previous ruling for its “overelaborate, almost mind-numbing legal analysis” and dubbed the topic at hand a “short practical question calling for a short practical answer.”

Procter & Gamble’s lawyers bore down anyway. They claimed that a product made from “a number of significant ingredients ... cannot be said to be ‘made from’ one of them.” Lord Justice Jacob called this argument hogwash. If that were true, he argued, then “a marmalade made using both oranges and grapefruit would be made of neither—a nonsense conclusion."

After working itself in and out of semantic pretzels, the Court said the easiest solution to Chipgate was to appeal to a hypothetical child: If you asked an 8-year-old to explain what a Pringle was, what would he or she say?

The question of a Pringle’s identity, the Court argued, “would probably be answered in a more relevant and sensible way by a child consumer than by a food scientist or a culinary pedant.”

In other words, a chip is a chip is a chip—Pringles among them. With that, Procter & Gamble had to pay $160 million in taxes.

Though common sense prevailed, it doesn’t always end that way: Around the time of the great Pringle debate, the state of Oklahoma was busy confidently declaring watermelon a vegetable.

8 Facts About Niccolò Machiavelli

iStock/dcerbino
iStock/dcerbino

Niccolò Machiavelli is arguably the most influential political thinker from the Italian Renaissance. Following the publication of his political theory masterwork The Prince in 1932, his name became synonymous with ruthless political machinations. But was this Florentine philosopher really that bad?

1. HE HAD A FRONT-ROW SEAT TO RENAISSANCE POWER STRUGGLES.

Machiavelli was born in 1469 in the independent Republic of Florence. Long before he became known as the first modern political theorist (not to mention an inspiration for House of Cards), Machiavelli worked as a diplomat in the service of the Florentine government. In 1498, at only 29 years old, he was appointed as the head of the Second Chancery, which put him in control of the city's foreign relations. His number-one concern was the potential return of the Medici family—the most infamous power brokers in Renaissance Italy—who had been ousted from Florence in 1494. Machiavelli oversaw the recruitment and training of an official militia to keep them at bay, but his army was no match for the Medici, who were supported by Rome's papal militia. When the Medici retook Florence in 1512, their first order of business was to fire—and, just for the heck of it, torture—Machiavelli.

2. HE WROTE THE PRINCE TO REGAIN LOST STATUS.

As a diplomat and a scholar in an age of constant warfare, Machiavelli observed and absorbed the rules of the political game. After he lost his job as a diplomat (and even served a short time in jail), he turned to scholarship, poring over the Latin texts of ancient Roman political philosophers for inspiration. By the end of 1513, he had completed the first version of what would become his masterwork: The Prince, a handbook for the power-hungry. The book offered tips to rising politicians for seizing power, and advice to incumbent princes for keeping it.

Ironically, Machiavelli dedicated the book to the Medici, hoping it would bring him back into their good graces. It remains unclear whether it was ever read by its intended audience, and Machiavelli never got to see The Prince go viral. It was published in 1532, five years after its author's death.

3. HE COMPARED THE NEED FOR LOVE TO THE VALUE OF FEAR.

One of The Prince’s primary lessons was that leaders must always try to strike a balance between seeking the love of their subordinates and inspiring fear. If a leader is too soft or kind, the people may become unruly; too cruel, and they might rebel. Machiavelli had a clear preference. "Since love and fear can hardly exist together,” he wrote, “if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved."

4. THE PRINCE’S RUTHLESSNESS MADE IT NOTORIOUS.

Machiavelli’s political thesis became notorious because it focused almost entirely on helping rulers get what they want at whatever cost—in other words, the end always justified the means. Other political thinkers, while acknowledging Machiavelli’s brilliance, were appalled by his mercenary take on statesmanship. In the 18th century, French essayist Denis Diderot described Machiavelli's work as "abhorrent" and summed up The Prince as "the art of tyranny." Friedrich Schiller, a proponent of liberal democracy, referred to The Prince as an unwitting satire of the kind of monarchical rule it supposedly espouses (“a terrible satire against princes”). David Hume, the Scottish polymath and inveterate skeptic, called Machiavelli "a great genius" whose reasoning is "extremely defective.” Wrote Hume, "There scarcely is any maxim in his Prince which subsequent experience has not entirely refuted.”

But 20th-century British philosopher Bertrand Russell disagreed, saying that Machiavelli was merely being honest on a subject that most preferred with a good sugarcoating. “Much of the conventional obloquy that attaches itself to his name, is due to the indignation of hypocrites,” Russell wrote [PDF/a>], “who hate the frank avowal of evil-doing.”

5. SHAKESPEARE CALLED VILLAINS “MACHIAVELS.”

Machiavelli’s notoriety spread so quickly that by the 16th century his name had found its way into the English language as an epithet for crookedness. In Elizabethan theatre, it came to denote a dramatic type: An incorrigible schemer driven by greed and unbridled ambition. In the prologue for The Jew of Malta, playwright Christopher Marlowe introduces his villain as “a sound Machiavill.” Even William Shakespeare used the term as a derogatory shorthand. “Am I politic? Am I subtle? Am I a Machiavel?” one character in The Merry Wives of Windsor asks rhetorically, before adding an indignant, “No!”

6. THE PRINCE WAS BANNED BY THE POPE.

When Machiavelli was out of a job, he did what most Renaissance thinkers did: He found a patron. Pope Clement VII, a Medici who had been elected in 1523, was happy to support the scholar. The pope even commissioned one of Machiavelli’s longest works, the Florentine Histories, which Machiavelli presented in 1526. But after the posthumous publication of The Prince in 1532, the papacy’s attitude toward Machiavelli’s work chilled. When Pope Paul VI established Rome's first Index of Forbidden Books in 1557, he made sure to include The Prince for its promulgation of dishonesty and dirty politics. (Machiavelli’s passion for classical writers and their pagan culture didn’t appeal to Pope Paul, either [PDF].)

7. HE COLLABORATED WITH LEONARDO DA VINCI.

In 1503, when Machiavelli was struggling to fortify Florence against its enemies, he turned to the ultimate Renaissance man, Leonardo da Vinci.

According to a 1939 biography of Leonardo, the two "seem to have become intimate" when they met in Florence. Machiavelli used his power to procure commissions for Leonardo and even appointed him Florence's military engineer between 1502 and 1503. Machiavelli was hoping to harness Leonardo’s ingenuity to capture Pisa, a fledgling city-state which Florentine leaders had been eager to subdue for decades. As expected, Leonardo came up with a revolutionary plan. He contrived a system of dams that would block off one of Pisa’s main waterways, which could have brought Pisa to the brink of a drought and given Machiavelli all the leverage he could have asked for. But the plan failed. The dam system ended up interrupting Florence's own agriculture, and so the government terminated the project. Leonardo left his post after only eight months.

Some scholars believe that the encounter with Leonardo left a deep mark on Machiavelli’s political thinking. They point to Machiavelli’s repeated emphasis on the power of technological innovation to decide a war, a view which they believe Leonardo had inspired. Machiavelli’s writing is rife with idiosyncratic expressions that seem to have almost been lifted from Leonardo's notebooks.

8. HE ACTUALLY BELIEVED IN A JUST GOVERNMENT.

Scholar Erica Benner argues that, despite his reputation, Machiavelli wasn’t amoral. Although The Prince openly encouraged politicians to take and offer bribes, cheat, threaten, and even kill if necessary, Machiavelli knew that even rulers had to obey some sense of justice, Benner wrote in The Guardian. He recognized that the race for power comes with very few scruples, but he also recognized that without respect for justice, society falls into chaos.

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