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.

12 Facts About Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Veeder, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication
Veeder, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) was never able to cast a vote legally, though she helped secure that right for women across America. As the philosopher of the women’s rights movement in 19th-century America, she expressed what she felt regardless of what others might think. Read on for more facts about one of the most important women in history.

1. HER FATHER WISHED SHE HAD BEEN A BOY.

Cady Stanton’s father, Daniel Cady, served in Congress and the New York State Assembly, and was a New York Supreme Court judge. He and his wife Margaret had 11 children; five daughters, including Elizabeth, and one son would survive to adulthood. When her brother Eleazar died at age 20, Elizabeth’s father allegedly said to her, “Oh my daughter, I wish you were a boy!”

That may have been her father’s way of lamenting the hardships she would suffer as a woman, but Elizabeth responded by throwing herself into studying Greek, chess, and horse riding, vowing “to make her father happy by being all a son could have been,” Lori D. Ginzberg writes in Elizabeth Cady Stanton: An American Life. Daniel Cady did encourage his bright and self-confident daughter when she was upset that laws could not help one of his female clients: “When you are grown up, and able to prepare a speech, you must go down to Albany and talk to the legislators,” he told her. “If you can persuade them to pass new laws, the old ones will be a dead letter.”

2. A PREACHER ACTUALLY SCARED THE BEJESUS OUT OF HER.

Even as a young person, Elizabeth bristled against her family’s Presbyterian beliefs. In 1831, as a required part of her lessons at the Troy Female Seminary, she attended a revival at which noted evangelist Charles Grandison Finney spoke. She found his ideas about sin so alarming that she had to take time off from school to recover. Ultimately, she rejected organized Christianity’s dependence on fear, and later came to view religion as at odds with her work in the feminist movement.

3. SHE SPENT HER HONEYMOON AT AN ANTI-SLAVERY CONVENTION.

In 1840, Elizabeth married Henry Stanton, a prominent abolitionist who was active in the New York Anti-Slavery Society. After the wedding, the new couple headed to the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, where Henry was a delegate and Elizabeth was forced with other female attendees into the back of the lecture hall [PDF]. There she met feminist Lucretia Mott, who shared her support for women’s and African Americans' rights.

4. CADY STANTON ATTENDED AN EPIC TEA PARTY …

When you think of an important tea party, the Boston event probably springs to mind—but there was at least one other tea-related confab that was just as historic.

On July 9, 1848, Cady Stanton and three other women—Lucretia Mott, her sister Martha Wright, and Mary Ann McClintock—were invited to the Waterloo, New York home of Jane Hunt, a wealthy Quaker dedicated to social reform. During the gathering, they discussed how women weren’t allowed to vote or own property and why the Quaker religion avoided getting involved with women’s rights and the anti-slavery movement. The decision to create an organized meeting to advocate women’s equality was decided right then and there, though who came up with the idea is not known.

5. ... WHICH LED TO THE FIRST WOMEN’S RIGHTS CONVENTION IN AMERICA.

Cady Stanton, Mott, and their colleagues announced “a Convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of woman.” Ten days after the tea party, more than 300 people attended the event (also known as the Seneca Falls convention). The first day, July 19, was planned as an all-women discussion, and July 20 was open to the public.

Stanton wrote and read a “Declaration of Sentiments and Grievances” for the occasion, a discourse based on the Declaration of Independence describing the oppression of women and the rights to which they were entitled. It began with these famous lines: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” (The Declaration of Independence had almost identical wording except for the “and women” part.) Sixty-eight women and 32 men signed the declaration. Seneca Falls launched annual conventions to advocate women’s rights, and was the start of the long battle that eventually earned women the right to vote.

6. CADY STANTON AND SUSAN B. ANTHONY WERE BFFS.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony
Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Cady Stanton met Susan B. Anthony in 1851 and they quickly became an unstoppable pair. In their shared goal of achieving women’s equality, Anthony handled the campaigning and speeches, while Cady Stanton did the lion’s share of the writing from her home in Seneca Falls. While Anthony objected to Cady Stanton allowing her role as a mother to interfere with her reform work, she also helped her take care of the seven Stanton children. Cady Stanton said of Anthony:

“In the division of labor we exactly complemented each other. In writing we did better work than either could alone. While she is slow and analytical in composition, I am rapid and synthetic. I am the better writer, she the better critic. She supplies the facts and statistics, I the philosophy and rhetoric, and, together, we have made arguments that have stood unshaken through the storms of long years—arguments that no one has answered. Our speeches may be considered the united product of our two brains."

Together, they formed the anti-slavery Women’s Loyal National League and published the first three of six volumes of History of Woman Suffrage.

7. SHE OPPOSED THE 15th AMENDMENT.

Cady Stanton and Anthony also founded the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1869 in response to the proposed 15th Amendment. According to Ginzberg, feminists faced a choice after the Civil War, when Congress debated suffrage for emancipated slaves. “There was a battle among abolitionists—of which Stanton counted herself—between having a 15th Amendment that gave black men the vote or holding out for a suffrage amendment that granted the vote to all adult Americans,” Ginzberg told NPR. “Stanton and her friend Susan B. Anthony stood on what they claimed was the highest moral ground by demanding universal human rights for all and—historians have argued about this ever since—not being willing to sacrifice women's rights for the politically expedient challenge of gaining rights for black men.” The 15th Amendment, giving men the right to vote regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” was ratified in 1870. Women did not end up achieving the franchise until 1920.

8. SHE RAN FOR CONGRESS.

Women could run for public office even though they couldn’t vote, a situation that Cady Stanton sought to challenge. She ran for the U.S. House of Representatives—the first woman to do so—as an independent representing New York in 1866. She knew that she was treading new ground when she announced she was running. “I have no political antecedents to recommend me to your support, but my creed is free speech, free press, free men, and free trade—the cardinal points of democracy,” she explained in a letter. She received only 24 votes of the 12,000 cast, perhaps a reflection of the fact that no women could vote—but her audacious campaign likely inspired others. Six years later Victoria Woodhull became the first female candidate for president. It wasn’t until 1916 that a woman, Rep. Jeannette Rankin of Montana, was elected to Congress.

9. SHE WROTE A BESTSELLING CRITIQUE OF CHRISTIANITY.

Her 1895 book The Woman’s Bible, which criticized the ways religion portrayed women as less than men, drove a wedge between Stanton and the women’s movement. Cady Stanton argued that the Bible taught “the subjection and degradation of woman” and that equality demanded a revision of its lessons. Anthony felt it was more important to welcome people of all religious beliefs into the fight for suffrage. Thanks to the controversy, the book became a bestseller.

10. SHE BELIEVED BIKES WOULD LIBERATE WOMEN.

As the 1970s feminist slogan goes, “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” In Cady Stanton’s day, a bike made it so that a woman wouldn’t need a man, at least when it came to transportation. Biking had become popular by the 1890s, and was strongly associated with the modern woman of the latter part of the 19th century, liberated from stuffy social and marital expectations. At 80, Stanton told The American Wheelman magazine that “the bicycle will inspire women with more courage, self-respect [and] self-reliance,” eventually leading to women’s suffrage. Both she and Susan B. Anthony have been credited with saying “woman is riding to suffrage on the bicycle.” They could see beyond the convenience of getting from point A to point B: Bikes symbolized a new freedom for women.

11. SHE TRIED TO DONATE HER BRAIN TO SCIENCE.

Cady Stanton died in 1902, just before turning 87. Susan B. Anthony was heartsick. “I am too crushed to speak,” she told The New York Times’s obituary writer.

But Cady Stanton had tried to ensure that she would still help women’s causes after her own death. Her friend Helen Gardener, a fellow suffragist, had convinced her to donate her brain to Cornell University so scientists would have an eminent female brain to compare with those of eminent men. Stanton had told her family of her plan, and Gardener announced her wishes publicly. Gardener said Cady Stanton “felt that a brain like hers would be useful for all time in the record it would give the world, for the first time—the scientific record of a thinker among women,” Kimberly A. Hamlin writes in From Eve to Evolution: Darwin, Science, and Women’s Rights in Gilded Age America. Cady Stanton’s family, however, refused to believe she had agreed to the plan, and the brain was buried with the rest of her in the Bronx’s Woodlawn Cemetery.

12. SHE WILL APPEAR ON THE $10 BILL IN 2020.

The 19th Amendment, which finally gave women the right to vote, celebrates its centennial in 2020. To commemorate the anniversary, a new $10 bill will be issued with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, and Alice Paul on the back—the first time in more than 100 years that a female portrait has been featured on paper money. (Alexander Hamilton will remain on the front.) You can also expect to see Cady Stanton and Anthony memorialized in a bronze statue in New York City’s Central Park that will be known as the Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony Woman Suffrage Movement Monument. Amazingly, the suffrage pioneers are the first two women to be honored with statues in Central Park, and only the fourth and fifth American women represented by public statues in any NYC park.

10 Fascinating Facts About Davy Crockett

By William Henry Huddle, American, 1847 - 1892 - State of Texas/Larry D. Moore, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
By William Henry Huddle, American, 1847 - 1892 - State of Texas/Larry D. Moore, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Born on August 17, 1786, backwoods statesman Davy Crockett's life has often been obscured by myth. Even during his lifetime, fanciful stories about his adventures were transforming him into a buck-skinned superhero. And after his death, the tales kept growing taller. So let’s separate fact from fiction.

1. HE RAN AWAY FROM HOME AT AGE 13.

When Davy was 13, his father paid for him to go to a school. But just four days in, Davy was bullied by a bigger and older boy. Never one to back down from a fight, one day Crockett waited in a bush along the road home until evening. When the boy and his gang walked up the road, Crockett leaped from the bush and, as he later wrote in his autobiography, set on him like a wild cat.” Terrified that the schoolmaster would whip him for beating one of the boys so severely, he decided to start playing hooky.

His father, John, was furious when a letter inquiring about his son's poor attendance showed up. Grabbing a stick, he chased after Davy, who fled. The teen spent the next few years traveling from his native Tennessee to Maryland, performing odd jobs. When he returned, Crockett’s parents didn’t recognize him at first. Following an emotional reunion, it was agreed that Davy would stick around long enough to help work off some family debts. About a year later, all these were satisfied, and Crockett left for good not long after.

2. HE NEARLY DIED IN A BOATING ACCIDENT.

After serving under General Andrew Jackson in the Tennessee militia, Crockett got into politics. Elected as a state legislator, he served two terms between 1821 and 1823. After losing his seat in 1825, Crockett chose an unlikely new profession for himself: barrel manufacturing. The entrepreneur hired a team to cut staves (the boards with which barrels are constructed) that he planned on selling in New Orleans. Once 30,000 were prepared, Crockett and his team loaded the shipment onto a pair of flatboats and traveled down the Mississippi River. There was just one problem: The shoddy vessels proved impossible to steer.

With no means of redirecting them, the one carrying Crockett ran into a mass of driftwood and began to capsize, with Crockett trapped below deck. Springing to action, his mates on the other boat pulled him out through a small opening. The next day, a traveling merchant rescued them all.

3. HE CLAIMED TO HAVE KILLED 105 BEARS IN ONE YEAR.

If his autobiography can be believed, the expert marksman and his dogs managed to kill 105 bears during a seven-month stretch from 1825 to 1826. Back then, bear flesh and pelts were highly profitable items, as were the oils yielded by their fat—and Crockett’s family often relied on ursid meat to last through the winter.

4. A SUCCESSFUL PLAY HELPED MAKE HIM A CELEBRITY.


By Painted by A.L. De Rose; engraved by Asher B Durand - Museum of Fine Art, Boston, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Crockett ran for Congress in 1827, winning the right to represent western Tennessee. Four years later, a new show titled The Lion of the West wowed New York theatergoers. The hit production revolved around a fictitious Kentucky congressman named Colonel Nimrod Wildfire, whose folksy persona was clearly based on Crockett. Before long, the public grew curious about the flesh-and-blood man behind this character. So, in 1833, an unauthorized Crockett biography was published.

Sketches and Eccentricities of Colonel David Crockett of West Tennessee became a bestseller—much to its subject’s chagrin. Feeling that Sketches distorted his life’s story (although, to be fair, it began, “No one, at this early age, could have foretold that he was ever to ride upon a streak of lightning, receive a commission to quiet the fears of the world, by wringing off the tail of a comet,” so it's unlikely anyone thought it was a straight biography), the politician retaliated with an even more successful autobiography the very next year.

When The Lion of the West came to Washington, Crockett finally watched the play that started it all. That night, actor David Hackett was playing Col. Wildfire. As the curtain rose, he locked eyes with Crockett. They ceremoniously bowed to each other and the crowd went wild.

5. HE RECEIVED A FEW RIFLES AS POLITICAL THANK YOU GIFTS.

Over the course of his life, Crockett wielded plenty of firearms; two of the most significant were named “Betsy.” Midway through his state assembly career, he received “Old Betsy,” a .40-caliber flintlock presented to him by his Lawrence county constituents in 1822 (today, it can be found at the Alamo Museum in San Antonio). At some point during the 1830s, Crockett’s congressional tenure was rewarded with a gorgeous gold-and-silver-coated gun by the Whig Society of Philadelphia. Her name? “Fancy Betsy.”

If you’re curious, the mysterious woman after whom these weapons were christened was either his oldest sister or his second wife, Elizabeth Patton.

6. HE PUT A LOT OF EFFORT INTO MAINTAINING HIS WILD IMAGE.


By John Gadsby Chapman - Art Collection, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin., Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

For somebody who once called fashion “a thing I care mighty little about,” Crockett gave really detailed instructions to portraitists. Most likenesses, the politician complained, made him look like “a sort of cross between a clean-shirted Member of Congress and a Methodist preacher.” For the portrait above—arguably the world’s most dynamic painting of Crockett, as rendered by the esteemed John Gadsby Chapman—Crockett asked the artist to portray him rallying dogs during a bear hunt. Crockett purchased all manner of outdoorsy props and insisted that he be shown holding up his cap, ready to give “a shout that raised the whole neighborhood.”

7. HE COMMITTED POLITICAL SUICIDE BY SPEAKING OUT AGAINST ANDREW JACKSON'S NATIVE AMERICAN POLICY.

Andrew Jackson was a beloved figure in Tennessee, and Crockett’s vocal condemnation of the President’s 1830 Indian Removal Act didn’t win him many friends back home. “I believed it was a wicked, unjust measure,” the congressman later asserted, “and that I should go against it, let the cost against me be what it might.” He then narrowly lost his 1831 reelection bid to William Fitzgerald, who was supported by Jackson. In 1833, Crockett secured a one-term congressional stint as an anti-Jacksonian, after which he bid Tennessee farewell, famously saying, “You may all go to hell, and I will go to Texas.”

8. HE REALLY DID WEAR A COONSKIN HAT (SOMETIMES).


Harry Kerr/BIPs/Getty Images

Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett TV serial triggered a national coonskin hat craze in the 1950s. Suiting up for the title role was square-jawed Fess Parker, who was seldom seen on-camera without his trusty coonskin cap. Children adored Davy’s rustic hat and, at the peak of the show's popularity, an average of 5000 replicas were sold every day.

But did the historical Crockett own one? Yes, although we don’t know how often he actually wore it. Some historians argue that, later in life, he started donning the accessory more often so as to capitalize on The Lion of the West (Col. Wildfire rocked this kind of headgear). One autumn morning in 1835, the frontiersman embarked upon his journey to Texas, confident that the whole Crockett clan would reunite there soon. As his daughter Matilda later recalled, he rode off while “wearing a coonskin cap.” She’d never see him again.

9. THERE'S SOME DEBATE ABOUT HIS FALL AT THE ALAMO.

It's clear that Crockett was killed during or just after the Battle of the Alamo in 1836—but the details surrounding his death are both murky and hotly-contested. A slave named Joe claimed to have spotted Crockett’s body lying among a pile of deceased Mexican soldiers. Mrs. Suzannah Dickinson (whose husband had also been slain in the melee) told a similar story, as did San Antonio mayor Francisco Ruiz.

On the flip side, The New Orleans True American and a few other newspapers reported that Crockett was actually captured and—once the fighting stopped—executed by General Santa Anna’s men. In 1955, more evidence apparently surfaced when a long-lost diary written by Lieutenant Colonel José Enrique de la Peña saw publication. The author writes of witnessing “the naturalist David Crockett” and six other Americans being presented to Santa Anna, who promptly had them killed.

Some historians dismiss the document as a forgery, but others claim that it’s authentic. Since 2000, two separate forensics teams have taken the latter position. However, even if de la Peña really did write this account, the famous Tennessean still might have died in combat beforehand—perhaps the Mexican officer mistook a random prisoner for Crockett on the day in question.

10. DURING SPORTING EVENTS, A STUDENT DRESSED LIKE CROCKETT RALLIES UNIVERSITY OF TENNESSEE FANS.


Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Smokey the hound dog might get all the attention, but the school has another mascot up its sleeve. On game days, a student known simply as “the Volunteer” charges out in Crockett-esque regalia, complete with buck leather clothes, a coonskin cap, and—occasionally—a prop musket.

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