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.

From Abe Lincoln Chia Pets to FDR Baseballs: 11 Products to Celebrate President’s Day

iStock.com/malerapaso
iStock.com/malerapaso

While President’s Day originated in 1885 as a holiday celebrating George Washington, it has now grown to recognize all 44-and-counting chief executives in U.S. history. If you’re feeling truly patriotic, check out these 11 incredible products inspired by some of the most distinguished leaders to hold America's highest office, and feel free to gift them to your favorite future politician.

1. George Washington’s Teeth Magnet

George Washington's illustrious hair may have been totally real, but his teeth certainly weren’t. In fact, Washington had only one real tooth left in his head when he was sworn in as president, and he wore several sets of dentures throughout his life (though none of them were made of wood, as the legend claims). Mount Vernon has one of the last surviving sets—made of human and cow teeth—in its collection, and fans can get a copy of the historic chompers in the form of a fridge magnet.

Buy it from George Washington’s Mount Vernon for $10.

2. John Adams Mouse Pad

A John Adams mousepad
MyHeritageWear, Amazon

Compared to the other Founding Fathers, John Adams doesn't get much love. There's reason to admire the pugnacious leader, though: He may have been the nation’s second-ever president, but he was second to none when it came to dishing out insults. If you’re looking for a subtle way to pay tribute to Adams, this mouse pad will do the trick. After all, who doesn't want a president at their side in the office?

Buy it on Amazon for $10.

3. Founding Fathers Gift Box

If you’re looking for other ways to honor the Founding Fathers, this commemorative gift box includes four hefty Old Fashioned tumblers bearing the likenesses of old-fashioned presidents James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and John Adams. The glasses—which are made in America—are the perfect way to toast the country's early leaders. They'd also be a great accessory for your next Drunk History marathon. (As would Fishs Eddy's many other politician-themed kitchenware products, for that matter.)

Buy it from Fishs Eddy for $22.

4. Abraham Lincoln Chia Pet

A Chia Pet Abraham Lincoln
Chia, Amazon

Honest Abe is known for a great many things: leading the United States through the Civil War, abolishing slavery, and—according to Hollywood—maybe being a vampire hunter. However, we rarely celebrate his very lush head of hair. (Though a few strands of it did sell for $25,000 in 2015.) This Chia Pet planter offers a way to spice up your kitchen while honoring the classic elegance of the 16th president's silhouette. The handmade statuette grows a full head of presidential chia-sprout hair in one to two weeks and includes quotes from President Lincoln transcribed on its sides.

Buy it on Amazon for $26.

5. Edmund Morris’s Theodore Roosevelt Trilogy

A set of three Edmund Morris books on Theodore Roosevelt
Random House, Amazon

This Pulitzer-Prize-winning biographical trilogy on Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt from Edmund Morris is a must-have for all the TR fans out there. Written over the course of more than 30 years, Morris's opus is considered essential reading for any Roosevelt scholar, and it's well worth the money. As The New York Times wrote in its review of the first volume in 1979, it's a “splendid, galloping narrative of the great galloper. The insights are keen. The pages turn quickly. There are few who will not get from it a more satisfying conception of the man almost everyone thinks he knows … It is one of those rare works that is both definitive for the period it covers and fascinating to read for sheer entertainment.”

Buy it on Amazon for $78.

6. FDR Collectible Baseball

Like many Americans, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had an intense love of baseball. He even argued that the national past time was an essential morale booster during World War II, ensuring that the league could continue playing throughout the war. He made eight Opening Day appearances during his presidency, and this collectible baseball is a perfect monument to one of them. The custom ball features a photograph of FDR throwing the ceremonial first pitch for the 1935 Opening Day game between the Washington Senators and Philadelphia Athletics at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C.

Buy it from the National Archives store for $7.

7. "Dewey Defeats Truman" Ceramic Tile

The result of the 1948 presidential election between incumbent Democrat Harry S. Truman and Republican challenger Thomas E. Dewey was, by all accounts, one of the greatest upsets in history. Nearly every analyst at the time got their predictions wrong, including the Chicago Daily Tribune (now just the Chicago Tribune), which led to the famous photograph that helped cement the election's legacy in American politics—and media history—forever. While history nerds would surely appreciate a copy of the actual newspaper, this option from the National Archives is a joyously clever alternative.

Buy it from the National Archives store for $7.50

8. JFK for President Mug

For political history buffs and design obsessives alike, this mug is a throwback to the campaign posters made by John F. Kennedy when he ran for president in 1960. The mug is emblazoned with JFK's own smiling mug as well as his 'Leadership for the 60's" slogan. (You can see one of the originals at the Library of Congress.)

Buy it from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum for $15.

9. Lyndon B. Johnson Bobblehead

A Lyndon Johnson bobblehead depicting the president holding a dog
Royal Bobbles, Amazon

Lyndon B. Johnson—who assumed the presidency following the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963—is best known for his "Great Society" programs and his role in passing laws like the Civil Rights Act and Medicare. This bobblehead in his likeness from Royal Bobbles, however, represents another side of LBJ: his love for dogs. Johnson and his family were often photographed with their beloved beagles, Him and Her, as well as subsequent White House pets Freckles, Edgar, Blanco, and Yuki. (Royal Bobbles doesn't specify which dog this design is based on.) Standing over 8 inches tall, the bobblehead comes with a collector’s box to keep it pristine, because you'll want to display it prominently.

Buy it on Amazon for $26.

10. Presidential IQ Trivia Game

The 'Presidential IQ' card game on a table
Presidential IQ, Amazon

If you're like us, you love some good-old-fashioned trivia—and almost 250 years of presidential history has left us with a bevy of facts to mine for questions. Featuring 1200 questions across a number of categories, including famous quotes, foreign affairs, and geography, Presidential IQ is perfect for game night.

Buy it on Amazon for $25.

11. 1000-Piece U.S. Presidents Jigsaw Puzzle

A puzzle with all of the U.S. presidents surrounding a map of the United States
White Mountain Puzzles, Amazon

This puzzle by White Mountain illustrates the entire presidential timeline of the United States with portraits of each of the presidents and a map of notable historical sites relating to the former chief executives. In addition to stimulating your brain, it provides a great opportunity to plan your next presidential road trip.

Buy it on Amazon for $18.

11 Words You Might Not Realize Come From “Love”

iStock.com/PeopleImages
iStock.com/PeopleImages

1. BELIEVE

In Old English, believe was geliefan, which traces back to the Germanic galaubjan, where laub is the root for “dear” (so “believe” is “to hold dear”). Laub goes back to the Proto-Indo-European root for “love,” leubh.

2. FURLOUGH

We got furlough from the Dutch verlof, which traces back to the same Germanic laub root as in believe. It is also related to the sense of leave meaning "allowance" or "permission" (“get leave,” “go on leave”). The “leave” in a furlough is given with pleasure, or approval, which is how it connects back to love.

3. FRIDAY

Old English Frigedæg was named for Frigg, the Germanic goddess of love (and counterpart to the Roman Venus). According to the OED, frīg was also a noun for “strong feminine” love.

4. VENOM

Venom comes from the Latin venenum, which shares a root with the love goddess Venus, and originally referred to a love potion.

5. AMATEUR

The root of amateur is Latin amare, “to love.” An amateur practices a craft simply because they love it.

6. CHARITY

The Latin caritas, which ended up as charity in English, was a different kind of love than amor, implying high esteem and piety, rather than romance and passion. It was used to translate the Ancient Greek agape, the word used in the New Testament to express godly love.

7. PHILOSOPHY

Greek had another word for love, philia, that—in contrast to agape and eros (sexual love)—meant brotherly or friendly love. It’s used in many classical compounds to signify general fondness or predilection for things. Philosophy is the love of sophos, wisdom.

8. PHILANTHROPY

This one means love of anthropos, humanity.

9. PHILADELPHIA

You might know it as the “city of brotherly love,” but you might not know that the tagline is right there in the name. It’s love for adelphos, brother.

10. PHILIP

The name Philip comes from the compound phil- + hippos, love of horses.

11. ACIDOPHILUS

Have you been taking acidophilus probiotic supplements for digestive health? It’s made from acid-loving bacteria, i.e., bacteria that easily take up an acid dye for viewing under the microscope.

This list originally ran in 2015.

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