This weekend marks the birthday of one of journalism’s early shining stars, muckraker and feminist Nellie Bly. The pen name of American journalist Elizabeth Jane Cochrane, Bly was born on May 5,1864, in Pennsylvania. She got into the newspaper business young, writing for a Pittsburgh paper in the 1880s. From the beginning, her aim was to give voice to the oppressed and to pursue stories she found important with a fierce sense of adventure and courage.
At the age of 21, Bly traveled to Mexico for a series of reports that would ultimately become a book, “Six Months in Mexico.” In 1887, Bly made her way to New York City, where she started working on some of the investigative stories that would make her famous. One of her biggest and most daunting assignments? Having herself committed to New York’s famously negligent “Women’s Lunatic Asylum” on Blackwell’s island.
Bly spent ten days and ten nights in the asylum, eating spoiled meat and rancid butter, enduring drenchings in cold water, listening to the lonely cries of other patients.
The piece, eventually published as “Ten Days in a Madhouse,” had significant impact on the treatment of patients at the hospital. Bly writes in the introduction, “I am happy to be able to state as a result of my visit to the asylum and the exposures consequent thereon, that the City of New York has appropriated $1,000,000 more per annum than ever before for the care of the insane.”
Bly describes the “human rat-trap” at the asylum:
The long, uncarpeted hall was scrubbed to that peculiar whiteness seen only in public institutions. In the rear of the hall were large iron doors fastened by a padlock. Several still-looking benches and a number of willow chairs were the only articles of furniture. On either side of the hall were doors leading into what I supposed and what proved to be bedrooms. Near the entrance door, on the right-hand side, was a small sitting-room for the nurses, and opposite it was a room where dinner was dished out. A nurse in a black dress, white cap and apron armed with a bunch of keys had charge of the hall.
Once out of the institution, Bly’s adventures continued. In 1888, she pitched an around-the-world story to her editor and embarked on a trip across Europe and Asia, traveling solo and sending dispatches back to New York via post.
Over a century later, in 1998, Bly was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame for her revolutionary vision as both feminist and journalist. Today, her work, curiosity, and tenacious spirit remain an enormous source of inspiration.