Monday, April 29, 2013

The Amazing Nellie Bly - Part Two

In 1887, four months after returning from Mexico, Nellie talked her way into Joseph Pulitzer's newspaper in New York City,  and at only 23 years of age accepted an assignment to go undercover into the Women's Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island posing as a mentally ill girl.  The paper promised to get her out after ten days.

The first thing she had to do was convince the doctors at the asylum that she was truly insane.  After practicing deranged expressions in front of a mirror she checked into a boardinghouse.  Nellie refused to go to bed, telling the boarders that she was afraid of them and that they looked crazy.  By the next morning they were convinced that she was the crazy one and called the police.  She was taken to a courtroom and pretended to have amnesia.  The judge was convinced Nellie had been drugged.  After this, she was examined by several doctors who all agreed that she was most assuredly insane.  "Positively demented," said one, "I consider it a hopeless case.  She needs to be put where someone will take care of her."  The head of the insane pavilion at Bellevue Hospital pronounced her "undoubtedly insane."  The case of the "pretty crazy girl" attracted media attention.  "Who Is This Insane Girl?" asked the New York Sun.  The New York Times wrote of the "mysterious waif with the wild haunted look in her eyes," and her desperate cry, "I can't remember I can't remember!"

Nellie experienced all the horrors of the asylum first hand.  The food consisted of gruel broth, spoiled beef, bread that was really just dried dough, and dirty undrinkable water.  The dangerous patients were tied together with ropes.  Nellie witnessed one gray haired woman being grabbed and dragged by the hair as she shrieked and pleaded from the room, "For God's sake, ladies, don't let them beat me."   All the patients were made to sit for much of the day on hard benches with no protection from the cold.   Waste was all around the eating areas.  Rats crawled freely throughout the hospital.  The bath water was freezing cold.  Patients were treated obnoxiously and abusively by nurses telling them to shut up and beating then if they did not.

Nellie spoke with many of her fellow patients and was convinced that some were as sane as she was.  She wrote, "What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment?  Here is a class of women sent to be cured.  I would like the expert physicians who are condemning me for my action, which has proven their ability, to take a perfectly sane and healthy woman, shut her up and make her sit from 6 a.m. until 9 p.m. on a straight-back bench, 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."  Nellie also wrote of bath time, "My teeth chattered and my limbs were numb with cold.  Suddenly, I got three buckets of ice cold water dumped over my head. One in my eyes, nose and mouth."

At the end of the ten days an attorney for the newspaper came and got Nellie released from the asylum at The World's behest.  Her reporting, which was later published in book form titled "Ten Days in a Mad House," brought Nellie her lasting fame.  It also caused embarrassment to the physicians and staff of the hospital who would try to explain how so many professionals had been fooled.  A grand jury launched its own investigation into conditions at the asylum, and asked Nellie to assist.  The jury's report recommended the changes she had proposed, and its call for increased funds for care of the insane prompted an $850,000 increase in the budget of the Department of Public Charities and Corrections.  They also made sure the future examinations were more thorough so that only the seriously ill actually went to the asylum.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Amazing Nellie Bly - Part One

Nellie Bly's life was so full and interesting I have decided to write a series of blogs about her.  I will cover her early life, her life as a reporter and author, and her life as an inventor and business woman.  I first discovered Nellie when I was researching the oil industry for the blog, but we will get to that part later.

Elizabeth  Jane Cochran, aka Nellie Bly,  was born May 5, 1864.  Very few people recognize her name today, but 100 years ago every American knew who Nellie Bly was.  She was named to the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1998 for many good reasons.  Nellie was an independent and strong woman for the times she lived in.  Women did not even have the right to vote until just two years before her death.

Elizabeth Jane was born in Burrell Township, Pennsylvania.  Her father taught her and her siblings the virtues of hard work and determination by example.  He started as a modest mill laborer and eventually bought the local mill and most of the land surrounding his family's farmhouse.

When Elizabeth became a teenager she wanted to portray herself as more sophisticated, so she dropped her nickname, "Pinky", and added an "e" to the end of her last name spelling it, Cochrane.  After just one year of boarding school she was forced to withdraw because of a lack of money.

In 1880, Elizabeth and her family moved to Pittsburgh.  An aggressive sexually discriminative column against working women appeared in the Pittsburgh Dispatch prompting her to write a blistering rebuttal to the editor with the pen name "Lonely Orphan Girl."  The editor was so impressed with the writer's earnestness and spirit that he asked the "man" who wrote the letter to join the paper.  When she showed up he refused to give her the job. Using her "push-and-get there" attitude and what her father had taught her, she persuaded him to change his mind.  Female newspaper writers at that time customarily used pen names, and for Elizabeth the editor chose "Nellie Bly" from the title character in a popular song by Stephen Foster.

As a writer for the Dispatch, Nellie focused her early work on the plight of working women, writing a series of investigative articles on female factory workers.  Editorial pressures soon pushed her to the "women's pages" to cover fashion, society, and gardening which were the usual assignments for female journalists of the day.

There are many things that single Nellie out as unusually independent to the times for me starting with this...Dissatisfied with the duties of the women's pages, Nellie took the initiative and traveled to Mexico to serve as a foreign correspondent.  The year was 1885, and she was only 21.  Nellie spent the next half year reporting the lives and customs of the Mexican people.  Her dispatches were later published in a book called "Six Months in Mexico."  In one of her reports she protested the imprisonment of a local journalist for criticizing the Mexican government and then dictator, Porfirio Diaz.  When Mexican authorities learned of her report, they threatened her with arrest prompting her to leave the country.  Safely home she denounced Diaz as a tyrannical czar suppressing the Mexican people and controlling the press.