(WOMENSENEWS)–Twenty-two-year-old Elizabeth Cochrane came in 1887 to New York City to find a newspaper job.
While women’s journalism was confined to domestic or cultural topics, she had already begun carving out a unique niche. Working “undercover” in a Pittsburgh factory, her expose of child labor, low wages and unsafe working conditions–written under the pseudonym Nellie Bly–provoked a storm. Still, Gotham’s doors slammed in her face until Joseph Pulitzer, editor of The New York World, hired her. Bly wanted to start by traveling in steerage with immigrants coming to America, but instead, she and Pulitzer contrived the audacious idea of getting inside a lunatic asylum.
Bly practiced “acting crazy,” costuming herself for the part and wandering the city in a daze. She checked into a working class boardinghouse, where her act so frightened the residents that one went for the police. On Sept. 26, she was shipped to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island, a 120-acre site in the East River, off Manhattan Island.
For 10 days, she collected information. The “human rat trap,” as she called it, was overcrowded and filthy, with vermin-infested food and little enough of that. Locks on ward doors caused fire hazards. Nurses choked, beat, harassed and mocked the “inmates,” many of whom were not insane at all, but suffering physical illnesses or were foreigners who could not make themselves understood or women whose husbands wanted them out of the way. People with skin or scalp diseases shared towels and combs with the uninfected.
The “treatment” consisted mostly of cold baths: “I think I experienced some of the sensations of a drowning person as they dragged me, gasping, shivering and quaking, from the tub. For once I did look insane,” she wrote.
After the newspaper’s lawyer got Bly released, her story ran, spread across the country and became a book. Some reforms–notably, a larger budget for the asylum–followed.
With the intention to expose the abuse of ordinary people, Bly also went “undercover” as a domestic, a chorus girl, a single mother. She became known as the original “stunt girl,” ultimately breaking the fictional time record of “Around The World In 80 Days.” Other newspapers hired “stunt girls,” but few had the investigatory zeal and righteous indignation of Nelly Bly.
Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and many magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called “The Shoulders We Stand On: Women as Agents of Change.” She can be reached at email@example.com.