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Read all about it! Nellie Bly’s ‘madhouse’ exposé

By Robert Saunders
A suspense thriller movie based on Nellie Bly’s experiences is scheduled for release later this year. Caroline Barry will portray Nellie Bly. The movie also stars Christopher Lambert and Kelly Le Brock.

Lois Lane, the world’s most famous female news reporter, has been a role model for generations of young women. True, she’s fictional. But in her multitude of media incarnations, she always embodies the intelligent, self-reliant career woman. That she manages to pursue her career while being Superman’s girlfriend further enhances her image.

While it’s likely the creators of Superman based Lois on the brash, fast-talking women reporters commonly seen in movies of the 1930s, it’s also possible they had a real reporter in mind, because journalism had a real-life Lois Lane. She was Elizabeth Jane Cochrane. Under the pen name Nellie Bly, she rose to national fame as a pioneer in investigative journalism.

Bly began her career writing stories about the conditions and hardships faced by women factory workers in Pittsburgh. At age 21, she spent six months in Mexico as a foreign correspondent, where she exposed corruption in the Mexican government and was threatened with arrest.

After returning to the States, Bly ended up in New York, where she was hired by Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the New York World (later to become the founder of the Pulitzer Prizes).

In 1887, as a reporter for the World, Bly went undercover for a shocking exposé of the conditions mental patients had to endure inside New York’s notorious insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island.

Bly faked insanity and spent 10 days locked inside the Women’s Lunatic Asylum. She wrote a series of stories about her experience that became a sensation. The stories were later published as a book, “Ten Days in a Mad-House.” (A Kindle edition of Bly’s book is available for 99 cents on Amazon. It’s well worth the read.)

To prepare, Bly practiced her “crazy” look in a mirror. She put on ragged, dirty clothes and checked into a women’s boarding house. In no time at all, she had the residents convinced she was deranged and dangerous. They called the police, and Bly was brought in to be examined by doctors.

One of the interesting parts of the story is how easily Bly fooled the doctors who examined her. These “experts” (all men) had no trouble at all believing that this attractive, young woman needed to be committed. “Delusional and undoubtedly insane,” the chief doctor proclaimed.

In no time at all, Bly found herself on a ferry to Blackwell’s Island (today’s Roosevelt Island).

It’s difficult for us with modern sensibilities to wrap our brains around the horrid conditions in this asylum. The wards were given rancid meat and gruel to eat. Their clothing was dirty and inadequate for cold weather. Orderlies beat patients regularly. The place was crawling with rats.

Once Bly got there, she dropped the crazy act. To her dismay, it did not change how she was treated. No one listened to her. “Strange to say, the more sanely I talked and acted, the crazier I was thought to be,” she later wrote. The realization hit her that without help, she would never get out.

What’s more, Bly came to believe that many of the women arrived there as sane as her. “Two months would make her a mental and physical wreck,” she noted.

After 10 frightful days, Pulitzer’s lawyers sprung her. Her first story appeared in the World two days later with the headline “Behind Asylum Bars.” Bly became an overnight star.

Officials and doctors involved immediately began to make excuses and cover their backsides. Ironically, the institution at Blackwell’s was originally intended to be a state-of-the-art treatment facility for rehabilitation. But funding got cut, and those plans were scuttled.

Bly’s series caused circulation to soar for the World. But, while Pulitzer was obviously pleased with the numbers, he genuinely believed that newspapers should be an advocate for social reform.

That came about when a panel was appointed to tour the facility and report abuses. Bly was invited to participate in that panel. The end result was that funding was increased. “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,” Bly wrote. Changes were also made to ensure that only the seriously ill were sent there.

Bly went on to more journalistic exploits. In 1889, to prove that Jules Verne’s idea in “Around the World in Eighty Days” was feasible, she traveled (on Pulitzer’s nickel) around the world. She ended up beating Verne’s fictional trip by eight days.

In her later years, Bly married an industrialist. She eventually became president of her own company and a successful inventor. In 1913, our real-life Lois Lane returned to journalism to cover the women’s suffrage movement. She died in 1922.

An independent feature film based on her book is currently in post-production. The movie, “10 Days in a Madhouse,” is scheduled for release later this year. I plan to see it, although I confess to a bit of squeamishness. Hope there aren’t too many rats.

Metro Editor Robert Saunders can be reached at bsaunders@cnpapers.com. Search for “10 Days in a Madhouse” on Facebook to view the movie’s official Facebook page.