Friday, November 18, 2016

Book Brief: Ten Days in a Mad-House by Nellie Bly


Ten Days in a Mad-House
by Nellie Bly
ebook, Open Road Media 2015
(originally published 1887)
101 pages
source: borrowed from the library


Summary (from goodreads):
In 1887, Nellie Bly accepted an assignment from publisher Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World and went undercover at the lunatic asylum on Blackwell Island, America’s first municipal mental hospital. Calling herself “Nellie Brown,” she was able to convince policemen, a judge, and a series of doctors of her madness with a few well-practiced facial expressions of derangement.

At the institution, Bly discovered the stuff of nightmares. Mentally ill patients were fed rotten, inedible food; violently abused by a brutal, uncaring staff; and misdiagnosed, mistreated, or generally ignored by the doctors and so-called mental health experts entrusted with their care. To her horror, Bly encountered sane patients who had been committed on the barest of pretenses and came to the shocking realization that, while the Blackwell Island asylum was remarkably easy to get into, it was nearly impossible to leave.

My thoughts:

This short book, a piece of investigative journalism, embarrassed an institution and helped bring about its eventual closing. It also prompted a grand jury investigation which was instrumental in bringing about policy changes and budget increases in the New York  Department of Public Charities and Corrections.

Bly's conversational tone held my interest throughout as she recounted her experiences at Blackwell Island asylum. I didn't realize there were female journalists at that time, or that reporters had such a long history of going undercover for a story. I found parts of Bly's narrative difficult to read. Thankfully, her account is short... much more would have become depressing.

Of particular interest is the fact that Bly, once admitted, did not keep up the feigned insanity:
From the moment I entered the insane ward on the Island, I made no attempt to keep up the assumed role of insanity. I talked and acted just as I do in ordinary life. Yet strange to say, the more sanely I talked and acted, the crazier I was thought to be by all....
She felt many of her fellow inmates had been wrongly admitted, and went on to speculate that conditions within the asylum were bad enough to make anyone insane:
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 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.
 Overall this was a quick, interesting read.

My rating:

24 comments:

  1. Wow, she really took risks going undercover like that, into a place that is difficult to leave. I assume she got out, though.

    Sounds fascinating!

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    1. Laurel-Rain Snow - She had made prior arrangements for her release after ten days... not sure I could have made it that long!

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  2. Sounds like an interesting story. I just bought it for my Kindle.

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    1. Vicki - I hope you like it... I'm glad it wasn't much longer!

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  3. I really admire Nellie Bly for all the things she did in her life. She's such a fascinating person; she's one of those women in history I'd really like to meet someday. :)

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    1. Lark - I don't know much about her, but want to learn more now!

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  4. What a cool read! I've read about Nellie Bly, but haven't read anything by her. I tend not to read older nonfiction, but it seems like it could be really interesting.

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    1. Doing Dewey - This was an interesting, short book. Have a feeling I'll be reading more bout Nellie Bly soon.

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  5. Nellie Bly was a remarkable woman. I saw a one woman play called Two Hours in a Mad House by Gary Blackwood, that included some of her experiences in Blackwell Island, as well as her trip around the world.

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    1. Debbie - This book makes me want to learn more about Nellie Bly. I'd love to see that play sometime!

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  6. This sounds vert interesting. I cannot imagine the horrors that anyone experienced who entered such an institution at this time.

    Nellie Bly does sounds like an amazing person.

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    1. Brian Joseph - Parts of her narrative were heartbreaking... especially how some women were unnecessarily assigned to the asylum and the poor/abusive treatment by the staff. Interesting history, but I'm glad it wasn't much longer.

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  7. When I was in college I did this project (for fun - nothing school ordered) where I went through the biography section at the library in alphabetical order and for each letter I picked someone I had never heard of and Nellie Bly was my pick for B. She was an absolutely fascinating woman and pretty much the first investigative female reporters. Until then the few that existed were stuck more on society pages and the like. I've always meant to read this and I'm glad to see you found it as fascinated as it sounded. It's a bit chilling that the saner she acted the crazier they thought her.

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    1. Katherine - Now that's an ambitious project! This is the first I've read about Nellie Bly, but I'd love to learn more.

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  8. When I began work in 2000 at Disability Services they were in the process in closing the 100 yr old plus institution like this north of Hobart. We helped the people settle into their new community homes. Some people had lived in what was previously called (years ago) Her Royal Majesty's Lunatic Asylum, for 80 plus yrs. Immigrants, "neurotic" women, physically handicapped, you name it, once put in never got out. It was heart wrenching. Luckily these places have closed in the western world. I don't think I could read this book after seeing what I saw but Nellie Bly sounds a fascinating woman and I sure could read more about her.

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    1. Pam - I can only imagine how awful that must have been and, in light of that, think your decision to skip this book is a good one! I would like to read more about Nellie Bly's life.

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  9. "Yet strange to say, the more sanely I talked and acted, the crazier I was thought to be by all...." This is awful. I know that her experience (and that of her fellow inmates) was horrible, but I'm so glad she did it -- modern women with mental illness owe her a great debt.

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    1. looloolooweez - That's a pretty frightening statement, isn't it? Nellie Bly was an amazing woman!

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  10. I find the subject matter of this book fascinating since I have personal interests in mental illness. It is good that terrible institutions like this were shut down, and also terrible that when they were shut down in bulk during deinstitutionalization that many of those people who needed help were dumped on the streets with no help at all. Now severely mentally ill people are often homeless or in prison. :(

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    1. Rachel - This is definitely a sobering read...

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  11. Definitely need to pick this one up!

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    1. Lisa - It's short and the conversational tone makes it an even quicker read.

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  12. I was surprised too that there were female journalists at that time. So it was amazing to read what Nellie Bly achieved. And yeah, some of the parts were upsetting to read.

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    1. AThira - I'm so glad you reviewed this book... I'd never heard of it before. Now I want to learn more about Nellie Bly's life.

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