Rating: Five out of five stars
TW: Ableism, abuse
“Ten Days in a Mad-House” has become one of my favorite books that I’ve read this year. In 1887, Elizabeth Jane Cochrane, a journalist with the pseudonym Nellie Bly, goes undercover to investigate the Blackwell Island Insane Asylum in New York City under the name of Nellie Brown. This is a true story and this book is the actual account published in the paper that brought about change for the health institution of the city.
Feigning insanity in a home for unfortunate women, Bly found herself transferred to Blackwell Island Insane Asylum and witnessed the horrors experienced there by the patients. There, she discovers the inhumane treatment of the mentally ill, and even the perfectly sane who were sent to the island for being poor or having a fit of anger, or an inadequate diagnosis.
The Blackwell Island Insane Asylum was said to have around 1600 women in its care. Groups of one to ten women were kept in each room that was individually locked. There was no fire escape plan and could easily lead to tragedy. The patients, not the attendants, were made to clean the building and the attendants’ laundry. Further inhumane treatment included a cold bath once a week (the same bathwater for each woman no matter what disease they may have had), thin and moldy linens with no extra blankets for warmth, and the rude attendants who would tease those who were truly mentally ill. The attendants would beat and choke the patients, including breaking their bones and ripping out their hair. The patients were made to sit still for most of the day, or go on a dismal weekly walk. The food served included moldy, spoiled meat and spiders baked into the bread. Nellie was often told to “Shut up” and “You get what you get because this is charity” and that she should not expect even kindness from an institution of charity. Further descriptions of the abuse will not be included.
At one point, Nellie Bly’s notebook and pencil are taken from her. Her notebook was returned to her, but not her pencil. As a writer myself, this made my heart cringe.
The particular version of this book (Kindle) also includes two stories that I did not know were included. These two stories are “Trying to be a Servant” and “Nellie Bly as a White Slave.” In the former, Nellie Bly went undercover as Sally Lees to get work from an agency and report on the conditions. She could not find work after two days of waiting on the agency, leaving the investigation incomplete. The latter is the account of Nellie’s experience in a box factory, and reeks of white privilege in comparing mildly uncomfortable (and underpaid) factory work to the conditions of pre-Civil War-era slavery. As I did not know these stories were included, my original rating does not include these works. As it stands, I rate the former two stars (for not getting much accomplished except exposing the inner workings of agencies) and the latter three stars (for at least getting some work done on her investigation; two stars docked for the racial comparison of slavery and the brevity of her time at the box factory).
The argument can be made that Nellie Bly was a sensationalist writer and her writing not very journalistic. While this may be the case, her investigations had to be made and her stories had to be published, or else the change would have not been made. Even in publishing her discoveries, Bly raised awareness of the state of women in her society, and the changes that were made were beneficial enough for Bly’s methods to have merit.
The two short articles aside, “Ten Days in a Mad-House” brought about much needed change. Through Bly’s work, another investigation was launched by a grand jury, and $850,000 was increased to New York’s Department of Public Charities and Corrections budget, as well as more thorough examinations before sending women to the island.
This book resonated with me because it truly happened 128 years ago (at the time of this review). Nellie Bly sacrificed her comfort to report on the injustices made against those in need of help. Nellie Bly was brave, especially for facing the stigma of the insane in that time period. I truly admire this woman and her accomplishments as a journalist (she also traveled the world in 72 days, inspired by Jules Verne’s novel). This is now one of my favorite books, for her bravery and feminist activism as a journalist.
This was my fourth book read for the #TackleTBR challenge.
This review can also be found on Goodreads.
Picture from Goodreads.