The True Story Of The Woman Who Faked Insanity To Go Undercover In An Asylum

History is full of fierce women who go against the status quo to break the glass ceiling. Queens like Cleopatra, heroines like Joan of Arc, and adventurers like Amelia Earhart have all inspired generations of women. Often overlooked though is the life of journalistic trailblazer Nellie Bly.

If you haven’t heard of Nellie Bly then you’ve been seriously missing out. Bly is regarded as the world’s first female investigative journalist. She traveled around the world in 72 days and even faked her way into an insane asylum as an expose—all while being a ‘proper’ 1880s lady. Read on and learn about how she risked her life to go undercover and expose conditions in New York’s insane asylum.

You’ll never believe how easy it was for her to get in, but how hard it was for her to escape.

Nellie Came Out Swinging With Her First Article

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Nellie was just a teenager when she began her career in journalism. She wrote a scathing criticism to the Pittsburgh Dispatch in response to a column that claimed women were only good for birthing children and cleaning the house. The editor at the time was so impressed with the anonymous writer that he ran an advertisement asking them to identify themselves.

Nellie came forward and the editor offered her the opportunity to write a column. Her first published article didn’t hold back, and Nellie argued for reforming divorce laws to give women greater rights.

She continued breaking big stories…

She Began To Focus On The Lives Of Women

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Now with a full-time column in the Pittsburgh Dispatch, Nellie began to focus on investigating the lives of working women. Her first major exposé came from her working part-time in a factory among other women. The column began to showcase the harsh conditions the women dealt with in factories. Her work was so influential that factory owners began to write the newspaper complaining.

As a result, Nellie’s column was reassigned to cover fashion, society, and gardening, AKA the normal topics that female journalists of the time covered. Unsurprisingly, Nellie wasn’t very satisfied and began to look for something else.

Next, Nellie decided to do what no female reporter had done before… and she was only 21.

Off To Mexico

nellie bly also known as elizabeth cochrane
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Bored and unsatisfied with writing about gardening, Nellie decided to travel to Mexico on her own and serve as the first female foreign correspondent for the Pittsburgh Dispatch. She was only 21 when she decided to travel to Mexico. There, she lived for a year and a half documenting the lives of the Mexican people.

It wasn’t all society and culture though. In one column, Nellie protested the imprisonment of a local journalist who had criticized the government. When Mexican officials found out about her criticism, they tried to arrest her.

Luckily, Nellie was able to flee the country in time but her brush with adventure would lead to the biggest story of her life.

A New Editor Helped Her Push The Boundaries

joseph pulitzer new york world editor
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Once again unhappy with her role at the Pittsburgh Dispatch, Nellie traveled to New York City where she eventually talked her way into working for the New York World. The editor for the newspaper was none other than Joseph Pulitzer. He believed in Nellie’s reporting skills and was impressed with her previous writings where she immersed herself into the story.

Pulitzer decided to assign Nellie to an undercover assignment that would have been unheard of for a female reporter. Nellie agreed to fake insanity in order to do investigative reporting of the Women’s Lunatic Asylum located on Blackwell’s Island.

Next, find out the horrors Nellie suffered and what she uncovered in the asylum.

It Was Surprisingly Easy Getting Into The Asylum

nellie bly practices faking insanity in womens boarding house
Alistair Reign/YouTube

For Nellie to even get her foot in the door of the Women’s Lunatic Asylum, she had to first convince others around her that she was crazy. Nellie checked herself into a boarding house for women. There, she tried to act disturbed in order to scare the women around her.

Eventually, the other women began to fear Nellie and called the police. Nellie was examined by a police officer, a judge, and a doctor and all three determined her to be insane. All she had to do was complain about headaches and forgot a few details about her life, and she was sent off to the asylum.

After several long nights, Nellie’s greatest work had finally begun.

The Cruelty Was Almost Unbearable

blackwells island dome circa 1893
New York City Asylum For The Insane/Wikipedia

The first thing Nellie noticed about life inside the asylum was the cruelty and brutality that the nurses handled the patients with. Those committed to the asylum were physically, emotionally, and mentally abused.

When Nellie first entered the asylum, she planned to be transferred to the wing with violent patients but after seeing how they were treated, changed her plans. The nurses would say cruel things to the patients to make them feel worthless. When emotional abuse wasn’t enough, nurses would choke and beat the patients that they considered to be violent.

The Food Was Disgusting… If You Even Got Any

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Another form of abuse that patients had to deal with was their access to food. Patients were often forced to eat rotten food, that is if they were lucky enough to get any at all. The daily menu consisted of gruel broth, spoiled beef, and bread that “was little more than dried dough.” Nellie reported that even the water in the asylum was dirty and undrinkable.

The spoiled food might have been bad but if you got some, you were considered lucky. The nurses in the asylum would use food deprivation as a form of torture and some patients nearly starved to death after their food privileges were taken away.

Conditions Inside Were Filthy

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Nellie painted a picture of filth and debris in the asylum. In her later writings, she recounted how there were dead rats everywhere and live rats scurrying through the food. The dining area reportedly contained human and rat feces and the walls were visibly filthy.

Not only were the living areas filthy but the sleeping quarters were also inadequate. The asylum was filled over capacity and rather than deny more patients, the nurses simply added beds in hallways and even outside. You were considered lucky if you got a bed in the feces-covered dining area.

Mental Abuse Might Have Turned Sane People Insane

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One of the most difficult parts of Nellie’s stay in the asylum was the fact she never got more than 30 minutes of sleep at a time. The staff members and nurses would walk loudly through the halls, deliberately stomp, and read stories out loud to one another.

The lack of sleep was difficult for Nellie to handle for her ten-day stay in the asylum. Sleep deprivation has been proved to have a significant effect on the brain. It can even lead to physical health problems like heart failure and high blood pressure. Even today, prisons use sleep deprivation as a form of torture.

She Was Forcibly Stripped In Front Of Other Patients

insane asylum filthy bathtub
Alistair Reign/YouTube

Nellie was brave to recount the horrific examples of how the nurses went out of their way to embarrass and shame patients in front of each other. Notably, the patients were told to strip naked in front of each other and the nurses in a communal bathing room. When Nellie refused, she was forcibly stripped.

When Nellie tried to find refuge in the bathtub, she was shocked when bath time was the nurses simply pouring a bucket of ice cold water over her head. Nellie described the entire experience as the “sensations of a drowning person.”

Nellie Met Others Who Were Likely Just As Sane As Her

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One shocking revelation that Nellie made was when she met other women in the asylum who seemed just as sane as she was. In personal conversations, Nellie felt that many women entered the asylum on false pretenses like she had but were slowly broken down and made to feel like they were insane.

In one passage, Nellie admitted that only “two months would make her a mental and physical wreck.” She knew that she was in danger of losing her own sanity but getting out would be harder than getting in.

Keep reading to see how Nellie managed to escape the asylum.

At First, She Was Denied Her Freedom

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Getting out of the asylum proved to be a lot harder than getting in. Nellie appealed multiple times to her doctors to try and prove her sanity but no one would listen to her. She also watched other patients try to leave the asylum. One woman asked for the doctor to give her a secondary examination and the doctor told her that Blackwell’s Island is a “place where you’ll never get out of.”

Luckily, Nellie had a backup plan just in case. Before she entered the asylum, she made sure that her editor Pulitzer would come to get her if necessary. After 10 long days in the asylum, Nellie was free.

Her Exposé Changed Everything

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After finally freeing herself from the asylum, New York World published Nellie’s findings in seventeen parts. She later collected the volumes and turned it into a book titled Ten Days in a Mad-House. The article brought the public’s attention to the abusive conditions suffered by those in the asylum.

The exposé prompted the New York Assistant District Attorney to launch an investigation. At the end of it all, New York pledged an extra $1 million for the annual funding of mental health.

People Also Began To Wonder How She Got In

nellie bly insanity examination by doctor
Nellie Bly/Wikipedia

Not only were people concerned with the conditions Nellie reported but they began to question why it was so easy for her to convince medical professionals that she was insane. One particularly troubling part of Nellie’s account was what she spoke of how the doctor examining her was “more focused on the attractive nurse that was assisting the examination.”

Considering Nellie also fooled police and the judge, the grand jury for the official investigation made sure that those committed to the asylum underwent more rigorous testing.

You might think this was enough adventure for a lifetime but Nellie was just getting started. Keep reading to see what her next worldwide adventure was.

Around The World In 72 Days

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Two years after her time in the asylum, Nellie suggested to Pulitzer that she should take a trip around the world. The suggestion was inspired by the Jules Verne novel Around The World In Eighty Days. On November 14, 1889, Nellie boarded the Augusta Victoria and began a 40,070-kilometer trip.

For the trip, Nellie packed light and only took a single dress, an overcoat, several pairs of underwear, and toiletry essentials. the New York World asked their readers to guess Nellie’s arrival time down to the second. She ended up completing the trip in 72 days, beating out the fictional record set in the book.

She Continued To Fight For Women’s Rights

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Nellie Bly/Wikipedia

Nellie’s life is a journey of advocating for women’s rights. From her first-ever article criticizing the role of women, to her investigative journalism on factory workers and asylum patients, she was always fighting to make a difference for her gender.

In 1913, Nellie was an obvious choice to cover the Woman Suffrage Parade of 1913. The march in Washington, D.C. is now famously remembered for kicking off the movement for the right to vote. In her article titled “Suffragists Are Men’s Superiors” that covered the event, Nellie accurately predicted that women would gain the right to vote in 1920.

Nellie Was Also An Inventor And Businesswoman

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While she’s best known for her pioneering investigative journalism, Nellie was also an avid businesswoman and inventor. She married millionaire manufacturer Robert Seaman and after his death, she became the head of Iron Clad Manufacturing Co. Unfortunately, a factory manager embezzled money which, combined with her negligence, led it to go bankrupt.

Nellie was also an owner of several patents. She invented an improved version of the milk can and a stackable garbage can.

She Always Had To Find A Way To Stand Out

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Nellie was one of fifteen children that her father had between two wives. Understandably, she had to work hard to stand out and be noticed in such a large family. Nellie grew up in quite a powerful family. Her father Michael Cochran owned the local mill in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He later became a merchant and associate justice in the city.

Her father was so powerful that a borough of the city that he lived in was renamed Cochran’s Mills, which is today a suburb of Burrell Township. Nellie knew that in order to be noticed, she’d have to step out of her father’s shadow.

Her Hard Working Spirit Came At A Young Age

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When Nellie was only six-years-old, her wealthy father died. Nellie had been away attending a prestigious boarding school at the time but due to his death, she was forced to drop out because she could no longer afford the tuition.

Since she lost all of her access to wealth, Nellie quickly learned that if she wanted to succeed as one of fifteen children, she’d have to work hard to do it. She began working odd jobs to try to help her family. But at the time, jobs for women were hard to come by.

Bly’s Childhood Nickname Oozed Sophistication

nellie bly sophisticated portrait 1890
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One of the most important aspects of Nellie’s journalistic career was that she managed to break down barriers and shatter the glass ceiling all while appearing to be a ‘proper’ lady of the day.

As a young girl, Nellie’s childhood nickname was “Pinky” because she adored wearing pink dresses. She kept up this look even though she also loved playing with her brothers and standing up for herself. As a teenager, she changed her last name from “Cochran” to “Cochrane” because that made her seem more sophisticated too.