Ten Days in a Madhouse
By Nellie Bly
Published by Librivox.org
Read by Alys AtteWater
Nellie Bly (aka Elizabeth Jane Cochraine Seaman) has always been an interesting person to me. She was a journalist who gained notoriety by emulating Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg and traveled around the world (breaking Fogg’s fictional record) and by this book in which she feigned insanity in order to get inside the infamous Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum in New York. Yes, she was both an investigative journalist and a “stunt” reporter at the same time, but she was also a strong and independent woman who on retiring from reporting went on to run the Iron Clad Manufacturing Co. and is credited as the inventor of an improved milk can and a stacking garbage can. She possibly also invented the standard 55 gallon drum, but most believe that was the work of Henry Wehrhahn who assigned the patent to her. Later she returned to reporting where she reported from the Eastern Front during World War I and on the Woman’s Suffrage movement (Headline: “Suffragists Are Men’s Superiors.”)
In this initial effort, Miss Bly takes on the assignment from Joseph Pulitzer to infiltrate an insane asylum and write about her experiences and observations while there. I have to admit that from a slightly more modern and possibly more enlightened (or not) standpoint, her attempt to behave in an insane manner sound less than convincing. However, in her own time, I imagine most people knew as little about madness as she confesses to knowing herself. Even today unless one has known someone in that condition one’s impressions are apt to be based on depictions in movies and on television shows.
In this case, Ms. Bly merely accused all the other women in a boarding house of being crazy and I guess that was sufficient to put the seed of thought into the minds of those around her. Once accused of insanity by one apparently “normal” woman it was simple to let the doctors of the age take the easy way out and agree she was insane – and, yes they did take the easy way out, relying on tests that would be inconclusive at the best of times giving results that can be interpreted as one wishes. In fact, once accused of being insane, the assumption was guilty with some doctors merely saying they were experts on the subject and could tell at a glance.
There were a few more caring individuals in her story, such as the judge who did his best to not ship her off to Bellevue where he obviously knew she would be judged hopeless and then sent to Blackwell’s Island. Indeed, that one judge may have been one of the few who were not convinced by Ms. Bly’s act, but in the end, she had her way and she was off to the “Madhouse.”
I had expected a more gruesome and graphic description of the conditions on Blackwell’s Island, but I doubt Nellie Bly’s readers would have been able to stomach that sort of fare and I suspect Pulitzer would never have printed it. Such would have cross the line between sensational and stomach-turningly tasteless. However, what she does describe is bad enough and eventually led to an official investigation that apparently saw through the Blackwell’s staff’s attempt to clean up. What is not covered was whether any of the asylum’s staff were fired. It seemed to me that many of them were as much to blame for the horrendous conditions as was the lack of operating funds. Then again, that was the beginning of the end of Blackwell’s as an asylum although that end took another twenty-four years or so to accomplish.
I really enjoyed listening to Alys Attewater read this book. Part of that is that she is a friend of mine, but really because her reading voice is most engaging. She reads with a sense of wonder and somehow manages to impart Nellie Bly’s inquisitiveness. I suppose Ms Bly might have sounded more cynical had she been reading her own work. Certainly the stunt reporting she did would have required a hard character edge in any person and her early life was not one of ease.
However, I think I enjoyed Alys’ interpretation far more than I would have by someone attempting to sound like a hardened cynic.
So, a good read, I think, for anyone interested in Nellie Bly or the condition of mental health facilities in the late Nineteenth Century and this recording is a pleasant listening experience.