Forgotten Heroes: Nellie Bly

Forgotten Heroes is a series of posts about extraordinary men and women who are (probably) not remembered by the average person.  Previous heroes include   Ghandl and SkaayLaura Secord and Elijah McCoy

If you know of a forgotten hero who should be included in this series let me know about him or her in the comment section or via my contact form

Time: 1887

Place: New York City.

One night a 23-year-old woman named Nellie Bly checked into a working class boarding house but refused to go to bed, telling fellow boarders that she was afraid they thought she was crazy.

Her behaviour was so unusual that they quickly came to the conclusion Nellie was mentally ill. The police were summoned the next morning. When Nellie stood before the judge she said she didn’t remember anything that had happened that night.

The judge thought she’d been drugged. Several doctors examined Nellie and decided that she was insane. Nellie was sent to the Woman’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island in the hope that she could be cured.

Her undercover assignment for the New York World had finally begun.

Nellie’s days consisted of sitting on hard benches in frigid temperatures while rats crawled around piles of human (and other) waste decomposing on the floor. Patients drank dirty water and ate spoiled meat, gruel and “bread” that was basically dried out dough. The most dangerous patients were tied to one another with ropes.

No one wasn’t allowed to speak or move. Anyone who broke these rules ran the risk of being verbally or physically abused by the nurses. Nellie broke them anyway. She wasn’t a medical professional but many of the women she spoke to seemed no more mentally ill than the average person outside of the asylum.

The conditions of the asylum weren’t created only out of malice – 125 years ago our understanding of mental illness was embryonic. We didn’t realize that depression and other diseases are involuntary, that someone with one of these illnesses cannot just snap out of it.

Nellie was released from the asylum after ten days at the request of her employers. Ten Days in a Mad-House, her report on these experiences, brought so much attention to the conditions these women lived in that a grand jury launched it’s own investigation into the asylum.

As a result of this report the funding for the asylum was increased by $850,000 and the criteria for the examinations that lead women to being committed to that asylum were revamped. This lead to fewer people without mental illness being committed.

None of these changes happened overnight and there was (and is) still a lot of work to do in the destigmatization and effective treatment of chronic mental illness.

But we’ve come a long way thanks to Nellie Bly.

 

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