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Honoring Nellie Bly, the pioneer of investigative journalism

How Nellie Bly's "10 Days in a Madhouse" changed the journalism industry

Series note: For Women's History month, we'll be featuring hardworking women each week who inspire us daily. From women breaking gender barriers in their fields to women fighting for equal rights, they all embody what Death Wish strives for every day: strength. Sign up for The Scoop to receive updates from this series right in your inbox.

In 1887, a young, aspiring journalist went undercover in a New York City insane asylum — with no instruction on how to get in or out. Her assignment was simple: infiltrate the asylum, and break the story about its horrific conditions.

A black and white portrait of reporter Nellie Bly taken in the 1890s
Photo: Biography.com

Her name was Nellie Bly — born Elizabeth Cochrane — and her piece in the New York World titled “Ten Days in a Mad House” pioneered investigative reporting as we know it. At the time, this new type of journalism opened the doors to expose the ills of our nation’s institutions — and to hold those in power accountable. 

For 10 days, she documented the cries from suffering women and the inhumane conditions they lived in at the Blackwell Island asylum. She lived side-by-side with various women suffering from mental illnesses — as well as many women who were mistakenly confined for no reason — as a patient, enduring some of the grimmest living conditions at the time. 

“My teeth chattered and my limbs were goose-fleshed and blue with cold. Suddenly I got, one after the other, three buckets of water over my head — ice cold water, too — into my eyes, my ears, my nose and my mouth,” she wrote in her story. “I think I experienced the sensation of a drowning person as they dragged me, gasping, shivering and quaking, from the tub. For once I did look insane.”

A drawing that depicts Nellie Bly's time spent undercover in an insane asylumiPhoto: Goodreads

She froze. She starved. She endured. And the experiences she heard from other women within the walls of asylum painted an even darker picture —  stories of abuse, choking, and torture.

Bly was part of the ‘stunt girl’ journalism movement in the 1880s and 90s — a time where it was rare for women to be taken seriously as reporters. These strong women wrote under pseudonyms and often put their lives in danger and went undercover to unravel the most gruesome stories of the time: stories of child labor, dangerous factory conditions, amoral doctors, and more. These in-person reports exposed the worst conditions in our nation, as well as the attempt to sweep things under the rug. 

It was the reporting of Bly — as well as Annie Laurie, Eva Gay, Nora Marks, and other reporters — that pushed our nation into increasing funding for mentally ill patients and passing various labor laws. 

Not only did the reporting of these brave women push our nation to face their demons, but it paved the way for women in journalism and beyond. Nellie Bly, and others, showed us that as women, we should never be afraid to speak the truth.

Related: Remembering Rosalind Walter, the 'OG Rosie the Riveter'

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