Chapter 5: To the Madhouse!
Thursday: Nellie has a chance to work for Joseph Pulitzer’s newspaper, the World, if she is willing to pose as a poor, mentally ill woman and investigate conditions at the hospital on Blackwell’s Island.
New York Assistant District Attorney Henry Macdona thought it was far too dangerous for a young girl like Nellie Bly to have herself thrown into the lunatic asylum at Blackwell’s Island.
Nellie had gone to him for advice, and to make sure she wouldn’t be arrested for lying to the police, judges and doctors she would have to fool. And she would have to lie to them; if even one of them knew she was a reporter, she might not be treated the same as a regular patient.
Macdona saw how young she was, and how small, and told her she might not have the strength to get through the experience without serious harm. But Nellie jumped out of her chair, stamped her foot on the floor and told him nobody was going to keep her from going out there and finding out the truth!
“That settled the question in my mind,” he later remembered. He agreed to give her immunity: Her daring plan might not be strictly legal, but the district attorney’s office would let her try it anyway. Besides, she would do it with or without permission.
The World’s editor, Colonel John Cockerill, left it up to Nellie to figure out how to get into Blackwell’s Island, and she left it up to him to figure out how to get her out again.
Before she left, he gave her these instructions: “Write up things as you find them, good or bad; give praise or blame as you think best, and the truth all the time. But I am afraid of that chronic smile of yours.”
“I will smile no more,” Nellie promised him.
She went back to her rented room and began to practice. She stayed up all night, staring into the mirror, making her eyes as large as she could, and reading ghost stories to upset herself. Then she put on some old clothes and set out on her assignment.
Nellie’s mother had run a boardinghouse back in Pittsburgh, and Nellie was living in one in New York. But now she went to a different kind of boarding house, a place with few frills for women with little money.
Most of the women there had jobs but didn’t make enough to live somewhere nice.
The rooms were plain and the food was bad. Nellie kept to herself, staring and sometimes writing odd things down in a little notebook. That was one of the tricks she had decided on: If she wrote silly things down all the time, nobody would notice when she took real notes.
When anyone asked her anything, she just said she didn’t know or couldn’t remember. She said everything was very sad. Then she started talking about all the crazy people in the world, and the others began to wonder about her. When night came, she said she didn’t want to go to bed, but just to sit on the stairs all night. One kind woman helped her to her room, but Nellie just sat up on the side of the bed and wouldn’t lie down. The other women weren’t worried for her: They just wanted that crazy woman out of there!
In the morning, the woman who ran the home called the police and they took Nellie down to the police station, and then to court. When she was asked who she was and where she came from, she said she didn’t know.
Then things almost went wrong. Though Nellie had put on her plainest and oldest clothing, she was still the same person who had worn pink dresses and white stockings to school. Even Nellie’s plainest, oldest clothes were very fashionable, and the judge was concerned that this pretty, well-dressed young girl must surely have a family somewhere worried about her.
“I wish the reporters were here,” he said. “They would be able to find out something about her.”
At that, Nellie grew frightened. She hadn’t found a permanent job in New York, but she’d done quite a bit of reporting for the Dispatch, and there were many reporters who knew her by sight. If the judge called in the wrong reporter, her secret would be out!
The judge had her taken to a back room and spoke with her privately. She let him believe that she was from Cuba, and used some of the Spanish she had learned in Mexico.
Finally, he brought in a doctor, who looked at Nellie’s tongue, examined her eyes, took her pulse and listened to her heart. She was probably on drugs, he said, and they put her in the ambulance to go to Bellevue Hospital.
There, she was taken to a long, plain hall with benches, where three other women were waiting to be examined. Nellie asked one of them if she knew that she was in the hospital for the insane.
“Yes, I know, but I am unable to do anything,” she answered. “The doctors refuse to listen to me, and it’s useless to say anything to the nurses.”
Indeed, that was what Nellie learned for herself: Once you had been declared insane, nobody would believe anything you said. The doctors didn’t bother listening, and the nurses who worked with the poor, mentally ill women simply didn’t seem to care.
Soon a doctor came, looked at her tongue, took her pulse and then asked her a few questions. She told him she didn’t know where she was from, and that she didn’t have a job.
And so Nellie Bly was declared insane, and sent off to Blackwell’s Island.
Monday: Blackwell’s Island