Chapter 6: Blackwell’s Island
Friday: Nellie succeeded in making the police, judge and doctor think she is a poor, mentally-ill Cuban woman. Now she has been sent to the “lunatic asylum” on Blackwell’s Island!
“What is this place?” Nellie asked the guard who was leading her up from the boat.
“Blackwell’s Island,” he replied, “an insane place where you’ll never get out of!”
The lawns and gardens of Blackwell’s Island were beautiful, and the asylum itself was also very attractive, with a great spiral staircase that visitors always commented on. But for those forced to stay there, it was not pleasant at all.
Many of the women at the asylum truly did need help, and, in a world that did not have modern medicines and treatments, a hospital was the only place they could find that help.
But Nellie quickly realized they would not find help on Blackwell’s Island.
The asylum was cold, but it was only September, and the heat would not be turned on until October. The nurses had extra clothing; the patients did not.
And the food! Supper was a bowl of five prunes, a thick piece of bread with butter that nobody could stomach and weak, unsweetened tea that tasted of the copper kettle. When they had meat for dinner, it was boiled and tough. When they had fish, it was boiled and tasteless. The boiled potatoes were cold. You could ask for bread without the terrible butter on it, but that wasn’t much good, either.
“I cannot tell you of anything which is the same dirty, black color,” Nellie reported. “It was hard, and in places nothing more than dried dough. I found a spider in my slice, so I did not eat it.”
Once a week, the women stood in line for baths in the same cold water, one after another. The water got dirtier and dirtier, and, when it was changed, the tub was not wiped out before the new water was put in. Then they were dried off with the same two towels. Clean clothing was only given out once a month, unless visitors were coming.
Nellie was not the only woman in the asylum who didn’t really belong there. Some were immigrants who spoke such poor English that they couldn’t answer the doctor’s questions. Of them, Nellie wrote: “Can such carelessness be excused, I wonder, when it is so easy to get an interpreter?”
Others were mildly retarded, but, as Nellie said, “I have seen many other women ... whose sanity was never questioned, who were not any brighter.”
Those who had genuine mental problems were in danger of becoming targets of the staff, who would tease them until they began to act out, and then would beat them for it.
When one old woman was dragged away and beaten, Nellie “told some of the physicians of the occurrence, but they did not pay any attention to it.” Nellie had planned to act violent so she could find out what happened in the parts of the asylum where those patients were kept, but after hearing from some who had been there, she decided not to. The story wasn’t worth broken bones, and a dead reporter wouldn’t be able to write any story at all.
As it was, Nellie was getting plenty of information just acting like one of the regular patients. And yet she wasn’t just one of the regular patients: She was still the pretty young Cuban woman about whom the judge had worried so much.
Sometimes, people came to the asylum looking for missing wives, sisters or daughters. They would always be taken to see the mysterious Cuban girl. But reporters also came from time to time, and Nellie was horrified one day to come to the visitors’ area and see a familiar face: A reporter she had known since her days in Pittsburgh!
“I saw by the sudden blanching of his face and his inability to speak that the sight of me was wholly unexpected and had shocked him terribly,” she wrote.
Determined to deny it if he announced who she was, she found a moment while the nurse was distracted to whisper “Don’t give me away!”
“Do you know her?” the nurse asked.
“No, this is not the young lady I came in search of,” the reporter answered.
He may have been the only reporter who visited Blackwell’s Island to see the mysterious girl and didn’t write a story about it.
The Sun ran a front page story about “the most peculiar case that ever came into the hospital.” The Times wrote about the “mysterious waif.” The Herald and the Evening Telegram also carried stories about her. How Col. Cockerill and Joseph Pulitzer must have laughed!
And yet having their fearless girl reporter on Blackwell’s Island was no laughing matter.
“The insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island is a human rat-trap,” Nellie wrote. “It is easy to get in, but once there it is impossible to get out.”
Finally, she was called down to meet a visitor who was not a curious reporter, but an attorney sent by The World to get her out. He didn’t announce who she was, however, but merely said she had friends who were willing to take charge of her and that she didn’t have to stay in the asylum anymore. Nellie, of course, agreed to leave.
And yet, she wrote, it wasn’t easy to walk away from the women she had met. “Forten days, I had been one of them. Foolishly enough, it seemed intensely selfish to leave them to their sufferings.”
But she was not going to leave them to their sufferings.
She was going to write a series that would turn Blackwell’s Island upside down.
Tuesday: The Famous Nellie Bly!