Nelly Bly, 19th Century crusading journalist, badass


She was born poor in 1864 but married a millionaire.

Initially assigned to the safe women’s beat of fashion, entertaining, gardening, and decorating, she got fed up and went to Mexico to be a freelance foreign correspondent.

After moving back to the United States, Bly landed a job at Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. For her first assignment, she got herself committed to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum, on Blackwell’s Island. It was the beginning of a pioneering career in stunt journalism that would include pretending to be an unemployed maid, an unwed mother looking to sell her baby, and a woman seeking to sell a patent to a corrupt lobbyist. She also dabbled in elephant training and in ballet. In an era when Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst were engaged in a journalistic arms race for the most pyrotechnics in print media, Bly was an industry darling, the woman who popularized a genre that was as robust a century ago as it is today.

“Behind Asylum Bars,” Bly’s serialized account of her stay in the madhouse, showcases her reportorial skills and her wry way with language. She lived for a few days at a boarding house for destitute women, where she performed insanity so convincingly that her first assigned roommate refused to sleep in the same room with her “for all the money of the Vanderbilts.” Bly was then brought in for a medical examination: “I had not the least idea how the heart of an insane person beat, so I held my breath,” she wrote. “I puzzled to know what insanity was like in the eye, so I thought the best thing under the circumstances was to stare.” After being declared “positively demented,” she was sent to Bellevue, which had “that peculiar whiteness seen only in public institutions.” She was soon transferred to Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island), where she joined some sixteen hundred other women—a “helpless class”—and was subjugated to inhumane treatment that included ice-cold baths, flimsy garments, and meals consisting of nothing more than “stuff honored by the name of tea,” bread with rancid butter, and a few prunes. “What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment?” she asked.

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