Nellie Bly was a remarkable journalist, industrialist, and charity worker. She was the first person to travel around the world in less than 80 days, inspired by Jules Verne’s novel, and in 1887, she pretended to be insane so that she could investigate an insane asylum from the inside. This book, Ten Days in a Mad-House, is her exposé. It was originally published in the New York World and soon after, was made into a book in response to the overwhelming demand for the story.
The book is less than a hundred pages and it is riveting. The first half describes what she had to do to get herself committed and it’s surprisingly funny. That’s why I was totally unprepared for the brutality and abuse described in the second half of the book, when she is locked up in the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island. It’s an absolutely terrifying account of how people who were judged insane were treated. There were several women in the asylum whom Bly believed to be completely sane but their protests were dismissed as lunatic raving. There were at least two others whose ‘insanity’ was that they didn’t speak English and could not plead their own cases. For that crime, they were locked away for the rest of their lives. The women were tortured, beaten, starved or given spoiled food. One woman that arrived with Bly and seemed to be fine was literally driven mad by the nurses in the asylum.
Ten days after her arrival, the newspaper Bly was writing for pulled her out of the asylum, her story was published, the world was shocked, and she was a star. An investigation was launched by a grand jury and the Department of Public Charities and Corrections received an increase of $100,000 to its budget.
Ten Days in a Mad-House was a fascinating read and I don’t know why this isn’t a movie yet.