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An Autobiography: Chapter 34, Roosevelt Island – Nellie Bly

Not long after Charles Dickens’ visit to the insane asylum, there were cries for investigation, and by this time newspapers began to feature investigative reporting that would increase circulation. Thanks to The World’s revival of the shocking as daily newspaper fare, the subject of ill-treated lunatics was a natural. And for women in journalism, the only hope of getting off the society pages was the wild side of “detective” reporting. The name Nellie Bly fast became synonymous with this new kind of reporting.

“Behind Asylum Bars” was the headline of Nellie Bly’s first installment of the illustrated two-part series in The World, on October 9, 1887. By the time the second installment ran a week later, Nellie Bly was no longer just a byline. The headline, set in large type, attracted the reader’s eye:

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Nellie Bly 

INSIDE THE MADHOUSE Nellie Bly’s Experience in the Blackwell’s Island Asylum, Continuation of the Story of Ten Days with Lunatics, How the City’s Unfortunate Wards Are Fed and Treated, The Terrors of Cold Baths and Cruel Unsympathetic Nurses, Attendants Who Harass and Abuse Patients and Laugh at Their Miseries.

Two month’s later, Nellie Bly’s Ten Days In a Mad-House was in book form. In a matter of days, Nellie Bly had caused the sensation she had hoped for and, in the process, became one herself. For her to be able at feigning insanity and live to write about it was an extraordinary feat. For a woman journalist to achieve this in that time, its brilliance was absolutely staggering. Her fame was soon spread far and wide.

Nellie Bly was a great actress to pull off this charade. She was a beautiful young lady of 23, weighed 112 pounds, and was five-feet five-inches tall with a shoe size of 2½. She practiced for hours in front of a mirror looking like a lunatic, and put on old clothes. She wandered the streets in a daze. She left behind her toothbrush and soap. No one had dared enter the asylum in a guise of a lunatic before, and the assistant district attorney, when asked for advice, said, “She did not possess sufficient bodily strength to enable her to pass harmless though the threatened ordeal.”

In her wordy series, Bly elaborated on every sensation and every detail. She wrote of the filthy ferry that carried her to Blackwell’s Island; the “coarse, huge,” female attendants who “expectorated tobacco juice on the floor in a manner more skillful than charming;” and the foreign women, wholly sane, who were committed simply because they could not make themselves understood. She wrote about the wretched food, too little warm clothing, and the freezing cold baths: “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. 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.”

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She told in detail of witchy, vicious nurses who choked, beat and harassed their deluded patients; of fire hazards; of having to share towels with “crazy patients who had the most dangerous eruptions all over their faces;” of oblivious doctors; and of sitting idle all day long after a brief, morning walk.

“What, expecting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment? Here is a class of women sent to be cured. I would like the expert physicians who are condemning me for my action, which has proven their ability , to take a perfectly sane and healthy woman, shut her up and make her sit from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. on straight-back benches, do not allow her to talk or move during these hours, give her no reading and let her know nothing of the world or its doings, give her bad food and harsh treatment, and see how long it will take to make her insane. Two months would make her a natural and physical wreck.” 

The Sun reported the mysterious waif’s release on October 7. Two days later, imagine the editorial fury, not to mention embarrassment, along Newspaper Row when the first installment of Bly’s report appeared in The World.  

Before we moved to the Island, we had no idea of its historical significance, and I want to cite just a few of the famous people who were there before us.

In 1893, Anarchist Emma Goldman was sentenced to a year in the penitentiary, where she served seven months. In 1903, Thomas Edison made a film of Blackwell’s Island from a boat cruising south to the East Channel, starting at the Lighthouse and progressing past the Lunatic Asylum, the Workhouse, the Almshouse, incomplete piers of the Queensboro Bridge, the Almshouse Keeper’s House, the Penitentiary and the Charity Hospital.

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Emma Goldman 

In 1927, Mae West was arrested on morals charges, “corrupting the morals of youth,” in her own first play, “Sex,” and served eight days in jail on Welfare Island.

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Mae West 

Complaints rose primarily for her “crude” improvisations on what was otherwise a relatively mild script. She dined with the warden and his wife, and told reporters that she wore her silk underpants while serving time.

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Margaret Sanger and her sister, Ethel Byrne, were arrested for providing contraceptive advice to poor women in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Byrne was sentenced to prison on Blackwell’s Island, where she held a hunger strike and became the first woman to be force-fed in an American prison.

In 1927, singer Billie Holiday was working as a maid, a prostitute and a waitress. Two years later, she and her mother had been arrested for prostitution, caught in a raid in a Harlem brothel. Holiday spent 100 days in the penitentiary workhouse on Welfare Island. Upon her release, she determined never again to work as a maid or a prostitute.

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Billie Holiday was a true artist of her day and rose as a social phenomenon in the 1950s, a superstar of her time. Holiday's poignant voice is still considered to be one of the greatest jazz voices of all time. Jerome Kern was one of the greatest songwriters in the annals of Broadway and film music. His works included over 1,000 songs and 108 complete scores.

In 1945, Kern came east from California to attend rehearsals of a revival of SHOW BOAT. A few days after his arrival, he collapsed on Park Avenue and was taken to the Welfare Island hospital, where he remained in a state of unconsciousness. Oscar Hammerstein's description of this is very moving:

"He lay unconscious in the same institution in which Stephen Foster had died. The critical nature of Jerry's condition did not permit his removal to a private hospital. [Kern was moved two days later]. He was in a ward with some fifty or sixty other patients-mental cases, drunks and derelicts for the most part. The doctors had gathered this heterogeneous group together and explained to them slowly and clearly who the new patient was, and asked them to be very quiet and not create the usual disturbances that characterized this room. Not one man disobeyed. The nurse in charge did not go home that night. She extended her duty for that day to twenty-four hours. When Mrs. Kern expressed her gratitude, the nurse answered simply that he had given so much pleasure to her and to the world that she thought she would like to give something to him. It was clear to us all that special consideration and loving care were being granted to this man in a public hospital not because he was wealthy or powerful but because he had devoted almost all of his lifetime to giving the world something it needs and knows it needs-beauty."

Jerome Kern died at 1:10 P.M. on November 11, 1945.

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Jerome Kern 

The immortal Stephen Collins Foster was ill for several days in his New York hotel room and was taken to the Welfare Island hospital. He died three days later, leaving behind only the pennies in his pocket and a mysterious message scrawled in pencil: “dear friends and gentle hearts.” He was 37 years old.

Stephen Collins Foster 

Stephen Collins Foster 

Don’t Miss the Next Chapter: Plaza Hotel, New York City