Why journalism matters …

Ten Days in a Mad-House, Nellie Bly (1887)

Well, I don’t care about that. You are in a public institution now, and you can’t expect to get anything. This is charity, and you should be thankful for what you get.

— Miss Grupe, one of several “Nurse Ratcheds” in “Ten Days in a Mad-House”

After Nellie Bly, “the New York World’s Girl Correspondent,” feigns insanity to get admitted to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island, she finds a horror show. Miss Grupe’s comment above is delivered after Bly is forced to bathe in icy water and sent off to bed soaking wet in a facility with no heat. She begs for a nightgown. But the poor don’t deserve such luxuries.

Nelly Bly

Bly’s reporting makes a difference. She spends 10 days in the asylum, which results in a series of newspaper articles and ultimately the book Ten Days in a Mad-House. (This book is available free thanks to Project Gutenberg, a powerful reminder that the Internet still is capable of using its powers for good.) After being plucked from the asylum, Bly testifies to a grand jury on the abuses, and ultimately an additional $1 million is budgeted for care of the mentally ill. That clearly doesn’t solve the problem. But I suspect it improved the lives of at least a few of these patients.

A few things I loved about this book:

  • Bly is a great writer and reporter. The story is riveting, and it’s a frightening reminder of how little power women had in society at the time. Several asylum inmates were women who were sent there by their husbands for refusing to “behave.”
  • There’s a Pittsburgh tie. Like Jane Swisshelm, another female journalist affecting change in her world, Bly grew up in the Pittsburgh area and spent time working at Pittsburgh newspapers, in her case the Dispatch.
  • The Gutenberg version retains the ads. So you, too, can discover the wonders of “Madame Mora’s Corsets” or the “handsome cake of scouring soap’’ called Sapolio. Or maybe you were looking for Gluten Suppositories to ease your constipation: “As Sancho Panza said of sleep, so say I of your Gluten Suppositories: ‘God Bless the man who invented them.’” — E.L. Ripley, Burlington, Vt.

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