10 Days in a Madhouse - Nellie Bly

In 1887, already well known for evocative articles on social reform, Nellie Bly took an assignment for Joseph Pulitzer's New York World newspaper to enter the asylum disguised as a patient.

She would feign the symptoms of an added young woman,
in the hope of being assigned to the New York Asylum
and report back on the conditions she found there,
and share the stories of the inmates she met.

"Tell me, are you a woman of the town?"
"I do not understand you," I replied, heartily disgusted with him.
"I mean have you allowed the men to provide for you and keep you?"
I felt like slapping him in the face, but I had to maintain my composure, so I simply said:
"I do not know what you are talking about. I always lived at home."
After many more questions, fully as useless and senseless, he left me and began to talk with the nurse. "Positively demented," he said. "I consider it a hopeless case. She needs to be put where some one will take care of her."
And so I passed my second medical expert.

After this, I began to have a smaller regard for the ability of doctors than I ever had before, and a greater one for myself. I felt sure now that no doctor could tell whether people were insane or not, so long as the case was not violent.

"From the moment I entered the insane ward on the Island,
I made no attempt to keep up the assumed role of insanity.
I talked and acted just as I do in ordinary life.
Yet strange to say, the more sanely I talked and acted,
the crazier I was thought to be by all...."

"The beating I got there were something dreadful. I was pulled around by the hair, held under the water until I strangled,
and I was choked and kicked.

The nurses would always keep a quiet patient stationed at the window to tell them when any of the doctors were approaching.
It was hopeless to complain to the doctors, for they always
said it was the imagination of our diseased brains,
and besides we would get another beating for telling".

"The remembrance of that is enough to make me mad. For crying the nurses beat me with a broom-handle and jumped on me, injuring me internally, so that I shall never get over it. Then they tied my hands and feet, and, throwing a sheet over my head, twisted it tightly around my throat, so I could not scream, and thus put me in a bathtub filled with cold water.

They held me under until I gave up every hope and became senseless. At other times they took hold of my ears and beat my head on the floor and against the wall. Then they pulled out my hair by the roots, so that it will never grow in again."

When her story broke, a grand jury was convened to investigate her allegations. When she and members of the grand jury went to the asylum, the administrators had plenty of advance warning and many changes had been made...

I hardly expected the grand jury to sustain me, after they saw everything different from what it had been while I was there. Yet they did, and their report to the court advises all the changes made that I had proposed.
I have one consolation for my work–on the strength of my story the committee of appropriation provides $1,000,000 more than was ever before given, for the benefit of the insane.

By 1893, the asylum's patients were transferred further up the East River to Ward's Island and the building was given over to more traditional medical services, becoming Metropolitan Hospital until closing in 1955.

Nellie Bly would go on to more to more adventures and a variety of triumphs as a reporter, inventor and industrialist. So would the former asylum...

Nowadays, all that is left of it is the rotunda,
which has been restored and forms the centrepiece
for a block of - you guessed it - condominiums!

The condominium website makes passing mention of the fact
that there once was "a hospital" there, preferring to
inger longer on a visit in 1842 by Charles Dickens, who described
the rotunda as
remarkable,” its flying spiral staircase “spacious and elegant” as it rose from an illuminated glass-brick floor.

Dickens went on to say...
Everything had a lounging, listless, madhouse air, which was very painful. The moping idiot, cowering down with long disheveled hair; the gibbering maniac, with his hideous laugh and pointed finger; the vacant eye, the fierce wild face, the gloomy picking of the hands and lips, and munching of the nails: there they were all, without disguise, in naked ugliness and horror.”

more perspectives on asylum life & the impact of Nellie's work

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Nellie Bly's "Ten Days in a Madhouse

more about The Octagon, the Asylum and what happened next...



  1. Incredible story! I had no idea. I have a huge appreciation for your blog. It has opened my eyes in a big way. Thank you.

  2. and thank-you... you have no idea how much it means to know someone reads anything here, or that t matters to them.

    1. I think this is a really important blog and I "enjoy" reading every one of them. You have some very important things to share with the world. You offer insights like no one else. You have always been such a gifted writer and I thank you for sharing what you do!

  3. Hey, thanks for the link to my article. I do love seeing information travel around the internet-- and to be a link on the same line as the Bowry Bros-- such an honor.

    Thank you for spreading Ms. Cochrane's story with your wonderful writing. It's truly amazing what she did!