Book review: Ten Days in a Madhouse (Nellie Bly)

Nellie Bly was a groundbreaking journalist whose personality led her to become world-famous at a time when women in journalism were usually assigned mediocre topics. When I first watched a documentary about her in teaching journalism, I knew I wanted to read the primary source referenced in the documentary, hence this book. She helped to coin investigative journalism by threatening her own safety (and life) to uncover the truth.

Nellie Bly (the penname of Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman) is probably most famous for her “stunt journalism” to travel around the world in less than 80 days. She took a stab at beating the fictional record and succeeded in making it around the globe in 72 days.

While she traveled with a single bag to foreign lands and met all types of obstacles, the story I was more interested in was her decision to be committed to an asylum to uncover the true conditions impacting women.

In her investigative “stunt,” she took on the persona of someone disturbed and tried her best to be committed into an insane asylum for women at Blackwell’s Island. This was her “test” to get hired at a big-name publication, and she was risking her safety and life to do so.

She succeeded in being committed, and she tells her account of the conditions there. The women were given rotten food, inadequate clothing and blankets, treated horribly, forced to sit still for hours, treated terribly, neglected, tortured, bathed in cold water. The list goes on. Her lawyer eventually had to get her out of the asylum, and while she felt guilty about leaving all those women behind, the publication of her experience helped to bring attention to the problems of Blackwell’s island and resulted in an increase in funds (and improved practices).

While her intentions were based on getting a job, her foray into investigative journalism did much for the women she wrote about.

The account is written in a straightforward way—easy to read and understand. At the end of the novel, she tells of other (less dangerous) examples of investigative journalism she took on, such as looking at hiring practices of women. Indeed, because she took on the role of those she wrote about, much of her investigative journalism revolved around the conditions of single or working women.

I admire her strength and courage, and reading the first-hand account was fast and enlightening.

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