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  • Dinner is wretched.

  • Five prunes accompanied by cold, weak tea and thick hunks of tough buttered brown bread.

  • Some of the inmates snatch food from other women if they can.

  • After the meal, the women are forced to strip, their clothes are taken away.

  • Pale and shivering they wait in line, too cold and anxious to be embarrassed by the

  • naked bodies on display.

  • Soon it's Nellie's turn.

  • She stands in the large stained tub as a woman roughly scrubs her with the same dirty rag

  • that had been used on other inmates.

  • Three buckets of ice cold water are dumped over Nellie's head to rinse her.

  • All the women are washed and rinsed in the same manner, even if they are sick or elderly.

  • Nellie is given a short flannel slip to wear.

  • There are no towels; her limp, wet hair drips all over her slip.

  • For being disruptive--earlier Nellie had tried to defend another woman--she is forced to

  • sleep alone in a tiny room with barred windows.

  • The night nurse locks her in.

  • Being damp makes the hard bed even more miserable.

  • Her lone woolen blanket is too short, if she yanks it to her chin, her feet are exposed.

  • Even if Nellie is inclined to, it's nearly impossible to get a good night's sleep.

  • Several times during the night, nurses unlock the bedroom doors and check on the inmates.

  • Each time they check on Nellie, a few nurses crowd the doorway to get a look at her and

  • curiously gossip about her amnesia.

  • Thus passes Nellie's first night in Blackwell's Island Women's Lunatic Asylum.

  • A few days before on September 22, 1887, an unemployed 23 year old Nellie Bly had managed

  • to talk her way into a meeting with Joseph Pulitzer, famed newspaper publisher of New

  • York World.

  • Nellie claimed that if he gave her a chance, she could write a big story.

  • She left the meeting with an amazing undercover assignment: feign insanity and be committed

  • to Blackwell's Island Women's Lunatic Asylum to investigate rumors of abuse and neglect.

  • At this time Blackwell Island held a poorhouse, a smallpox hospital, a prison and the insane

  • asylum; the island was notorious for being a miserable place.

  • For many people the covert mission would be a scary, even dangerous job, but Nellie relished

  • the idea.

  • She was an intrepid and tenacious woman who had gotten her first break in newspaper reporting

  • as a teenager when she wrote an anonymous, scathing response to a misogynistic column

  • in the Pittsburgh Dispatch.

  • She made such an impression on the editor that he ran an ad asking the writer to come

  • forward.

  • When Nellie identified herself, he gave her a chance to write an article and ultimately

  • hired her full time.

  • Unfortunately, most of the articles she was assigned were geared towards quote unquote

  • women's interests such as fashion.

  • But now a major metropolitan newspaper was giving Nellie a shot.

  • Not only was the topic of care for the mentally ill ethically important, but it would increase

  • Nellie's reputation as a writer, that is if she could pull the mission off.

  • After practicing looking wide eyed and crazy in the mirror, Nellie stayed up all night

  • reading ghost stories to put herself in an uneasy frame of mind.

  • She donned old clothes and checked into a working class boarding house on Second Avenue

  • called the Temporary Home for Females under the name 'Nellie Brown'.

  • The first stage of Nellie's plan was to be brought before authorities and it didn't

  • take her long to succeed.

  • For a day or so, she drifted listlessly through the boarding house watching the other boarders.

  • Occasionally she commented on how the other women seemed crazy, how sad the world was

  • and her missing luggage.

  • When asked questions, she told the other women that she couldn't remember anything since

  • her headache.

  • Also Nellie refused to go to bed, standing and looking out the window for most of the

  • night.

  • The assistant matron of the rooming house Mrs. Stanard reported Nellie to the police,

  • who then took Nellie away to the Essex Market Police Courtroom.

  • When speaking to Judge Duffy, Nellie put on an accent.

  • The judge assumed that she was from Cuba.

  • He questioned her about her home in Havana, but Nellie claimed not to remember.

  • The judge had a doctor examine her.

  • After a cursory examination during which Nellie forced herself to stare without blinking,

  • the doctor decided that Nellie had been taking belladonna and was crazy.

  • She was sent by ambulance from the courthouse to Bellevue Hospital.

  • People lined the streets to catch a glimpse of the crazy girl, but the doctor saw Nellie's

  • unease and kindly closed the ambulance's curtains.

  • At Bellevue Nellie was fed cold, unseasoned food for lunch.

  • The hospital was freezing, all the windows were kept open because fresh air was good

  • for patients.

  • When Nellie complained of the cold, the nurses told her that she was in a charity place and

  • shouldn't expect better.

  • It only got worse from there.

  • Another doctor did a second cursory exam on Nellie and asked various questions including

  • if she was a prostitute.

  • He decided that she was demented and should definitely be committed to an insame asylum.

  • Nellie spent a rough weekend at Bellevue, eating bad food, freezing and being kept up

  • at night by inconsiderate nurses.

  • She was also gawked at people who came to look at the insane patients.

  • People were especially interested in Nellie, the crazy girl from Cuba.

  • On Monday, Nellie and several other new inmates were loaded into a dirty cabin in a rickety

  • old boat and taken to Blackwell Island.

  • On the boat, Nellie decided to behave as her normal self on the island and see if the staff

  • still thought she was crazy.

  • The admitting doctor to the asylum barely interacted with Nellie during her third cursory

  • exam and completely ignored her protests of sanity, he was too busy flirting with an assisting

  • nurse.

  • During her first terrible night in the asylum, Nellie lays awake wondering what would happen

  • if there was a fire.

  • Blackwell Women's Lunatic Asylum has about 1,600 women total.

  • Nellie's building houses around 300 women, divided into sections known as halls.

  • Nellie is in one of the solitary rooms for the receiving new inmate section, Hall 6.;

  • generally there are 6 beds to a room, except for solitary confinement.

  • All bedroom doors are locked at night.

  • Nellie thinks this is a disaster waiting to happen if there was ever a fire.

  • At the crack of dawn Nellie and the other patients are woken up, forced to dress in

  • thin, coarse asylum issued black dresses before washing their faces with cold water and drying

  • them with shared towels.

  • Some of the inmates have bad skin rashes and still towels are shared.

  • Then their hair is roughly combed, plaited and tied with a bit of red cotton rag by staff.

  • Nellie finds the hairdressing painful, her hair is matted and damp from the night before.

  • The nurses show no mercy either, impatiently jerking through tangles.

  • One of the women has her own comb, it's taken away and she's forced to have her

  • hair done in the style and manner as the other patients.

  • After a disgusting breakfast where Nellie finds a spider in her piece of tough bread,

  • the inmates get to work.

  • They make the beds, scrub and sweep the building.

  • They even have to clean the nurses' bedrooms and care for their clothing.

  • After the chores are done, the inmates are forced to put on white straw hats and shawls,

  • line up two by two and go outside for a walk.

  • The nurses from their halls guard their lines.

  • For the first time Nellie sees inmates from different buildings and sections.

  • One group especially makes an impression on her.

  • They are dirty, talk to themselves or have vacant expressions.

  • They are confined by a long cable rope fastened to wide leather belts around each of their

  • waists.

  • These women are most likely truly insane and have been deemed violent and dangerous.

  • After a terrible lunch with cold boiled potato, spoiled meat and soup, Nellie and the other

  • women in her hall are made to sit on hard wooden benches in a cold sitting room.

  • They are not allowed to talk, must sit straight at all times and must not fall asleep.

  • That night Nellie is moved from solitary confinement to a bedroom with other inmates, but it's

  • not an improvement.

  • Instead, she now hears the tortured cries of other women.

  • Suffering in the cold, an older woman begs God for death.

  • Another woman creepily yells 'Murder!' and 'Police!' at random intervals.

  • The next nine days go much like the first.

  • The inmates get up very early, are fed poorly, do chores, take a walk and then sit on benches.

  • All the while the nurses verbally abuse them.

  • Sometimes they pinch, kick them or use other physical abuse if the inmates don't move

  • fast enough, complain about the cold, etc.

  • The nurses frequently gossip about personal details of cases in front of other patients.

  • There's one patient who's convinced that she's 18.

  • The nurses tease her, telling her the doctors said that she's 33.

  • They keep up the harassment until the inmate breaks down crying, saying that she wants

  • to go home.

  • Then the nurses scold her.

  • She grows hysterical, the nurses slap her around.

  • The inmate goes into a frenzy, so the nurses choke her and drag her away, smothering her

  • and putting her into a closet.

  • Later, when Nellie sees the inmate in a sitting room, her neck is covered with a string of

  • bruises in the shape of fingerprints.

  • This isn't the only time that some of the nurses go out of their way to harass and provoke

  • patients into a frenzy before punishing them.

  • Once a week the patients are given a bath.

  • It's the only time that they are given soap.

  • Unfortunately the bathwater is used to wash one inmate after another without a change

  • of water.

  • The water is finally switched out when it's thick and cloudy.

  • Then the tub is refilled without rising and used on multiple inmates again.

  • Towels are shared and clothing is worn over and over again.

  • If a patient has a visitor the nurses will quickly make her change into clean clothes

  • before she's allowed her visit.

  • On Sundays the quieter patients who were noted for good behavior during the week are allowed

  • to attend church.

  • There's a small Catholic chapel on Blackwell Island.

  • Other services are also offered.

  • At random intervals the inmates are examined by doctors.

  • While some of the doctors are sympathetic, most don't seem to care about the patients

  • or take their concerns seriously.

  • During this time Nellie gets to know several inmates and she thinks most of them aren't

  • crazy.

  • People are committed for flimsy reasons.

  • One sickly girl thought that she was headed to a convalescent home, other women are indigent,

  • some are immigrants who don't speak English.

  • Many, including Nellie insist over and over that they aren't crazy and demand to be

  • released.

  • They are ignored by the doctors and such statements make the nurses abuse them all the more.

  • Sometimes inmates who are deemed disruptive are forced to take sedatives under threat

  • of being injected with morphine by the doctors.

  • After several logical complaints to one of the doctors, after a few days Nellie is moved

  • to Hall 7.

  • She's also able to talk the doctor into moving a woman she has made friends with.

  • Most of the nurses are slightly nicer in Hall 7and the section has a cheap piano.

  • The inmates are being trained to sing and spend less time sitting and doing nothing.

  • Nellie hadn't had a plan for being released when she was committed.

  • Actually it ends up being far easier than she thought--some friends of hers appeal to

  • the authorities to have her placed in their care and all Nellie has to do is consent.

  • Ten days after she had first arrived, Nellie leaves Blackwell Island a free woman.

  • Nellie writes a popular series of articles for the New York World exposing the mistreatment

  • occuring at Bellevue and Blackwell's.

  • Later her articles are published in a book called 'Ten Days in a Mad House'.

  • Soon after her ordeal, Nellie was summoned to appear before the Grand Jury to answer

  • questions about her experience.

  • Along with members of the jury, Nellie visited Blackwell Island.

  • However, staff at the asylum caught wind of the impending visit and of course cleaned

  • and improved the place before the authorities arrived.

  • They also shifted around prisoners around, moving them to different sections so Nellie

  • had a hard time trying to track down women she had gotten to know.

  • The asylum even denied all knowledge of a Mexican woman that Nellie had met and said

  • there had never been such a patient.

  • Still, due to Nellie's investigation, the City of New York decided to spend $1 million

  • more per year on care for the insane.

  • Beyond the money, Nellie alerted the general population to issues surrounding mental illness.

  • Nellie went on to tackle many more interesting issues for her newspaper articles, becoming

  • a pioneer in the field of investigative journalism.

  • She went undercover as an unemployed maid trying to find work and revealed the shoddy

  • practices of two employment agencies.

  • She also posed as an unwed mother who was selling her baby, and as a woman seeking to

  • sell a patent to a corrupt lobbyist.

  • Blackwell Island was eventually renamed to Roosevelt Island and a sculpture of Nellie

  • Bly will be included in an art exhibition slated to open summer 2020 on the former grounds

  • of the asylum.

  • And now that you've reached the end of our video, why not keep the watch party going?!

  • Check out the amazing story of the expose of Pennhurst Insane Asylum, click on this

  • video over here:

Dinner is wretched.

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Journalist Goes Undercover At Insane Asylum Becomes Prisoner

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    Summer posted on 2020/07/30
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