B2 High-Intermediate 11 Folder Collection
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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
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
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
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
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
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
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:
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Journalist Goes Undercover At Insane Asylum Becomes Prisoner

11 Folder Collection
Summer published on July 31, 2020
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