Nellie Bly (Group 2)

Nellie Bly was a nineteen-year-old reporter trying to make her way in an overwhelmingly male profession when her editor at the New York World sent her undercover to NYC’s asylum on Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island). The assignment made her career. Her account, picked up by other papers, was a national sensation. Bly would go on to perform and report on a variety of other stunts and become among the more widely known journalists of her period.

When I try to figure out the most salient criticism(s) Bly offers of the asylum, those that would have played most powerfully to her audience, I keep coming back to two in particular. First, she suggests that commitment hearings are based on little more than hunches and prejudices. Anyone with a foreign, regional, or even working-class accent or manner of speech would stand a grave chance of commitment to the asylum. We see no rational or scientific basis for diagnosis. Second, there is the sheer brutality of the place, particularly as it threatens to afflict a spunky, decent, young white woman like Nelly.

Would this piece read the same way if Bly were a recent immigrant? The paper made a point of publishing her photo with her work, showing her to be conventionally attractive. To put this in a way that borrows language from our own moment, Bly’s exposé comes from a position of threatened privilege, and that sense of possible loss and vulnerability gives the story a kind of horror to readers that it might otherwise lack. Ten Days is at once sympathetic to the victims of institutional cruelty, but always implicitly places Bly at a social remove from them. I wonder what questions come to the minds of others if they think about what would have made Bly’s account of playing “insane” and “inmate” so uniquely compelling in its moment.

5 thoughts on “Nellie Bly (Group 2)

  1. Annabella Twomey

    I agree with Professor Newbury’s point that this novella/exposé would not have had the success it had without Nellie Bly being a white, educated, attractive young women. If she were actually an immigrant, xenophobic and racist tendencies would have caused her accounts to dismissed much more easily people would be much more likely to refute her points. It was interesting, and disheartening but not surprising, to see how the doctors and psychiatrists/medical superintendents associated her assumed Cuban identity immediately with stupidity or slowness, such as the scene where the doctor begins asking her questions and the nurse says “She’s Cuban” and the doctors says “Oh,” and stops phrasing his questions a certain way or speaking directly to Nellie. Her agency slowly withers away as people perceive her as an immigrant, which shows her inherent privilege and potentially better treatment.

    However biased this account may be (and although some lines feel exaggerated, it is inherently biased no matter what because it is her personal experience), this piece no doubt exposed the cruelties of the asylum and established positive change and awareness. “Life from the Asylum” claimed there was zero abuse through “moral treatment” when this exposé clearly highlights inhumane and ineffective treatment that was simply downright cruel from the nurses (and not even part of their regimen). If anything, according to a doctor Nellie spoke with, she made a difference. He said, “If nurses were cruel to their patients, had he any positive means of ascertaining it? No, he had not. He said all the doctors were not competent, which was also due to the lack of means to secure good medical men. In the conversation with me, he said: I am glad you did this now, and had I known your purpose, I would have aided you. We have no means of learning the way things are going except to do as you did. Since your story was published I found a nurse at the Retreat who had watches set for our approach, just as you had stated. She was dismissed.”

  2. Carl Langaker

    One thing I kept wondering about is how both interesting and different this piece would be had it been written from the perspective of another inmate, or someone else than Nellie Bly more generally. The manner in which she initially maintains her ‘act’ is portrayed as being nearly humorous, as if she is constantly saying “wow I cannot believe that I am getting away with this, and so easily as well”. For instance, after initially refusing to take off her hat, she notes that “as I feared that an exhibition of temper might show too much sanity I took off my hat and gloves”, which to the reader feels funny because we see her constantly evaluating the extent to which she should be acting crazy.

    However, if we take away her thoughts, and purely evaluate her based on what she says, I am sure that the reader would not only relate far less to Nellie, but would likely think of her as actually being insane. At first it is the small things, like how she mixes up her name, or repeatedly insists that she lost her trunks, all of which come across as indicative of a person that actually might be insane. However, the following shift in her persona once she is admitted to the asylum would feel like a complete 180 without context, as she abruptly seems normal again.

    Professor Newbury discusses the fact that there are photographs that depict her as being conventionally attractive, which I definitely think is a big factor in ‘winning over’ the audience with regards to sympathizing and rooting for Nellie. However, I think that her internal dialogue is still the most important ‘sanifying’ factor; that is, I do not think that the photos would convince the audience to like Nellie, if we did not have access to her thoughts throughout and rather only could read her dialogues.

    I think the question asking if we would read this same way if Nellie were an immigrant is quite nuanced; had this article been published today by an immigrant, I am entirely confident that it would still be a sensation. The more interesting question is how this article would have been received at the original time of publishing, in 1887, if Nellie were an immigrant. I do agree with my peers that Nellie’s position as a young, attractive, and white female ‘sets her up for victory’ in a sense, especially compared to her clearly less privileged fellow inmates at the asylum. However, I wonder how this article would be received by the public if it were written with a general sense of ambiguity relating to the narrator’s ethnic and socio-economic background – I believe that this would be a good indication of whether it is in fact Nellie’s young, white, and privileged profile that forms the ‘hook’ of this piece, drawing the reader in, or if the stimulus is entirely attributed to the text and experience itself.

  3. Elizabeth Srulevich

    I agree with Professor Newbury’s points that it’s likely that Nellie Bly’s identity as an educated, attractive 19-year-old woman played an important role in the success of her story and why, especially at the time, her account was so compelling. While Bly makes a point to say her article was unbiased, just a record of what she experienced, I agree with Andreya in that it’s hard to believe that — looking at the dialogue in particular — this was entirely true. Bly writes of her experience in the courthouse: “‘Poor child,’ said Judge Duffy, ‘she is well dressed, and a lady. Her English is perfect, and I would stake everything on her being a good girl. I am positive she is somebody’s darling.’” I’ll admit that this line made me laugh out loud. That said, there’s no such thing as a faithfully objective account of anything without the aid of recording devices (and even then, doubtful), and such devices didn’t exist at the time. Bly’s dialogue is her own personal truth. She’s the one who lived through this “experiment” and decided to tell the story in this way, and this narrative (whether entirely true or not) is nonetheless valuable. It felt like I was reading the memoir or diary of a young woman with an incredibly interesting life — and again, this is probably why Bly’s story captivated audiences across the country. It was shocking, “honest,” and as the Judge from the beginning kept repeating: Bly seemed like she could be anyone’s daughter.

  4. Michael Taylor

    I am sure that the American literati in the 19th century would be less receptive to the account of an immigrant for all of the reasons that are clear to us today, but I also think that Bly’s identity as a young, wealthy, and white female is important for reasons beyond what we might be able to immediately conclude. First, Bly herself closely resembles the “at risk” population of the era. As we remember from earlier readings and discussions, the vulnerable population for the medically vogue mental illnesses of the 19th and 20th were young, privileged women just like Bly. Certainly, somebody of Bly’s background and identity would not likely find themselves forcibly committed to a public asylum like Blackwell Island, but I imagine many of her peers would have been receptive to the very real horror of being erroneously declared insane from their own experience with medicine. Second, the population to whom Bly speaks as a knowing member is the exact population that is responsible for the rise of “moral treatment” as a civilized and humane alternative to the shackles of the past. Indeed, Bly aims her piece squarely at that set. “You are in a public institution now, and you can’t expect to get anything,” Bly sardonically recalls the words of Miss Grupe, “This is charity, and you should be thankful for what you get… you don’t need to expect any kindness.” Bly’s implied argument here, of course, is that the charity of the wealthy and power of the political are at the time of writing far insufficient to the task of caring for the mentally ill, and in fact responsible for the suffer at Blackwell. As Professor Newbury suggests, should the immigrants and Bly’s asylum compatriots Sarah Fishbaum or Josephine Despreau make a similar argument, they would be dismissed not just because they are outside the privileged class, but because they are also seen as beneficiaries of the welfare dispensed through the asylum system. As such, it seems to me that Bly’s resemblance to the population most vulnerable to the mental illness of the 19th century and her membership in the privileged, educated class responsible for the rise of “moral treatment” combine to constitute a significant portion of why her account was so uniquely compelling in its moment.

  5. Andreya Zvonar

    A large part of the appeal of the piece is that it reads like a novel and not like a journal article. There are distinct characters, dialogue, and a narrator in the first-person. While this is a very unique and creative approach, I also find it slightly fictitious. That is, I find it hard to believe that everything went as Bly said it did. Nevertheless, I agree with the two points Professor Newbury poses and find that the way in which Bly wrote her account does not counteract these thoughts.

    Nevertheless, the piece would not read the same way if Bly were a recent immigrant. For one, Bly takes the first half of her article to get to the asylum on Blackwell’s island. Her lying and bending of the rules do not deter the reader in any way. If she were an immigrant, these necessary actions would only reinforce existing stereotypes. In short, an immigrant would be doing harm to their reputation in writing an article like this as one would be focused on the narrator and not on the imprisoned. Without such a large introduction, I find that an immigrant narrator could still be effective. Bly quickly develops her plot and allows the reader to take away basic ideas without having to read between the lines: “all the doctors … refuse to listen to me or give me a chance to prove my sanity” Such writing is easy to follow and does not risk losing the interest of the reader. Furthermore, I find Bly’s social remove from the other patients harmful to her narrative. Take chapter 11 for example, in which she is forcibly undressed and washed. In the first paragraph she observes a woman chuckling in a “fiendish” manner. At once, the reader dissociates Bly from this woman, when in fact, the woman is Bly’s fellow inmate. Throughout the narrative, knowing that Bly is not in fact insane does not help draw sympathy to those who actually are. Contrast this with “Life in the Asylum”, in which the reader immediately feels connected to the patients because it is the actual patients writing the narratives.

    Ultimately, we have learned to read accounts (such as that of Bly) with a more critical eye. In its time, its sheer uniqueness would have made it compelling. However, it is so direct in telling the reader what to think that I find it less compelling than “Life in the Asylum”. I leave wondering why we are so inclined to distrust those who have been diagnosed as “insane” when their minds are often completely functional, just work in their own, unique ways. After all, there is a huge difference between Poe’s insane characters and the women of which we have read about in the past few classes.

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