Nellie Bly (Group 3)

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.

6 thoughts on “Nellie Bly (Group 3)

  1. Michael Frank

    This question brings to mind the following video which we broke down in my humanitarian politics course: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RBQ-IoHfimQ . The ad depicts the Syrian crisis as a “what if it happened here?” narrative. While effective in many ways this does not actually broaden the audience’s capacity for empathy, but rather places the crisis in a body that those with power can relate to. Bly even describes her previous perceptions of asylum stories as “wildly exaggerated or else romances.” Is it only through this kind of storytelling that we will be willing to accept a crisis as shocking?

    Bly mentions (perhaps theatrically) that all of the ladies around her “look crazy.”. Could this be a kind of pearl clutching? Is she indulging in the “horror” of someone like her being locked up? Perhaps a white man would not have been so readily detained for having large pupils. It is worth acknowledging who we are capable of feeling empathy for and who could even get in such positions to begin with.

  2. Joseph Levine

    I agree with Dan what appear to be pure humanitarian intentions in exposing the abuses of the asylum eclipsed by the social implications of Bly’s subjugation. In pitching an exposé to the newspaper, I am sure the editors wanted to produce a story that their readership–likely a mostly educated, middle and upper class white clientele–would be able to relate. Therefore, reading about the abuses of the asylum being imposed on a diminutive, attractive white women surely touched a nerve in the readership that may not have been possible had Bly been non-white (probably close to impossible for a journalist to be a person of color at the time) or a foreigner (owing to growing xenophobia at the time). Bly’s whiteness helps highlight the legal and medical system’s shortcomings in how indiscriminately she is assigned to the asylum. At face value, a system that ignores privilege could be a desirable attribute, but the system goes five steps further by ignoring sanity itself, the very principle it claims to defend. Bly’s story could have been read as a cautionary tale of how any citizen–white, attractive, or otherwise–could be locked up at the whim of doctors and judges with no tangible evidence. I would not be surprised if the absurd mechanisms leading to admittance to the asylum described in this story inspired Franz Kafka and others in their condemnation of bureaucracy and the handling of deviance.

  3. Alexandra Lawson

    I agree with William that if Bly were an immigrant the piece is unlikely to exist. What I believe made the piece most compelling was the ways in which it removed the “us” and “them” mentality that seemed to exist between those outside and in the asylum. While Bly herself did remain somewhat removed from the asylum, as she retained an assurance that she could leave, the ease at which she managed to be admitted certainly is likely to have caused fear in the eyes of the reader. Simply the fact that a white and privileged individual could ‘play’ insane really exposes the non-scientific definitions of insanity at that time. I think an even more compelling character was Miss Tillie Mayard, specifically in the description of her deterioration. Bly’s initial description of Mayard’s cleverness and rationality in pleading her sanity, followed by Mayard’s extreme deterioration in the asylum, served as a very compelling example of the nature of asylums at this time. Most individuals reading this were likely privileged and white, and had it been written by someone who did not meet these categories, were likely to write it off assuming that it wouldn’t happen to them. Mayard was a clear example of someone who seemed relatively sane, but became inescapably trapped. Here, what makes the depiction so compelling is the way that it illustrates this could happen to anyone. Unfortunately, as long as people are able to draw a line or distinction between themselves and others, they are unlikely to take action or be truly compelled to help others. So ultimately, I think what makes Ten Days so compelling is its removal of these lines, really forcing the reader to take action if for no other reason than self-preservation.

  4. Haley Glover

    In her piece, Nellie Bly is represented as the white woman damsel in distress. The paper calls to reader’s savior complexes, and the overall pursuit of society to protect the defenseless white woman. The character of Judge Duffy exemplifies this savior tendency surrounding white women. In addition to claiming Nellie resembles his sister, Judge Duffy states, “Poor child… 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” (28). Further, at the thought of Nellie being sent to the island, Mrs. Stanard exclaims, “Don’t She is a lady and it would kill her to be put on the island” (29). It appears that the only thing standing between Nellie being treated humanly or not are her wealthy looking clothes and perfect English. If she were in fact a working class girl or an immigrant, she would not have the protection of clothing or an English accent– she would not have the pity of the court or of the paper’s readers. Notably, while this piece would not read the same if Bly were a true immigrant, she does parade under the guise of an immigrant to pass as insane. Nellie accepts the Judge’s assumptions that she is from Cuba and continuously accepts others perceptions that she is from “the south.” However, because she is not truly an immigrant, she showcases an Anglo-Saxon version of the mentally ill immigrant that does not truly suffer from being far from home, destitute, or even mentally ill. Nellie takes advantage of the court’s bias towards immigrants to enter the asylum; yet, while within it’s walls she operates under the same privileges she did on the outside. Such privileges are constantly threatened by the possibility of an inescapable fate at the asylum– privileges of the young white woman that readers yearn to protect.

  5. William Koch

    This is an interesting question in that if Bly were a recent immigrant I don’t think this piece would exist. Instead, if Bly were a recent immigrant, she would risk being committed to the asylum itself for the arbitrary reasons that you’ve noticed, the “hunches and prejudices” and any foreign indicators that would indicate any remote level of social threat to the white and powerful ruling class. Bly’s playing of insanity to be committed to the asylum would be interesting to consider if she were a recent immigrant; she’d probably have to do significantly less “playing” to be committed than she does for the piece due to the nationalist prejudices that influenced the institutionalization of immigrants. This is in large part why I imagine diagnosis of insanity was largely physiognomic. Immigrant status would have been perhaps a very identifiable feature (if not in look then certainly in speech), and the commitment of immigrants to insane asylums would present a convenient method for the upholding of nationalist structures of power. So, in the case of Nellie, where she practices her “staring eyes” as an outwardly visible trait to warrant her committal, if she were an immigrant she would not have to concern herself as greatly with practicing characteristics of insanity with the hopes of fooling doctors. What is interesting, as you point out, is that Bly would have been deemed as conventionally attractive and therefore more sympathetic to her readers. For a conventionally attractive woman to be institutionalized on the basis of physical characteristics would tell her audience one of two things: either she is an incredibly gifted actor or that the standards of insanity are subjective and arbitrary. She invalidates the former by noting how uncertain it is that she will be believed insane, leaving the reader to conclude that the latter must be true.

  6. Dan Cielak

    Even though the nature of this account highlights the inhumane treatment of the patients by the nursing staff and doctors, Bly’s status as an attractive, young, educated white woman undoubtedly aided her in writing a compelling narrative that sent shockwaves throughout the nation. If Bly were a recent immigrant, her account would have either been underplayed by the cultural stigma regarding immigrants at the end of the 19th century or would have been read more cautiously; I am sure many critics of the piece would have argued that she was lying about the experience.
    Likewise, I agree that Bly is somewhat implicitly distanced from the other patients. I do not think that this distance is intentional, however. Because she is playing a role, Bly deliberately stresses the experience from somewhat of a detached position as she knows that her visit to Blackwell’s island is only temporary. She expresses lots of sympathy for the other patients, such as Louise Schanz, Mrs. Cotter, and Bridget McGuiness because she knows that the treatment that they endure is unwarranted and long-term. One notable area where Bly implicitly places a barrier between herself and the others is through her descriptions of the institutions’ food, at both Blackwell Island and the temporary home for working women. Several times, Bly stresses how unpalatable the food is and refuses to eat it, even when she is extremely hungry. This refusal to eat demonstrates a sense of privilege. Her attitude indicates that she has the luxury to not eat because she knows that soon enough, she will be free and be able to eat whatever she wants.
    Questions that come to mind regarding the piece’s reception revolve around the idea of framing. I believe that because she is writing this as an investigative journalist who fabricated a persona to get inside this infamous insane asylum, readers feel as if they are getting an authentic “inside scoop.” The burden Bly has to undertake to get admitted into the asylum, coupled with the short story narrative style Bly employs, bolsters her account’s appeal because it is riveting and easy to follow. I wonder if this article would have gotten as much acclaim if she had decided to condense the narrative to just her time spent at Blackwell Island rather than giving us a long introduction on how she got admitted in the first place.

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