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.