It is no mystery that back in the day mental health institutes had some troubling practices and severe changes to the system needed to be made. The famous 20th-century Rosenhan experiment proved that when it comes to diagnosing patients, doctors were not capable of distinguishing sane from insane, proving that many sane individuals could have spent their days locked up in asylums. Before that, in the 19th century, a pioneering female journalist set out to shine a light on the terrible conditions of psychiatric hospitals.

In 1887 journalist Nellie Bly conducted an experiment that later brought awareness to the cause and lasting fame

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Nellie agreed to do an undercover assignment for the New York World newspaper, that aimed to investigate the terrible conditions of the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell Island in New York. She would later publish her entire experience in a book called ‘Ten Days In A Mad-House’.

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In her book, she described the moment her editor offered her the opportunity to do the investigation: “How will you get me out,” I asked my editor, “after I once get in?” “I do not know,” he replied, “but we will get you out if we have to tell who you are, and for what purpose you feigned insanity–only get in.” I had little belief in my ability to deceive the insanity experts, and I think my editor had less.” Little did Nellie know that she would not only get in, but the things she’d see would change her life forever.

To get into the asylum, Nellie had to perfect her act as an ‘insane person’, and it was not easy.

Image credits: Ten Days In A Mad-House

She would spend her days practicing her ‘insane’ face in front of the mirror, she even stopped bathing. Once she was confident with her act Nellie registered herself at the Temporary Home for Females under the name Nellie Brown and began her performance.

Nellie worried nobody would believe her

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“What a difficult task, I thought, to appear before a crowd of people and convince them that I was insane. I had never been near insane persons before in my life, and had not the faintest idea of what their actions were like. And then to be examined by a number of learned physicians who make insanity a specialty, and who daily come in contact with insane people! How could I hope to pass these doctors and convince them that I was crazy? I feared that they could not be deceived.”

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It didn’t take long for Nellie to get admitted to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum and so her experiment began. In her book she recalls the moment she stepped into the asylum, immediately one patient called her out on the act:
“Insane!” she repeated, incredulously. “It cannot be seen in your face.”

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Nellie spent 10 days in the asylum and what she witnessed left her in shock. If she entered the asylum completely sane, she left disturbed and horrified. In her book she wrote down all the gruesome ways patients were tortured.

Here are some of the tortures that Nellie mentioned

1. Patients were constantly left cold, shivering and begging for extra garments but never given any.
2. Women were constantly hit if they did not obey orders they were given.
3. Nellie also mentions that there were no safety measures taken in order to protect the women. In the case of a fire, women would have burned in their rooms since nobody would come to let them out.
4. Dangerous patients were tied in ropes instead of receiving a proper care.

Nellie mentions that one of the worst parts of the asylum was the food

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Women were given cold tea and bread with butter that was inedible.
She even recalls finding a spider in her food. The worst part was that patients were forced to eat the food and beaten if they refused to do so.

Bathing the patients was even worse

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In her book, Bly writes how she was forced to get naked in front of other women and then bathed in extremely cold water. “My teeth chattered and my limbs were goose-fleshed and blue with cold. Suddenly I got one after the other, three buckets of water over my head–ice-cold water, too–into my eyes, my ears, my nose, and my mouth. I think I experienced some of the sensations of a drowning person as they dragged me, gasping, shivering and quaking, from the tub. For once I did look insane.”

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Patients were forced to sit from 6 a.m to 8 a.m on benches without moving or talking. They were not allowed to read or write. The journalist mentions that these conditions could cause any sane person to quickly turn insane.

After getting out Nellie Bly was determined to spread the truth about the torture occurring behind the closed doors of asylums

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Shortly after her release, she published her book that detailed all the torture she endured at the asylum.
The book quickly became a hit and resulted in an investigation by the grand jury. The jury increased the budget for the Department of Public Charities and Corrections by $850.000 and also ensured that in the future only seriously ill patients would be committed.
In her book, Nellie writes, “I have at least the satisfaction of knowing that the poor unfortunates will be the better cared for because of my work.”