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Nellie Bly

Submitted by Joe Colletti, PhD

Main location of work: U.S.A.

Known for:

  • Revealing the wretched conditions of mental health care facilities
  • Influencing the adoption of laws that improved mental health patient care
Nellie_Bly_2

Issues Impacted

Mental health care

Poor working conditions in factories

Infant trafficking

Methods Used

Investigative journalism

Publications

Public Speaking

Locations Influenced

New York City

United States

 

 

Videos about Nellie Bly as Social Reformer

What Made Nellie Bly So Effective as a Reformer?

Investigative reporting made Nellie Bly a well-known journalist and social reformer. At age 24, she wrote Ten Days in a Mad-House after volunteering to pose as a mental patient for ten days in the Women's Lunatic Asylum at Blackwell's Island (now Roosevelt Island) under the name Nellie Brown. She was working for the New York World under publisher Joseph Pulitzer who emphasized human-interest stories, scandal, and sensationalism as a means to build up the circulation of the paper that he had recently bought.

She first went to a temporary home for women and acted as if she had severe mental problems. All night long she cried and screamed. She stopped changing clothes and washing. She was soon examined by doctors, proclaimed insane, and sent to the asylum.

After 10 days, she was released to an attorney who represented the New York World and began to fill the newspaper with stories of cruel beatings, ice cold baths, and forced meals filled with spoiled and vermin-infested foods.

She filled her book Ten Days in a Mad-House with such stories as well. She noted that some patients were not mentally disturbed but were suffering from physical illnesses that only became worse while committed. Others had been maliciously placed there by family members who no longer wanted them.

A Brief Overview of Nellie Bly's Life and Work

Nellie Bly was the pseudonym of Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman (May 5, 1864 - January 27, 1922) who became a well-known journalist and social reformer because of investigative reporting.

Her stories created an uproar in New York and a national outcry once her reports were syndicated throughout the country. Her stories helped push mental health care reforms that were also the result of other investigative reports. In New York, officials provided more funds that brought about changes in the care of people in asylums including the Women's Lunatic Asylum at Blackwell's Island. The local changes were the result of a grand jury investigation in which Bly was invited to assist.

Bly spent several years writing similar articles for the same paper, which helped her pioneer the field of investigative journalism. Experiencing personal hardship while growing up, she specialized in stories about the abuses of women and children. She wrote about the plight of women factory workers and tracked the plight of unwanted babies.

She wrote about homeless women after spending a night in a holding room in a police station for such women. She described her experience in a newspaper article entitled "Homeless, Hopeless! Nellie Bly in a Night Haunt of the City's Wretchedest of Women" in which she stayed with women during a wintery night in a barely heated room in which "the ventilation was poor and the odor indescribable." She first made her way to this room after following a woman who seemingly wanted to sleep in the cold, but was forced to seek shelter after three young boys chased her and pelted her with snowballs. While among the women, she wrote how one continuously cursed and another continuously prayed proclaiming that "we're in God's hands."

Bly died of pneumonia at age 57. An obituary can be viewed by clicking on the following link: http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/bday/0505.html.

 

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